The New York Giants drafted Daniel Jones in 2019 to follow the soon-to-be-retired Eli Manning as their franchise quarterback, then hit the reset button in 2020 with a new coaching staff led by Joe Judge. This offseason, they made a concerted effort to give Jones the tools he needs to transform into that long-term answer at quarterback, importing the likes of Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, John Ross and Kyle Rudolph. The results so far are a 3-6 start to follow last year's 6-10 record, but the Giants have won two of their last three and have the makings of a strong unit on both sides of the ball.
With star tailback Saquon Barkley set to return from a four-game absence and several other injured regulars getting close to joining him, there is talk of some momentum in New York. Before their bye week, the Giants manhandled Carolina in Week Seven, dropped a narrow three-point decision to Kansas City in Week Eight and beat the Raiders in Week Nine. They come out of the break just a game-and-a-half behind the Panthers for the final NFC playoff spot and a relatively forgiving schedule the rest of the way. Unlike last season, when the entire NFC East finished below .500, the Giants are not likely to get back into the division title race with the 8-2 Cowboys surging far ahead, but the race for the last two Wild Card spots appears to be wide open.
While chasing one of those spots, the Giants also have 10 more games to further solidify their opinion of Jones, who has now made 35 career starts. Jones's first start came in Tampa, three weeks into the 2019 season, and he got off to a very promising start, throwing for 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a thrilling 32-31 Giants win. His record as a starter since then is 10-24 and his career passer rating is 84.9, including an 87.4 mark this year. Jones is also a weapon on the run, with 960 career yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Since this is Jones's third season and he was a first-round pick in 2019, the Giants will have to decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option next spring.
Overall, the Giants rank 21st in total offense, including 16th in passing and 25th in rushing, but they have also dealt with a long list of injuries on that side of the ball. At various times – and sometimes seemingly all at once – New York has had to operate without Barkley, Golladay, Toney, Ross, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram. Barkley has had only 54 carries and 14 receptions so far this year, generating 325 yards from scrimmage. His return – and he was deemed to look very good in practice to start this week – would be a huge boon to Jones and the Giants offense. Starting left tackle Andrew Thomas, on injured reserve with an ankle ailment, and Shepard, dealing with a quad injury, could also make it back by Monday night. Shepard has missed three of the Giants' last five games but is the team's leading receiver with 32 catches for 324 yards and one touchdown. The Giants are also starting to make more use of Toney, their first-round pick in April, and we'll look at him in more detail below.
The Giants' organization has long prided itself on strong defenses but this year's group ranks 25th in yards allowed (372.4 per game) and 19th in points allowed (24.0 per game). They've lost a pair of captains to season-ending injuries in middle linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Jabrill Peppers and the run defense has suffered for it, giving up 122.6 yards per game. However, second-year safety Xavier McKinney is enjoying a breakout season, leading the way with four picks as the Giants rank 11th in interception percentage on defense. The Giants have also proved to be quite stingy in the red zone, ranking sixth in touchdown percentage allowed.
The strength of that defense, however, is up front, where Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence play side by side. Those two have combined for 7.0 sacks and they've been helped on the edge by standout rookie Azeez Ojulari, who has matched Williams with 5.5 sacks to lead the team. More on Williams and Lawrence below, as well.
The Giants still have a chance to become relevant in the playoff hunt in the season's second half and a win in Tampa would certainly suggest they are, in fact, riding a wave of momentum into the stretch run. The Buccaneers and Giants also met on a Monday night around midseason last year, that one in the Meadowlands, and the eventual champs barely made it out of New Jersey with a 25-23 victory. Jones threw for another 256 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs' defense (albeit this time with two costly interceptions), but it took a last-second pass breakup on a two-point pass attempt by Antoine Winfield, Jr. to seal the win for the visitors. Now Jones gets to return to the scene of his first start, which surely triggers fond memories, and gets another crack at that Tampa Bay defense. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when Jones and his friends arrive for another prime-time showdown on Monday:
If they could get them all healthy at the same time, the Washington offense would feature a strong and deep group of pass-catchers in Sterling Shepard, Kenny Golladay, Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph and Saquon Barkley, among others. As the Buccaneers have seen on a couple occasions already, Daniel Jones can quickly change games if he's on in the passing attack and adding big gains on the ground. Second-year safety Xavier McKinney looks like another star-in-the-making in a Giants secondary that features 2020 Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradley and productive and versatile safety Logan Ryan. Here are four New York standouts who will be among the toughest challenges for Tampa Bay on Monday night:
1. DL Dexter Lawrence. The 6-4, 342-pound Lawrence is the Giants' version of Vita Vea, a huge and strong people-mover with some pass-rushing skills of his own and the ability to create pass-rushing opportunities for teammates by demanding extra attention. The 17th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, Lawrence has eight sacks and 23 quarterback hits in 41 games so far, including 1.5 sacks this year, and he has been credited with 19 QB pressures by NFL Next Gen Stats. Two of those pressures have resulted in turnovers by the opposition. Lawrence also has five run "stuffs" this season, which are rushing attempts he has stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Lawrence was drafted in the first round because he has surprising athletic ability and good feet for such a large man. He has incredible upper-body strength and can easily shed a blocker and slide into the path of a running back.
2. RB Saquon Barkley. The wisdom of taking a running back with the second-overall pick in today's NFL is still up for debate, and Barkley's overall impact since he was indeed chosen at that spot has been seriously blunted by poor injury luck. Barkley has missed 21 games over the past three seasons due to injury, including four this year, and he currently ranks 62nd in the NFL in rushing yards and 132nd in yards from scrimmage. However, when Barkley is healthy and on the field it is clear he is one of the most dynamic runners in the NFL. He is both powerful, with legs like tree trunks, and fast, with a 40-yard dash time of 4.40 seconds. His change of direction skills and creativity when weaving through defenders is sometimes startling, and he is very good at spotting the gap in the line and getting to it quickly. Barkley also catches the ball with ease and can get up to top speed in the blink of an eye if the Giants are able to scheme him into open field. In 2019, when he played 13 games, Barkley both led the NFL in yards per carry on inside runs (5.1) according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but also had the second-most plays (five) on which he exceeded 20 miles per hour at top his speed.
3. DL Leonard Williams. Yes, as noted above, the strength of the Giants' defense is right in the middle of the trenches. Next to the destructive ball of power that is Lawrence is Williams, another former first-round pick who is the more active pass-rusher of the two. Williams had a career high 11.5 sacks last year along with 30 quarterback hits. NGS also credits Williams with 21 QB pressures. Williams was actually selected sixth overall by the other New York team, but the Giants picked him up in a deal with the Jets for third and fifth-round picks at the 2019 trade deadline. That move has worked out well for the Giants as Williams has 17.5 sacks and 51 QB hits in 33 games for them, as compared to 17.0 and 90 in 71 games for the Jets. Williams rushes from both the interior line and the edge but has had a lot more success off the edge, according to NGS, with a very good 13.8% pressure rate on those rushes. He was so highly coveted in the 2015 draft because he has rare athleticism and quickness, and he also happens to be an above-average defender against the run.
4. WR Kadarius Toney. Toney is second on the Giants' offense with 28 catches, for a team-high 352 receiving yards, but he's on the list more for what he is likely to unleash on New York opponents in the future than what he has done so far. Some hiccups and minor injuries along the way kept Toney from getting a lot of playing time early in the season, but his snaps started to pick up in Week Three and when injuries to other Giants opened up more opportunities he seized them. In a two-game span against the Saints and Cowboys – two of the NFL's better defenses this season – Toney racked up 16 catches for 267 yards on 22 targets. With joystick moves in the open field, Toney has the skills to develop into one of the better receivers in the game after the catch. He can change direction on a dime and quickly get up to top acceleration. At 6-0 and 193 pounds, Toney is not big for the NFL but he plays with the toughness of a larger receiver and can work the middle of the field and quickly gain separation when coming out of the slot.
The Giants' offense ranks in the high 20s in most offensive categories but, again, has been operating at far below full strength for most of the season. The Giants are 16th in passing yards (238.9) per game and Jones can multiply that threat by escaping the pocket and picking up big yards on scrambles. The New York defense is ranked 25th overall and 19th against the pass but has made opponents work a little harder for those gains, averaging 15th in yards allowed per play and 10th in yards allowed per pass play. As noted above, the Giants' defense has also been very good in the red zone. Here are some more specific ways in which the Giants have performed well this season:
- One of the reasons New York has been so good in the red zone on defense (51.4% touchdown rate allowed) is because they have completely negated a number of those drives. The Giants' defense has an impressive five takeaways in the red zone already this season, the most in the NFL. Only 10 of the league's 32 teams have even three takeaways in that region, and the per-team average is two. The Giants have intercepted two passes on red zone drives and have caused four fumbles, recovering three of them. Two of those takeaways have come after the opponent has gained a goal-to-go situation.
- New York has been a relatively disciplined bunch this season under Joe Judge. The Giants have committed 58 accepted penalties for 465 yards, the latter the 10th-lowest total in the league. New York's defense has not regular hurt itself with the most damaging penalties, committing just two roughing-the-passer infractions, four defensive pass interference penalties and 1 facemask penalty. All of those rank among the fifth lowest in the NFL.
- The Bucs' offense will want to get good gains on first and second downs on Monday because it is not wise to get into a third-and-long situation against New York's defense. On third downs needing more than six yards to be converted this season, Giants' opponents are converting just 18.0% of the time, which is the fifth-best mark by any defense. New York has only allowed a total of nine third-down conversions of seven or more yards; only three teams have allowed fewer.
- Conversely, the Giants' offense has been quite good at converting longer third downs. While New York ranks just 16th in overall third-down success rate on offense (39.3%), it is seventh when it comes to third downs needing seven or more yards. On those, the Giants are converting 30.2% of the time. That has contributed to the New York offense only having 15 three-and-out possessions all year, and their percentage of drives that end in three plays (15.2%) is seventh-best in the NFL.
The Giants' offense ranks 25th in rushing yards per game (95.9) and yards per rush (3.92), though Barkley's injury is certainly a factor in that equation. New York has been particularly ineffective in the red zone, ranking last in the NFL with a 44.0% touchdown rate on those drives. The New York defense is giving up 4.48 yards per carry (23rd) and has a sack rate of 5.59% that ranks just 25th. In addition:
- The Giants simply have difficulty moving the ball at all once they get inside their opponent's 20-yard line. New York is averaging just 2.06 yards per play in that part of the field, which is last in the NFL. The biggest struggle has been in the passing game, where the offense is just getting 1.30 yards per play in the red zone. The next worst team in the NFL in that category, the Dolphins, is at 1.93 and no other team is even under 2.0. Daniel Jones is the only qualifying quarterback who has not yet thrown a pass into the end zone that was completed.
- If the Bucs want to do well on first down, as discussed above, they may want to focus on passing the ball. The Giants have faced 136 first-down passes and have allowed gains of four or more yards on 82 of them. That success rate (a first down play that gains four-plus yards is considered a success) of 60.3% is the second-highest against any defense in the NFL this year.
- Blitzes have worked pretty well against Jones this season. New York's passer rating when facing the blitz is 69.41, which is 30th in the league and better only than the Jaguars and Jets, who have primarily started rookies this season. In his career, according to NGS, Jones has thrown for 6.1 yards per attempt when facing blitzes, 30th in the NFL in that span.
- Even with its very strong pair of down linemen noted above, the Giants have not generated a lot of negative rushing plays. Of the 246 rushes against the Giants this year, only 12 have been stopped for a loss of yardage (excluding opposing kneel-downs). That's the third-fewest in the NFL for any defense this year and the negative rush play rate of 4.9 percentage is also third worst.
NEW FACES IN 2021
As noted above, the Giants made an effort to deepen their array of pass-catching weapons around Daniel Jones, adding two speedy wideouts in Toney and Ross, along with the first two players noted below. The defense got some help in the middle with linebacker Reggie Ragland, the former Lion, and added cornerback through the draft (third-round pick Aaron Robinson) and a trade with Houston (Keion Crossen). Former Buccaneer Mike Glennon is the new backup to Jones after signing as an unrestricted free agent. In addition:
1. WR Kenny Golladay. Golladay, another former Lion, was the top receiver on the market this past offseason and the Giants landed him with a lucrative four-year deal. Supremely talented and a big-play threat, Golladay did have a bit of a health red flag after missing 17 games over his four seasons in Detroit, including 11 last year. And that has been a bit of an issue in his debut season in New York, too, as he has missed three games with a knee injury. Still, Golladay returned to action in Week Nine before the Giants' bye and he is third on the team with 310 receiving yards, averaging 16.3 yards per catch.
2. TE Kyle Rudolph. The Giants signed the long-time Viking a few days after he was released by Minnesota in March, pairing him with former first-round pick Evan Engram in two-TE sets. Rudolph has played about 56% of the team's offensive snaps and has modest pass-catching numbers so far (16 receptions for 119 yards and one touchdown).
3. CB Adoree' Jackson. Jackson is another starter the Giants picked up after he was let go in March by another team, in this case the Titans. The former first-round pick was limited by injuries to just three games in his last season with Tennessee but has started all nine contests for the Giants so far opposite star corner James Bradberry. Jackson is third on the team with 52 tackles and has broken up five passes.
1. LB Blake Martinez. Martinez led the Giants with 151 tackles in 2020, his first season with the team, and was a team captain and a starter at middle linebacker this year before tearing an ACL in the team's third game. Martinez was also the play-caller on defense for the Giants and he was working on a fifth straight season with at least 140 tackles. He has been replaced in the lineup by Tae Crowder, who slid over from the weakside, opening up the WILL job for Ragland.
2. S Jabrill Peppers. Peppers, a Giants team captain, started five of New York's first six games but suffered both a torn ACL and a high ankle sprain in Week Seven at Carolina. Peppers, a former first-round pick by Cleveland who originally came to New York in the Odell Beckham, Jr. trade, was placed on injured reserve, finishing his season with 21 tackles, one sack, four quarterback hits and a pass defensed. He was also the team's primary punt returner before his injury.
3. G Shane Lemieux. A fifth-round pick in 2020, Lemieux started nine games as a rookie and was the Giants' opening-day starter at left guard this season. He only made it 17 snaps into the season, however, as a knee injury suffered in training camp proved too much to overcome and he had surgery a week later. Lemieux is on injured reserve and is not expected to return this season.