The Giants dug a deep hole with their 1-5 start to the season. They can only hope Sunday’s 14-7 win over the Commanders is the start of a turnaround. Here’s a final look at the win that snapped a four-game losing streak:
Wink dials up a gem
When Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy attack is dialed in, it seems impossible for an offense to function. That was the case for most of Sunday’s game, as Martindale relentlessly blitzed Washington quarterback Sam Howell into three-and-out after three-and-out.
Eight of Washington’s 14 drives resulted in three-and-outs. Three others lasted four plays. The Commanders had more punts (seven) than completions (five) in the first half. They went 1-for-15 on third down in the game.
Giants defense smothers Commanders, shows potential to be driving force behind a turnaround
It’s not a surprise that Martindale was able to rattle Howell, who entered the game as the most sacked quarterback in the league. The Giants blitzed on 63.3 percent of Washington’s dropbacks, which was their second-highest blitz rate of the season (84.6 percent against the 49ers in Week 3).
The Commanders kept extra blockers in to protect, but they struggled to identify who would blitz and who would drop in coverage. Add in defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence registering a season-high eight pressures up the middle, and it’s no wonder that it was nearly impossible for Washington to operate. The Giants tallied six sacks Sunday after registering a league-low five sacks in the first six games.
The Commanders made adjustments in the second half, using bigger personnel to force the Giants to counter with their base defense and rolling Howell out of the pocket away from the pass rush.
Washington finally found a rhythm on its last two possessions, but the Giants defense didn’t budge. An eight-play, 71-yard drive to the Giants’ 9-yard line ended with Leonard Williams’ block field goal and a 17-play, 85-yard march to New York’s 7-yard line ended in a turnover on downs.
BIG STOP for the GMen on 4th and 5 in the red zone 😤
— NFL (@NFL) October 22, 2023
Martindale didn’t relent, sending six rushers on Washington’s final three plays. The Commanders had a good call for the blitz on the first play, a 5-yard gain on a wide receiver screen to Terry McLaurin. But Howell rushed a third-down incompletion and threw inaccurately on fourth down after being forced out of the pocket.
The defense has steadily improved since an embarrassing 30-12 loss to the 49ers in Week 3 that featured 16 missed tackles. The defense was only responsible for allowing 17 points and held the Seahawks to 281 yards in a 24-3 loss in Week 4. The Giants gave up 31 points and 524 yards to the Dolphins buzz saw in Week 5, but the defense forced three turnovers, scored a touchdown on an interception return and held Miami to 37.5 percent on third down.
The defense has been playing at another level these past two weeks. The Giants had the Bills offense out of sorts in a 14-9 loss in Week 6 and then delivered a gem against Washington.
Stuffing the run
The Giants’ run defense had been surprisingly weak entering Sunday. They were allowing 147.5 yards rushing per game, which ranked 31st, and 5.1 yards per carry, which ranked 30th.
The Giants were much stingier Sunday, holding Washington to 76 yards on 19 carries (4.0 yards per carry). The Giants’ first-down defense was excellent, limiting Washington to 39 yards on 11 carries. The Commanders went 6-for-15 for 74 yards on their first-down passes.
Williams (78 percent of the snaps) and Lawrence (75 percent) mostly rested on early downs, then came back onto the field on third downs. A’Shawn Robinson was the third defensive lineman, playing 38 percent of the snaps after playing just nine snaps combined in the previous two games. Robinson mostly plays in three-defensive lineman packages, and the Giants were in their base or a 3-3-5 nickel more frequently on Sunday.
Short runs and incompletions led to second- and third-and-longs, which allowed Martindale to unveil his exotic pressure packages.
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Outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux delivered one of his most disruptive games of the season with five pressures and 1.5 sacks. It’s particularly impressive that Thibodeaux was so active despite playing all but one snap.
Thibodeaux has played at least 90 percent of the snaps in four games this season. The Giants simply don’t have another threat at edge rusher with Azeez Ojulari (hamstring) on injured reserve.
Linebacker Isaiah Simmons has been lining up on the edge on passing downs during Ojulari’s absence. Simmons lined up on the right edge on Washington’s final play and had a shot at a sack on an unblocked blitz, but Howell spun away before throwing an incomplete pass for the game-sealing turnover on downs.
On McCloud nine
Nick McCloud is the quintessential role player. He’s a core special teamer, whose speed as a gunner is an underrated reason for the Giants ranking sixth in net punt average this season. And he’s been in the right spot twice to recover muffed punts by returner Eric Gray.
McCloud also has the versatility to play outside corner, slot corner and safety, which makes him a valuable reserve on defense. With Adoree’ Jackson sidelined by a neck injury, McCloud stepped in at outside corner for 19 snaps on Sunday, typically replacing Tre Hawkins in the base defense on early downs. Hawkins lost his starting job after Week 3 due to struggles tackling, so the coaches clearly wanted McCloud on the field for his run defense.
McCloud had tight coverage on both of his targets on Sunday, breaking up a back-shoulder pass to tight end Logan Thomas on Washington’s final drive and forcing an incompletion on a comeback route by wide receiver Terry McLaurin in the second quarter.
There has been no easing running back Saquon Barkley back in after he missed three games with a high-ankle sprain. He tallied 24 touches for 118 yards on Sunday after having 28 touches for 98 yards in his return in last week’s loss to the Bills.
Barkley has played 80.7 percent of the snaps in the past two games, and he would have been on the field more Sunday if he hadn’t left briefly during the first quarter after hyper-extending his left elbow. Otherwise, Barkley typically subbed out on obvious passing downs.
Barkley made a pair of big catches on option routes that exploited Commanders linebackers. He beat Jamin Davis for a short catch in the second quarter and then broke a tackle to race 32 yards for a touchdown. He got open on an out route against Khaleke Hudson for a 7-yard gain on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter.
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 22, 2023
Gray (calf) and Gary Brightwell (hamstring) left Sunday’s game with injuries. That leaves Barkley and Matt Breida as the only healthy running backs on the roster. The Giants are going to sign Jashaun Corbin, who was cut after a strong preseason, off of the Panthers’ practice squad, according to a league source. Brightwell will likely go on injured reserve to open the roster spot for Corbin.
The Giants deployed their sixth different starting offensive line combination in seven games on Sunday. The good news is the same five linemen finished the game, which remarkably hadn’t happened this season.
Justin Pugh was signed on Oct. 3 with the expectation it would take a few weeks for him to ramp up in his recovery from a torn ACL. There was no time for that, as Pugh started at left guard last week and was moved to left tackle nine snaps into the Bills game after Josh Ezeudu left with a toe injury.
Pugh started at left tackle Sunday and, not surprisingly, suffered some rough moments against Washington defensive end Chase Young. But Pugh did well as a run-blocker, and there have been fewer complete protection breakdowns since the 11-year veteran entered the lineup.
Tyre Phillips started at right tackle in place of Evan Neal, who was sidelined by a nagging ankle injury. The Giants cut Phillips twice in two days before the season — once on cut day and then two days later from the practice squad. It was a head-scratching decision considering Phillips was solid in five starts last season and he stepped up again with a quality effort on Sunday.
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The next few days will be important for All-Pro left tackle Andrew Thomas, who has been sidelined since injuring his hamstring in the opener. Thomas ramped up his rehab last week by running and pushing his hamstring in the weight room.
Thomas took the weekend off and was going to assess how his hamstring responded Monday. If all checked out, the goal was for him to return to practice Wednesday. The hamstring will then be monitored closely since Thomas had a setback in his first practice when he tried to return in Week 4.
There has been no update offered on the severity of the shoulder injury center John Michael Schmitz suffered in Week 4. He hasn’t practiced in three weeks, but if it was believed to be a long-term injury, the Giants likely would have placed Schmitz on injured reserve.
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Daboll more involved?
Giants coach Brian Daboll downplayed a New York Daily News report that he was more involved with the offense last week, leading the offensive meetings and coaching individual position groups.
“Certainly, I’m in the offense,” Daboll said. “I’ve been in the offense before. I’ll continue to be in the offensive room, but I’ll also be in the other rooms, too.”
Tight end Darren Waller said Daboll put more emphasis on the “small details.”
“Dabes put the effort in this week as far as how he wanted to direct meetings,” Waller said. “It was very intentional. I think guys took a lot from it, and I feel like it showed, especially early on.”
Let’s go ❗️
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 22, 2023
On the outs?
Wide receiver Sterling Shepard’s usage Sunday was curious. After playing just one snap in last week’s loss to the Bills, Shepard started Sunday and played 10 of the 20 first-quarter snaps. He made one catch for three yards and then didn’t play another offensive snap. He slipped as the lone receiver running a route on an RPO in the red zone, which led to a sack, on his final snap.
Shepard was pressed into punt return duty for the first time in his career by Gray’s injury. Shepard muffed a punt early in the third quarter to set up a Commanders touchdown and was replaced by Darius Slayton.
It will be interesting to see how Shepard and the team handle things going forward. There doesn’t seem to be a role for the longest-tenured Giant with the team committing to a youth movement featuring Jalin Hyatt and Wan’Dale Robinson at wide receiver.
New return man
The Giants signed receiver/returner Gunner Olszewski to the practice squad on Monday after a workout. Regardless of Gray’s status, the Giants needed to add a designated returner.
The Giants tried to force Gray into that role, and the rookie fifth-round pick never looked comfortable. He has muffed two punts and is only averaging 4.0 yards per return, so it’s not even like there has been a big-play tradeoff for the shaky ball security.
Olszewski earned a first-team All-Pro selection by averaging 17.3 yards per punt return for the Patriots in 2020. It’s disconcerting, however, that Olszewski has nine career fumbles, which led to his release by the Steelers last week.
Olszewski has plenty of experience — 75 career punt returns — so he should take over as the returner immediately with a game-day elevation for Sunday’s matchup with the Jets.
Sunday’s game came to an abrupt end when Commanders defensive lineman Daron Payne couldn’t get off the field after injuring his foot after a Giants’ kneel-down. There were 49 seconds left after quarterback Tyrod Taylor took a knee to give the Giants fourth-and-14 at their own 3-yard line.
Officials stopped the game with 33 seconds left so Payne could get attention from the trainers. The Commanders were assessed a timeout for the stoppage, but they didn’t have any remaining, so the play clock was reset to 40 seconds and the Giants didn’t need to run another play.
Before that sequence ensued, Daboll said the plan was to intentionally take a safety like the Giants did in the final seconds of their 27-22 win over the Packers in Week 5 last season.
(Top photo of Kayvon Thibodeaux and Dexter Lawrence: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)
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