Daunting challenges rooted in history, statistics and athleticism will greet the Giants when they face the Baltimore Ravens tomorrow in M&T Bank Stadium.
The Giants haven’t won in Baltimore since Sept. 15, 1963, when they defeated the Colts, 37-28. Okay, that’s misleading because they’ve since played there just twice, but both of those games – also played in December – were eminently forgettable. In 2004, rookie Eli Manning had an 0.0 passer rating and was replaced in a game for performance reasons for the only time in his career in a 37-14 loss. Eight years ago, the Giants lost, 33-14, as the Ravens gained 533 yards (309 passing, 224 on the ground), and owned the ball for more than 39 minutes. And we don’t need to discuss what happened when the teams met in Super Bowl XXXV 20 years ago.
Now the Giants are 5-9 and hoping to end a two-game losing streak in which they scored just 13 total points. They can win the NFC East title if they defeat the Ravens and Dallas and the Washington Football Team loses at least one of its final two games. But a Giants loss coupled with a Washington victory tomorrow will make Washington the division champions.
“Not to think about the playoffs or anything like that, but we’re basically treating it like the playoffs right now,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “We know what’s at stake and we know that we have to win these last two games basically to go to the playoffs. Starting now is basically our playoffs. That’s kind of how we’re treating this game.”
Baltimore, which has defeated the three other NFC East teams, is 9-5, a record perhaps skewered by a COVID-influenced three-game losing streak that forced them to play a Wednesday night game in Pittsburgh without several players, notably quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens scored 121 points in defeating Dallas, Cleveland and Jacksonville the last three weeks.
“Obviously, they’re getting guys back now healthy,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “They’re really hitting their stride. This is a very good team. It’s going to take everything we have to prepare for them. We have to have our best on Sunday.”
Baltimore will make that difficult. The Ravens are the only team in the top six in the league in both points scored (fourth at 28.8 a game) and points allowed (sixth at 20.5). Baltimore leads the NFL in both rushing yardage per game (172.7) and per carry (5.2). Defensively, the Ravens rank ninth by allowing 343.7 yards a game and their third-down defense is tied for fourth (allowing conversions on just 36.6% of opponents attempts).
The Ravens have plenty of incentive; they’ve not clinched a playoff berth and could miss the postseason at 11-5 if they don’t get help.
Safety Logan Ryan last season played for the Tennessee Titans when they took leads of 14 and 22 points on their way to a 22-12 victory against the top-seeded Ravens in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game in Baltimore.
“The reason why my team had success against the Ravens last year is that we came out, we started fast, we got a lead,” Ryan said. “I think when you get a lead on the Ravens it makes them play behind, it changes their defense and their offensive schemes a little bit from playing from behind. They’re built to play from ahead because they’re really good at running the ball, they’re really aggressive on defense and you want to get those guys behind on the scoreboard early. So, starting fast is a major point for us and be ready to go on Sunday, believe you can win the game. Be ready to go and start fast is definitely a key point for us.”
The Ravens tied the NFL high with seven players selected to the Pro Bowl. One of those excluded was Jackson, the league’s most valuable player in 2019. In 13 games, Jackson has completed 64.8% of his passes and thrown for 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He leads all NFL quarterbacks with a team-high 828 rushing yards and has scored seven touchdowns on the ground. After running for 1,206 yards last year, Jackson is the only quarterback in NFL history with at least 800 yards rushing in consecutive seasons.
Jackson is 9-0 in starts against NFC teams.
“I think this guy is a unicorn in terms of how he can play,” Judge said. “He really makes explosive plays with his legs, along with the arm strength and the plays down the field he’s capable of making right there.
“This player is explosive. He’s very elusive, he’s extremely fast, he has great running instincts, he has very good balance and body control, he’s tough to take down, he breaks a lot of tackles. He can get to his top speed very quickly, but then also decelerate and changes direction at will. This is a guy, he’s a much different type of player at that position than really any other quarterback I can think of in the league. Obviously, he’s having a tremendous amount of success with what he does.”
After facing Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Arizona’s Kyler Murray this month, Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has had to devise a plan for another dynamic, multi-dimensional quarterback in Jackson.
“He’s different, he’s very different,” Graham said. “…This guy is so fast, he’s so big, he’s so dynamic with the ball. When you sell out for the run game, he will throw the ball over your head and it will be a touchdown with the targets they have. With Hollywood (Marquise Brown) and (Mark) Andrews. It’s a unique challenge. I’m looking forward to it. Guys have to get ready for it. It’s going to be fun. We just have to see if we can execute.”
Their hopes of staying in the division race might depend on it.
“The weather’s cold, most teams are physical this time of year, most teams run the ball, most teams want to stop the run,” Ryan said. “It’s really about executing your details, executing the game, being good situationally and when we tend to do that, we tend to win the game. To us, it’s about cleaning up our details and executing and getting ready to play the Ravens.”
*Wide receiver Golden Tate will not play because of a calf injury. Tate is fourth on the team with 35 catches for 388 yards. He has two touchdown receptions.
Quarterback Daniel Jones (hamstring/ankle), linebacker Blake Martinez (ankle) and cornerback Darnay Holmes (knee) are questionable.
This unique NFL season today took another twist for James Bradberry and Evan Engram, who learned they earned their first Pro Bowl selections although the game will not actually be played.
Bradberry, the cornerback in his first year with the Giants and fifth in the NFL, and Engram, the 2017 first-round draft choice in his fourth season, would have represented the NFC team in the game. But the league announced in October that it canceled the game to focus on completing its season amid the pandemic. Las Vegas, which had been scheduled to host the game, will instead host the Pro Bowl after the 2021 season. This will be the first time since the 1949 season that the NFL hasn’t held some form of postseason all-star game.
“When they announced that, I was like, ‘That would be crazy if I made the Pro Bowl and we don’t even play the Pro Bowl,’” Engram said. “But I think they’re doing some Madden tournament. I’ve been playing a lot of Madden lately, so hopefully I can go win that.”
No Giants player was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2019. Bradberry is the first Giants cornerback to be voted in since Janoris Jenkins in 2016, while Engram is the team’s first Pro Bowl tight end since Jeremy Shockey in 2006.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Bradberry said. “That’s on everyone’s, I wouldn’t call it a bucket list, but it’s on their goal list, to be Pro Bowl, to be All-Pro, just be the best in the game. I try not to think about it too much. I just try to go out there and play my best and just let the chips fall where they may.”
“I’m really just truly thankful,” Engram said. “Just blessed and thankful for just the whole process that I’ve been through. This past year has been hard for literally everybody. Me and my mom were talking about it this weekend.”
The Giants devised a unique plan for informing Bradberry and Engram of their selections. They told them the NFL was scheduling Zoom calls so current players could meet former players who once played the same positions on their teams. Jason Sehorn spoke to Bradberry, while Howard Cross Zoomed with Engram. The retirees then told the active players they were Pro Bowlers.
“It was cool, because I really learned about who Jason Sehorn was when I got up here,” Bradberry said. “I just started doing some research, and I saw that he was a great cornerback for the organization. It was cool to get the news from him, a fellow cornerback.”
Engram didn’t have to research Cross, who is a regular presence at Giants headquarters.
“My guy Howard, I see him all the time,” Engram said. “I definitely was glad it was him. They made it seem like I was getting on to talk ball and chop it up with some of the former Giants. They set it up pretty good.”
Bradberry joined the Giants as a free agent on March 26 and has been one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks this season. Frequently assigned to cover the opponent’s best wide receiver, Bradberry leads the Giants with three interceptions, is tied for second in the league with 17 passes defensed and has 46 tackles (38 solo), two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He was the leading fan vote-getter among NFC corners with 87,818.
“It definitely means a lot that I made it,” Bradberry said. “I try not to put too much emphasis on it beforehand because I just felt like it was something I couldn’t control. The one thing I can control is how I play on the field, and that’s what I try to control. But, of course, I wanted to be a Pro Bowler, so it feels good to be recognized as one.”
Bradberry was asked if he thinks he has played better this season than he has in the past.
“I played pretty well in my last year in Carolina,” he said. “But I think I’ve been playing at a high level this year. I actually think we have a lot of guys on the defense that are playing at a high level. Leonard (Williams) has been playing out of his mind. Blake (Martinez) has been playing well for us, he’s been playing out of his mind. Logan (Ryan) came in, didn’t even have a training camp and he’s been playing some elite football.”
Bradberry did not play in the Giants’ loss last night to the Cleveland Browns because he was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list week after he was deemed a high-risk close contact of an individual who tested positive. Bradberry was activated off the reserve list today.
“I was just disappointed I couldn’t go out there and play and help the team,” Bradberry said. “I kind of felt helpless because my team was out there battling and I wasn’t out there to battle with them. It’s just a difficult situation with COVID and stuff. I was just really disappointed that I couldn’t be out there.”
Engram leads the Giants with 54 catches and is second with 572 receiving yards. He has scored two touchdowns, one receiving and another rushing.
Engram, who made his 12th start of the season last night, has a chance to play in all 16 games for the first time (he played in a career-high 15 as a rookie). That would be no small achievement considering in 2019, Engram played in only eight games and underwent foot surgery that required a long rehabilitation. That he returned to play at a Pro Bowl level is particularly satisfying.
“To where I am now and to receive this news today literally was just icing on the cake,” Engram said. “I’m really just truly blessed and thankful for where I am, everything I’ve been through and everything that’s going to come.
“The foot injuries, I didn’t realize how tough it was going to be. That one was tough. It was just a lot of ups and downs. There was some doubt that crept in sometimes about if I would be the same. But I’ve had great people helping me.
“I’m a real positive person. I’m young still (26), but I feel like I’ve gained a little wisdom. Especially in this profession, doubt is an athlete’s biggest enemy. It was definitely a fight because it’s a natural thing, everybody has it. I’m not perfect and I’m a human being. It did creep in a little bit. But I just kind of stayed the course, I kept my faith and kept praying to God about it. He’s definitely pulled through.”
The Giants’ newest Pro Bowlers insist this will not be a pinnacle, but a springboard for future achievements.
“I want to get more interceptions,” said Bradberry, who has 11 in his career. “You see what (Miami’s) Xavien Howard, (New England’s) J.C. Jackson, they have eight-nine picks, so of course, you always want to be able to create more turnovers as a defender. But I feel like I also want to become more of a vocal leader. I don’t really talk a whole lot. Just trying to be comfortable with that in the future.”
“I want to be more consistent at all levels of my game,” Engram said. “I want to continue to be more consistent when I’m blocking. There are sometimes where I’m very physical and use great technique, and there are sometimes where I get away from that. Same thing with route running. There are sometimes where I’m able to be really sharp and create separation. There are times where I get myself covered. Also, ball security. Holding the ball, catching the ball, being dynamic at the point of attack. Just being an overall consistent player, I think that’s my biggest goal. Just continue to try to improve in all aspects of my game.”
That is a good starting point for each of the Giants’ 2020 Pro Bowlers.
Giants cornerback James Bradberry has been placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced on Thursday.
According to the Giants, Bradberry was placed on the list because he was deemed to be a high risk close contact of an individual who has tested positive. The contact did not occur at the Giants facility and the individual is not a member of the organization.
Bradberry will remain isolated from the team and continue to participate in meetings remotely. Given the timing of the close contact, Bradberry will miss Sunday night’s game against Cleveland. If he continues to test negatively and has no symptoms, he would come off the reserve list on Monday.
Earlier in the day, New York announced that their offensive coordinator Jason Garrett tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t coach against the Browns on Sunday.
Leonard Williams has become one of the Giants most productive players this season and he said it’s all part of the process.
The sixth-year defensive lineman leads the team with 5.0 sacks, seven tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hits. The sack total is 10 times greater than the half-sack he had in the entire 2019 season and just 2.0 sacks shy of the career-high total he registered as a pro sophomore with the Jets in 2016. Williams has been credited with 32 tackles (16 solo).
“I think this guy has done a really good job with everything we’ve asked him to do,” coach Joe Judge said. “He’s playing good, fundamental technique and good, sound execution within the schemes. He’s using his hands very well to get off blocks, he plays with a high motor. He’s really using his pass rush moves and his counters off it to get him to the ball. Leonard’s a guy that obviously we knew had a tremendous amount of potential. He has a great attitude. This guy comes to work every day with his hair on fire, really into his football. The team loves being around him, he brings a lot of energy to the building. He’s fun to coach. I think this guy has really helped our team just on all avenues, but for his own specific game, I don’t see any area of his game that hasn’t been improved this year. I think (defense line coach Sean) Spence(r) has done a phenomenal job working with him.”
Leonard credits Judge, Spencer and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham for helping him take a take a step forward – literally and figuratively – this season.
Williams is aware of public perceptions that he hadn’t made enough plays to justify the Jets selecting him with the sixth overall draft choice in the 2015 NFL Draft. At times, that prompted him to try to do too much to raise him numbers. When Spencer joined the staff this season after 20 seasons as a collegiate coach, he believed the Williams needed a change of perspective to maximize his skills.
“The whole thing with Leonard is he’s tremendously talented individual,” Spencer said. “Myself and him and coach Graham and coach Judge have really just concentrated on him focusing on the process and not the results. I think sometimes when you’re results driven, you go outside your work and you start to press. And when you start to press, you’re not going to get the results you want. Focusing on the detail of how do you get the sack – low pad level playing with your hands, playing with extension. Those are the things we’ve tried to work on with him to get him to where he wants to be and where we want him to be.”
Williams became more productive doing what he’s asked to do and not what he thought he had to do.
“There have been times where if I heard something in the media, as much as you try not to pay attention to that stuff, it’s clearly out there,” Williams said. “I started playing out of my game a little bit, pressing to make the big play or make a sack or a flash play like that. I would just get out of my progression. Whereas Coach Spence said if you just play every down hard and you go through your progression and you read your keys and you just play every down, then the big plays will come to you, basically. You’re not out there reaching or searching for a big play. The big play will just come by doing your process.”
Williams has had a sack in five of the Giants’ nine games this season. After tackling Tom Brady and Alex Smith for eight and seven-yard losses the last two weeks, he hopes to run his sack streak to three consecutive games when the Giants host the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
The irony to Williams is that he believes he’s always been a consistently productive player. But since his sack numbers were not as large as fans and the media apparently expected them to be, he didn’t receive acknowledgement from his contributions.
“I’ve had this same game in my style of play since I’ve been in the league,” Williams said. “It’s just now that the sack number itself, that stat is on the paper, that’s all people see. They think that all of a sudden, I’m playing way better than I have been before. I think I have been still playing well in the past. It’s just like fans don’t see those plays that you make that just don’t count toward a sack.
“Not too much has changed from my game in general, honestly. I feel like I was still making those same plays in the run game. I think the difference is closing that gap between a quarterback hit and a sack at times. That just goes from Pat Graham and Spencer staying on me about being consistent and just trusting myself basically. Just trusting myself more and that confidence growing in myself, which has helped me play harder and faster.”
So did a week he spent in Atlanta last spring with former defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who won three Super Bowls and was selected to seven Pro Bowls in a 12-year career with the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.
“He introduced me to his family and basically kind of took me under his wing, talked some football,” Williams said. “We watched a little bit of film together. Then we worked out a few days together. He was teaching me mindsets, because he was like, ‘Now that you’re in the league, a lot of people have the body types to be successful. But you have to apply the mindset with the body to make it work.’ He was just teaching me mental game stuff.”
Like the advice he received from Spencer, Williams has taken the lessons from Seymour and applied them on the field, with impressive success.
“I think just knowing that he’s watching and knowing that he’s a mentor in the back of my mind kind of also plays an effect,” Williams said. “I feel like every snap I’m playing, I’m like ‘Oh, Richard’s watching.’ I feel like that’s kind of helped me a little, honestly. He’s reached out to me after games and vice-versa. If I feel like I have a question or something I need to think about, I’ll reach out to him. It’s a cool relationship.”
Williams is pleased he’s made more constant and conspicuous contributions this season but he’s hardly satisfied. The Giants have seven remaining games and Williams intends to be a force in every one of them.
“I would say that this has been one of my more productive years, but we have another game coming up,” he said. “We still have almost half a season left after the bye week. I’m focused on trying to finish and not be satisfied with where I’m at now.”
Logan Ryan has played in 131 NFL regular-season and postseason games, which means he has participated in many hundreds of practices. But today the eight-year veteran experienced a practice first – he wore a mask.
“(It was) not too comfortable, but this is 2020,” Ryan said in a post-practice Zoom call. “A lot of things we have to adjust for, a lot of curveballs. I’m not complaining, got the best job in the world. I got used to it pretty quickly.”
Giants players were required to wear masks as part of the more intensive protocols mandated by the NFL after guard Will Hernandez was today placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The Giants practiced in a downpour as they began preparing for their game Monday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The new protocols include a mandate that meetings must be conducted virtually unless they are in an area large enough to allow social distancing.
The Giants, like all teams, are used to such requirements and are unfazed by them.
“So far, everything has been normal,” Ryan said. “Practiced out there on the field, meeting as normal. How we have to adjust is just what the NFL protocols will be. I wasn’t here in the spring, but I am familiar with the Zoom app, I am a millennial. I’ll turn it on and make sure my kids aren’t doing backflips. I’ll have to mute myself a little bit. I’ll be super locked in. It’s important, it’s a big game. It’s Tom Brady and the crew coming to town. I’ll definitely be in the meetings, prepared and ready to go.”
The protocols are an enhanced extension of the regimen the players have followed since the spring, when team facilities were closed, learning was remote and on-field instruction was prohibited.
Ryan was a free agent who didn’t join the Giants until Sept. 4, but that hasn’t precluded him from appreciating the COVID-19 induced weirdness.
“It’s a year I’m going to remember, for sure,” Ryan said. “Everybody is going to remember this. Everyone has to adjust in every walk of life. That comes to NFL players, that comes to NFL practice. That’s definitely been an adjustment with a lot of things. You know you have to take it for what it is. This is what we signed up for. I didn’t opt out, I signed up to play. I knew there was going to be some curveballs in there.
“I think that (coach) Joe (Judge) has been extremely flexible. I think the Giants have done a great job handling everything the best they can. We just have to go with what the NFL protocol is. Whatever they tell us is what we have to do, is what we’ve done. We’re not the first team to go through this, we won’t be the last. We just have to handle it the best we can, which I feel like we have. It’s definitely going to be a year I remember.”
Joe Judge has a football coach’s proclivity for tunnel vision.
The results in Week 6 of the NFL season left the Giants with as good a chance as any of their rivals to win the NFC East title. The Giants were the only one of its four members to win last week. Current leader Dallas is 2-4, while the other three teams all have one victory. That includes the 1-5 Giants, who are in a stretch in which they play five division games in six weeks. They can move closer to the top when they visit the 1-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles tomorrow night in Lincoln Financial Field.
But Judge, as coaches are wont to do, is fixated only on the next opponent. Nor is he discussing the division race with his players.
“I don’t really get into those kinds of things,” Judge said. “Our goal every week is to be 1-0, and right now, our goal for this week is to be 1-0. But we have a division opponent, a rival, so that’s all of our focus right now.”
“All these divisional games are big, and I think guys understand that,” quarterback Daniel Jones said. “Guys have an awareness as to where the division is and the standings. But we’re focused on this week. We’re focused on this game and it being a big divisional game. It’s important for that reason. Guys are locked into that and excited to get out there.”
Short-week games always present a physical challenge and both the Giants and Eagles are missing key players to injury. The Giants have lost one of their young linebackers in each of the last three weeks, first Oshane Ximines, then Lorenzo Carter and this week Tae Crowder, who scored the go-ahead touchdown against Washington on a 43-yard fumble return but joined the others on injured reserve this week. The Giants apparently have a chance to get back wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who missed the last four games with turf toe but returned to practice yesterday.
Philadelphia finished its 30-28 loss to Baltimore Sunday with only two projected offensive starters, quarterback Carson Wentz and center Jason Kelce, on the field. And coach Doug Pederson said they were playing hurt. Philadelphia has lost its top wide receivers (though at least one might return tomorrow), tight ends and running back and is playing backups at four offensive line positions.
When Pederson was asked how he viewed his team’s record in light of the numerous injuries and inconsistent performances, he said, “That’s right where we should be – 1-4-1.”
Judge views the Eagles through a different prism.
“This is a very good team,” Judge said. “This is a very, very explosive and capable team. They’re loaded on defense up front. They can really affect your running game, get after your passer. They have really aggressive and opportunistic defensive backs on the back end. They do a great job of stripping and punching at the ball creating turnovers. Offensively, whether it’s the run game with explosive runs, the pass game, and that’s throwing to the running backs, the tight ends or the receivers. They do a great job of that. They have a two-headed monster at the quarterback position with how they’re using Jalen (Hurts) and getting him involved in the game. Carson can make throws anywhere down the field and he can extend plays and make plays down the field like we’ve seen time and time again, especially this last weekend with his legs. It doesn’t matter who has the ball in their hands. Every player on this offense is explosive, every player on their defense plays with great effort, energy and technique.”
Judge is also quick to credit Pederson, who has led the Eagles to three playoff berths, two division titles and a victory in Super Bowl LII in his first four seasons.
“I think it’s important to really study Doug and what he’s done throughout his tenure there,” Judge said. “One thing he’s done a phenomenal job of every year is they’ve always had to make a lot of personnel moves. They’ve been nicked up and banged up and they plug and play guys, whether it’s the bigs up front or whether it’s the skill players. They find a great way of really balancing out developing their players and getting them ready for game action. They don’t have too much of a drop off no matter who’s in the game. They’re a very explosive team who can score points, and they’re very good on third down, two minute and the red area, so we have to be very good in situational football this week.”
The Giants also need to end a couple of streaks to defeat the Eagles. They have lost seven consecutive games and 11 of the last 12 to Philadelphia and six in a row in Lincoln Financial Field.
But with the NFC East there for the taking, it’s the perfect time to assert themselves against their longtime rivals.
“Our division is winnable,” said defensive back Logan Ryan. “We have to go out here and win some games in our division to put us in a position at the end of the year to strike. That’s what we’re doing week in and week out. You prepare hard to put yourself in position to win the game. At the end of the game, I think three or four games this year have come down to the final drive. Our record can swing either way. We found a way to win last week. We need to find a way to win this week. It’s probably going to be a close game. I’m looking forward to the opportunity of that.”
“I don’t think anyone in the division needs any motivation to play anyone else in the division,” Judge said. “This is a big Thursday night game. Obviously, we haven’t had a chance to play the Eagles yet this year. It’ll be a big atmosphere for us right there.
“I’ve told the players from the very beginning of the season, it’s a long year. If you get too focused on looking down at the end stretch at this point right here, you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have to keep grinding week by week, but the focus stays on going 1-0 each week. No matter what happened last Sunday, we need to come in with the same mindset to improve as a team, to improve individually, which will lead to our collective rise, and then to be able to match up our opponent and just play well for 60 minutes on Thursday night.”
Three Giants coaches and two players spoke to the media today on Zoom calls, and it speaks to Jabrill Peppers versatility and value to the team that three of them were asked about him.
Peppers, the Giants’ strong safety and punt returner, didn’t practice for the second straight day because of the ankle injury he suffered early in the game last Sunday against San Francisco. His absence places his availability in doubt for the Giants’ road game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday – Peppers’ 25th birthday.
Without him, the Giants’ safeties will be the same tandem that played most of the game against the 49ers – Logan Ryan and Julian Love. Both are converted cornerbacks, which defensive coordinator Patrick Graham suggested could work to the Giants’ advantage.
But the safeties and the entire defense will be challenged by a Rams offense that is ranked third in the NFL in total yards (449.7 a game), tied for third in rushing (170.3) and seventh in passing yards (279.3).
“The good thing about those guys is they both can tackle,” Graham said of Ryan and Love. “There’s a willingness to be involved in the run game. They can still be interchangeable to a certain degree. The great benefit of it is the man-to-man coverage skills. Now you’re working with something right there. You’re dealing with the Rams, where these guys are all over the place. Their shift motioning, here goes the missile motion, and stuff like that. Now you have guys, (and you say), ‘oh, he can play this coverage, he can play that coverage.’ You feel a little bit more comfortable if you’re going with all the man stuff. It gives you some more flexibility with stuff like that. Not saying we couldn’t have done that with Pep or other guys. You’re talking about true cornerback skills, that’s a positive right there.”
Peppers’ absence will be felt not just in the back of the defense but on the entire unit.
“Honestly, he’s the energy guy,” defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. “He brings a lot of energy to the group, positivity, motor, things like that. Now you have to fill that void. Obviously, he’s an amazing player and we’d obviously love to have him play. But now it’s someone else’s time to take on that role and have that responsibility just to be that guy. That’s why you have second team or you have backup guys that can fill that role.”
Peppers is also a mainstay on special teams. Indeed, he and fellow safety Nate Ebner are the Giants’ special teams captains. Peppers was injured attempting to block Robbie Gould’s 52-yard field goal last week.
“I don’t see anything unusual that happened,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “Just kind of a freak deal. … I didn’t see anything crazy with Jabrill’s injury. It was kind of one of those deals, but he’ll be back. He’s a tough guy, he’ll be back.”
Peppers has returned four punts for 50 yards, a 12.5-yard average that places him fourth in the league in this young season. Now the Giants will look to other players to fill that duty.
“We have a few guys back there that have been practicing,” McGaughey said. “We have options there. You guys (reporters) have been around this program for the last three or four years, you know we’re always going to have a guy back there that’s capable of doing it and be ready to go.”
And who would that be?
“I can’t give you all my secrets,” McGaughey said. “We have a couple other options. C.J. (Board) is back there, Darius Slayton is back there. We have a bunch of other options. Guys that have been out there who have been catching punts every day since training camp. We have full confidence in those guys and whoever we put in the game; they will do a good job.”
When asked about replacing Peppers, both Graham and McGaughey mentioned two players and the latter added the potential of needing more.
“Any time you have a player of Jabrill’s caliber that you have to replace, obviously it’s going to take a few guys to replace him, because he did a bunch of different jobs,” McGaughey said. “He meant a lot to our football team and he means a lot to our football team. That’s why he has a ‘C’ on his chest. It’s hard to replace that guy, but you just do the best you can, and the guys are going to step up. These young guys are going to step up and fill some of those roles and we’re going to keep plugging. We’ll see what happens. Those young guys will step up and they will do a good job.”
The Giants certainly need them to.
*The injury list remained unchanged from yesterday. In addition to Peppers’ absence, two more DBs were limited: Love (knee and ankle) and Adrian Colbert (quad).
James Bradberry has been everything the Giants hoped he would be when they made him one of their marquee offseason acquisitions last March.
The Giants’ left cornerback, Bradberry’s nine passes defensed are four more than anyone else in the NFL. He intercepted a pass spectacularly in Chicago, and he is fifth on the team with 10 tackles (nine solo).
“He’s been very productive on the ball, he’s been very steady, very reliable,” defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. “There are areas where he has to get better as well. But he’s been very productive on the ball. He’s done a good job there.”
Now the Giants need the rest of the secondary to catch up to Bradberry.
The unit has been beset by inconsistency and injuries through the first three games and will face its biggest challenge of the young season when the Giants visit the passing proficient and high-scoring Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. Coach Joe Judge is confident they can meet it.
“I think the guys are all working hard,” Judge said. “We see a level of improvement on a weekly basis. We have to make sure we keep playing good football and take some bad plays off our plate, but that’s up to us as coaches. We have to keep putting guys in the right position and they have to execute on the field when they’re asked to.”
“With the whole secondary, we have to play more consistently at a high level,” Henderson said. “We have times where we play at a really high level and we have times where we’re making errors and mistakes that are causing us to get beat. We have to get those things fixed as a group.”
They must first identify who will be in the group. Corey Ballentine started the first two games at right cornerback before Isaac Yiadom – who was acquired in a trade on Sept. 3 – took the position last week against San Francisco. Yiadom was relieved in the second half by another newcomer, Ryan Lewis.
“Ike got a chance to play there the other day and played solid at times,” Henderson said. “There are a couple of things we can do better. Then Ryan Lewis got a shot to play a little bit. … You’d love to settle on one guy and Ike’s going to get the chance to be that guy again this week and play. And I expect him to play well.”
Jabrill Peppers and second-year pro Julian Love started at safety in the first two games. Eight-year veteran Logan Ryan, who joined the team on Sept. 4, stepped in for Love in the package the defense opened with last week.
“The thought with that was to get Logan’s experience and versatility on the field,” Henderson said. “He’s got great leadership, he’s got great energy, he’s played in a lot of football games, he’s been productive in a lot of games. It’s just trying to get him on the grass. It’s nothing against Julian, it’s more getting the experience and leadership on the grass.”
The plan required an adjustment after just nine defensive snaps when Peppers hurt his ankle trying to block Robbie Gould’s field goal. Love returned to the field and with Adrian Colbert inactive with a quad injury, Nate Ebner played 13 snaps – increasing his two-game total to 18, or 17 more than he had the previous three seasons combined with New England.
“Jabrill’s a good player and he’s a starter,” Ryan said. “Any time you lose a starter, whoever you’re bringing in normally isn’t as good, that’s why that guy is a starter. There’s definitely an effect on that, but the 49ers had a lot of guys go out the game as well. Jordan Reed went out the game and they came in and executed better. We might’ve had to change some things on our end, but I pride myself on my versatility. If I have to move from one position to the other, that’s what the team brought me here to do. To bring position flexibility, bring leadership and to make plays regardless of the position. Whether that be strong safety, free safety, star, corner, perimeter, outside linebacker, I’ve played it all, I lined up at it all and I pride myself on being able to play it all. It’s just another day at the office honestly. I wish we could have executed better, and we hope Jabrill gets back quickly because he is one of our better players for sure.”
What happens if Peppers is sidelined on Sunday?
“It will probably be similar to how we played once he went out of the game,” Henderson said. “When you play with Jabrill, you play with him as the down safety. When we played with those other safeties, we were rotating and they both played some down and both played some deep. We’ll look at what’s the best combination as we game plan with Pat (Graham, the defensive coordinator) this week what’s the best thing to do. And whatever Pat thinks is the best thing to do, we’ll try to get that executed.
“The best situation would be to have Jabrill right there playing. He’s been playing well. I hated for the kid that he tweaked his ankle. I just hope he gets back soon.”
The secondary movement continued today, when cornerback Brandon Williams, who was inactive vs. San Francisco, was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. That opened up a roster spot for the expected signing tomorrow of yet another cornerback, Madre Harper, who is completing Covid protocols and a physical.
Peppers didn’t practice and Love (knee/ankle) and Colbert (quad) were limited.
No matter who lines up on Sunday, the Giants’ must be ready to improve on last week’s performance and combat the NFL’s third-ranked offense, one averaging 449.7 yards a game.
“We’re back to work,” Ryan said. “It’s the fourth week of the season, nobody is in their final form yet. Obviously, you want to win every week. We didn’t execute, we didn’t win the game. We didn’t play how we wanted. Like I said, it was unacceptable. There’s no panic button right now. The Rams don’t care what we looked like last week. It’s about how we practice, how we execute, how we clean up the things we did wrong and don’t let them happen week to week. We have to fix the mistakes, the self-inflicting wounds and go out there and play a good game against the Rams. That’s all that matters this Sunday.”
*Ryan played the previous two seasons with the Tennessee Titans, who this week had several players and staffers test positive for Covid-19, forcing the postponement of their scheduled Sunday game vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s definitely an eye opener,” Ryan said. “I think it’s an eye opener for our whole country. This thing is still around, it still needs to be accounted for. I haven’t spoken to them too much, I have my own things right now that I’m busy with trying to accomplish here with the Giants. … Wear a mask, wash your hands. It shows you anybody is susceptible. It doesn’t matter your age, this sickness is definitely still around and can affect our season, it can affect our games. It’s a reality check to everybody, for sure. I wish them the best of luck and tell those guys to wash their hands a little more and don’t come around me.”
Judge was also asked about the Titans’ outbreak.
“We have a lot of confidence in the protocols the league came out with,” Judge said. “We’ve been very diligent since the beginning of following it. Our team and our coaches have been very committed to following the rules. It’s not changing anything we’re doing. It’s just reaffirming we have to stay diligent in the process of making sure we follow the steps in place.”
For all NFL teams, each game is a collision of good and bad, of highlights to be savored and lowlights to endure. It is a tussle to maximize the positive while striving to eliminate the negative.
So it was for the Giants in their season opener Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They had plenty of moments to build on offensively and defensively, players who performed impressively and plays that would have brought cheering fans out of their seats – had there actually been fans in the seats.
But plenty of disappointing plays also punctuated the Giants’ 26-16 loss in Joe Judge’s coaching debut in empty and silent MetLife Stadium.
Indeed, all the good and the bad were on display in one third-quarter possession, when the Giants traveled 87 yards – from their own nine-yard line to the Pittsburgh four – yet inexplicably and hauntingly scored zero points because Daniel Jones – under pressure from linebacker Bud Dupree – floated a pass to Darius Slayton that was intercepted by defensive tackle Cameron Heyward – the first pick of his 10-year career.
T.J. Watt had intercepted a Jones’ pass in the second quarter and those two turnovers led to nine Steelers points, a not insignificant number in a game decided by 10 points.
“He had two throws I know he wants back. Down at the goal line, that’s something we can’t have happen,” Judge said. “Look, I’ll talk to Daniel a little bit more about it, I’ll watch the tape and make sure we clean up everything involved. That’s definitely something you can’t have, 19-play drive and come away with no points, especially down there in the low red (zone). That’s not acceptable, but I’m proud of the way he played aggressive, I’m proud of the way this team stuck together.”
Jones completed numerous pinpoint passes despite absorbing three sacks and constant pressure from Pittsburgh’s ravenous defense. The numbers were 26-of-41 for 279 yards.
Fellow second-year pro Darius Slayton caught six of those throws for 102 yards and scored both of the Giants’ touchdowns, from 41 and seven yards (the latter with 1:52 remaining and the Giants in catch-up mode). Sterling Shepard and Saquon Barkley also had six catches each.
But Barkley and the running game couldn’t gain traction behind the Giants’ new-look offensive line. He rushed for only six yards on 15 carries. Jones led the team with 22 yards on four attempts.
“I’m not really too concerned with the stats,” Barkley said. “You have to give credit where credit is due. They have a great defense, especially their defensive front. They made some plays and we weren’t able to win the game today.”
Defensively, new middle linebacker and captain Blake Martinez tallied a team-high 12 tackles (eight solo) and linemen Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence registered sacks. But the unit did not force a turnover and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 32 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns, two to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“This is a team that makes a lot of explosive plays,” Judge said. “I think [defensive coordinator] Pat [Graham] was able to limit some of the production early on, really do a good job against the run game early on, forced them to be one-dimensional, put a lot of pressure on Ben. That was good for our defense, that limited some of the exposure the guys had. They made adjustments, they’re a good team, they’re going to take some shots down the field. That’s a very talented team, very talented offensive skill group. When you play the Steelers, you have to understand they’re going to make plays.”
The Giants are convinced they should have made more. On the game’s eighth snap, Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson muffed a Riley Dixon punt and Devante Downs recovered the ball for the Giants at the Pittsburgh three. Barkley gained one yard before Jones threw a pair of incompletions, forcing Graham Gano to kick his first Giants field goal, a 21-yarder.
After the Steelers tied the score on Chris Boswell’s 41-yard field goal, Slayton beat cornerback Steven Nelson and caught Jones’ perfect strike to put the Giants back on top. The defense forced a three-and-out, but Watt intercepted Jones on the Giants’ first play, leading to Roethlisberger’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster. Boswell’s extra point try bounced off the right upright and the Giants still held the lead at 10-9.
But they couldn’t hold it until halftime. The Steelers took possession at their own 22 with 1:32 remaining in the second quarter. They never faced a third down as Roethlisberger directed an eight-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to James Washington with seven seconds left that gave Pittsburgh a 16-10 lead it never relinquished.
“We have to do better at the end of the half, we have to finish ourselves in the red area, so those are the big things that stuck out right there,” Judge said.
The Giants seemed poised to jump back ahead in the third quarter, when they executed their longest drive in six years. The Giants converted five third downs on the series, the first when Jones hit Slayton for 18 yards on third-and-14 before gaining 15, four and six yards on successive third downs, concluding with a five-yard pass to Sterling Shepard that kept the march moving. Barkley’s longest run of the night, a seven-yarder, left the Giants just four yards from the goal line. But Dupree’s pressure forced Jones to throw while he was falling backwards and Heyward’s interception proved to be a gut punch to the Giants.
“Obviously a play I’d like to have back,” Jones said. “I’d like to have a chance to look at it with the coaches tomorrow and we’ll look into it. That’s a costly mistake there after a long drive, so… you know, something I got to work on and improve on. … We can’t afford those mistakes in those situations.”
After the pick, the Steelers ran 20 plays and scored 10 points while the Giants ran three and punted. The Giants did not score again until the game was virtually out of reach.
“I think as an offense, I thought we did some good things and some not so good things,” Jones said, “and I certainly feel like I played good at times and bad at times.”
He wasn’t alone.