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Giants at 49ers, Week 3: 3 storylines to follow, including life without Saquon Barkley

As the New York Giants get ready to face the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday Night Football, here are three storylines to pay attention to as the underdog Giants aim to pull off the upset.

Life without Saquon

The Giants will be without Saquon Barkley Thursday night, and for at least one more game after that, due to Barkley’s sprained right ankle.

The Giants were a Barkley-centric offense a season ago as he touched the ball 352 times, third-most in the NFL. This season, he is on pace for 323 touches after two games. Slightly less, but still a lot.

The Giants conducted business this offseason as though they were looking ahead to a Saquon-less future, taking a hard line with him in contract negotiations that led to Barkley being forced to accept an amended franchise tag. Thursday, and for the next couple of weeks, we get a glimpse of how Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka will run an offense without a premier running back.

Can quarterback Daniel Jones, who has a 100.1 passer rating on play-action passes and a 56.8 rating on non-play action passes this season, be as effective without Barkley to threaten defenses on those fakes? Jones, of course, does have the best receiving group he has ever played with.

Can the Giants, 14th in the league in run block win rate after two games per ESPN, run the ball efficiently with Matt Breida, Gary Brightwell and rookie Eric Gray? It will help if second-team All-Pro left tackle Andrew Thomas (hamstring) is able to return, but that might not happen. With Ben Bredeson (concussion) also unlikely to play, the Giants will once again be fielding a makeshift offensive line.

The biggest curiosity among the backs will be Gray, the fifth-round pick who has thus far only handled return duties. What will he bring to the table if, and when, the Giants decide to give him some running back snaps?

“I think all the running backs that we have on the roster, that’s why they are on the roster, because we are confident in them,” head coach Brian Daboll said.

Those terrible starts

Much has been said about the Giants being outscored 60-0 over six quarters before they mounted their second-half comeback against Arizona. In the first halves of their two games, they have been outscored 46-0.

Obviously, that has to get better.

Why have the Giants not been able to find any rhythm offensively early in games? We know a big part of the answer in Week 1 was the overwhelming Dallas pass rush. In Week 2, though, the Giants seemed to run a vastly different, more aggressive, offense in the second half than in the first half. They have to find a way to attack from the beginning.

Defensively, as was discussed above, the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against Arizona was the only quality defense the Giants have played. That has to carry over.

“You hope they don’t all start out 20 to nothing,” Daboll said Sunday night.

That, obviously, is not a sustainable formula. If that happens Thursday against the 49ers, a far superior team to the Cardinals, the Giants will be headed for their second embarrassment in three weeks on the national stage.

Defensive issues

The Giants have played eight quarters of football. Defensively, they have played seven poor quarters and one good one. That was enough to help eke out a victory over a bad Arizona Cardinals team. If the type of play we have seen from the Giants’ defense over most of the first two games continues, however, they are going to have a difficult time winning games.

After two weeks, the Giants are last in the league in points allowed (68). They don’t have a quarterback sack. They have yet to force a turnover. They are 26th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (136.5). They are 25th in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.6). Teams have run the ball 51.3% of the time against the Giants, with only three teams being run on more often. The Giants missed 12 tackles Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, per Pro Football Focus. While the pass coverage hasn’t been horrendous per most metrics, the Giants are 28th in the league in yards allowed per completion (10.9).

Run defense

The Giants were 31st in the league last season, giving up 5.2 yards per rushing attempt. They signed linebacker Bobby Okereke, and veteran backup defensive tackles Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson in free agency to address that issue. Thus far to minimal impact.

To be fair, Nunez-Roches (51.3 PFF grade in 30 run defense snaps) and Robinson (60.7 in 24 run defense snaps) battled injuries in training camp, did not practice consistently, and played little in preseason. To his credit, Nunez-Roches in 10th among interior defensive linemen in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate stat at 40%. Based on their careers, both should get better as the season progresses.

Okereke was a force late in the game against Arizona, but has missed five tackles over two games. The Giants need him to be the player he was down the stretch vs. the Cardinals. Micah McFadden missed four tackles against the Cardinals. He was in position to make plays, he just didn’t make them. Veteran edge defender Jihad Ward has a team-worst 32.8 grade in 36 run defense snaps. Arizona took advantage of Ward for several long runs to his side Sunday. Even Leonard Williams, whose 52.4 PFF run grade is 14 points lower than his 2022 career worst, has yet to make an impact.

The run defense has to be better to give the pass rush more opportunities.

Pass rush

The Giants have no sacks and just 13 quarterback hurries in two games. Awful. Kayvon Thibodeaux has been invisible thus far. Azeez Ojulari is hurt. Leonard Williams is off to a sluggish start. Isaiah Simmons has rushed the passer just nine times in two games.

On the ‘Bleav in Giants’ podcast, Carl Banks addressed the pass rush by saying that opportunity has been a major issue. Dak Prescott threw just 24 times Week 1, and only eight of those were 10 yards or more down field. In Week 2, Josh Dobbs of the Cardinals threw 10+ yards down the field only 12 times.

Banks’ point, and it is a good one, is that the sub-par run defense is not allowing the Giants to rush the passer in full force. In his view, pass rushers are at times not using their full arsenals. Rather, just bull-rushing because they are playing run first. Remember, only three teams have been run on at a higher percentage than the Giants.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has dialed up the blitz 42.1% of the time thus far after doing so a league-leading 39.7% of the time a season ago. The Giants are 18th in the league in pressure percentage at 19.3%. That’s not horrible, but they haven’t had enough opportunities.

That said, Thibodeaux needs to be more impactful. There is truth to the idea that edge defenders under Martindale don’t always compile huge numbers. Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith are examples of edge defenders who have had more success statistically away from Martindale than playing for him. Still, Thibodeaux’s 2.6% win rate in 43 pass rush attempts is not good enough.

In addition to Thibodeaux, Ojulari needs to get and stay healthy, Simmons needs to get more involved in the rush, Williams needs to be better and the Giants need to defend the run well enough to allow more true pass rush opportunities.

[NOTE: The Giants’ 2023 blitz percentage thru two games has been corrected in this version of the post].


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