'SEASON STARTS NOW'
After jumping out to an impressive 6-1 start, the Giants have lost three of their last four games to drop to 7-4. Despite the recent rough stretch, the Giants still find themselves firmly in the playoff race as they currently hold the second Wild Card spot in the NFC. With six games remaining, the Giants are facing the toughest part of their schedule.
Following the Week 15 contest in Washington, the Giants close out the season on the road in Minnesota and at home against the Colts before traveling to Philly for the season finale. Five of those outings are against teams with winning records, including three games against the NFC's top two seeds. Coach Brian Daboll spoke to the team at the start of the week about taking part in these important games late in the season.
"It's definitely exciting," rookie outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux said Monday. "Dabs talked to us today, and he kind of gave us that idea that the beginning of the season starts now. So, everything we've done has put us in position to go for it all. So, we can't get too far ahead of ourselves. But it is a big task at hand that we have."
"When you play meaningful games in December, I think that's why we all do this," Daboll added on Tuesday. "You go all the way back to OTAs and to preseason and the beginning part of the season; now you're in December. And I've been on teams that have played meaningful games in December, and I've been part of teams that haven't. It's not a lot of fun when you're not playing meaningful games. So, let's come to work with a great attitude, a positive mindset. Keep getting better. And you focus on the week's opponent: That's how you have to do it. But they're important games now."
Sunday's game is the 181st all-time meeting between the New York Giants and Washington Commanders, with the Giants holding a 105-71-4 lead in the series. It is the first of two matchups between the two teams over the next three weeks. The Commanders won both games last year, snapping the Giants' five-game winning streak over their NFC East rival.
Out: OL Joshua Ezeudu (neck), CB Adoree' Jackson (knee), G Shane Lemieux (toe)
Questionable: TE Daniel Bellinger (eye), S Dane Belton (clavicle), RB Gary Brightwell (illness), LB Carter Coughlin (thigh), C Jon Feliciano (neck), CB Darnay Holmes (shoulder), WR Richie James (knee), CB Fabian Moreau (oblique), WR Darius Slayton (illness)
Out: WR Dax Milne (foot), CB Benjamin St-Juste (ankle), G Trai Turner (knee/ankle)
Questionable: RB Antonio Gibson (foot), DE Chase Young (knee)
REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAY?
At the start of the week, outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari (calf), guard Ben Bredeson (knee) and safety Tony Jefferson (foot), all of whom have been on injured reserve, returned to practice. Ojulari has played in only two games this season, as the calf injury caused him to miss the first two games of the season along with the past seven games. Jefferson suffered a foot injury in London in Week 5, while Bredeson hurt his knee against the Jaguars in Week 7.
In addition to those on injured reserve, several other players returned to the practice field. Right tackle Evan Neal, center Jon Feliciano, cornerback Fabian Moreau and tight end Daniel Bellinger all have participated in practice throughout the week. Neal has been out since hurting his knee in Week 7, while Bellinger suffered a serious eye injury in the same game. Feliciano and Moreau were hurt against the Lions in Week 11. Neal has been a full participant in practice, while the other three have been limited.
While it remains to be seen which players will be medically cleared for Sunday's game, Daboll sounded optimistic Friday that at least some of the nine players listed as questionable on the final injury report will make their return against the Commanders.
"I'd say we got a lot of limited guys today that are working," the head coach said Friday. "A lot of guys are making good progress. This will be our normal (Friday) – go out there in practice, see where everybody's at and then talk about it tonight. ... I think they're all trending in the right direction. I think today will be another important day to get out there, move around, see where they're at after a few days. They're all making progress, so I'm hopeful those guys can go. But you never know."
GETTING SAQUON BACK ON TRACK
One of the biggest reasons for the Giants' strong start this year was their success running the football. They had the league's top rushing attack for much of the first half of the season, but recent struggles in that department have led to some poor performances overall from the offense. After topping 125 yards in five of their first seven games, including three games with 235+ rushing yards, the Giants have reached the century mark on the ground only once in the last four games (Week 10 win over Houston).
"We've all been in this league a long time," said Daboll. "The last time that you haven't faced adversity will be the first time. You're going to face it. Week 1, Week 5, Week 10. So, the approach is to be consistent, like the message I've tried to give really since I've been here."
Opposing defenses have seemingly locked in on Saquon Barkley over the last month. The star running back ran for 152 yards on 35 carries (4.3 avg.) in the win over the Texans. But if you were to take out that game, Barkley has gained just 114 yards on 46 carries since Week 8, an average of only 2.5 yards per carry, while failing to reach 55 rushing yards in any of those three contests. He has been held in check in the passing game, as well, totaling just 10 receptions for 43 yards over the past four games.
Things won't necessarily get easier this weekend as Barkley goes up against a talented defensive front. The Commanders rank eighth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (108.4) and have given up just six rushing touchdowns in 12 games (rank third in the NFL). They are led up front by their pair or first-round defensive linemen, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.
Daniel Jones has played a big role in helping the Giants rush for 151.1 yards per game, the sixth-highest mark in the NFL. Jones is averaging a career-high 41.0 rushing yards per game this season as he has already set new career-marks with 451 yards and four touchdowns.
Despite his solid rushing production on the year, Jones has not done a ton with his legs in recent weeks. Over the last four games, the fourth-year pro has rushed for just 108 total yards, averaging 27.0 yards per game. His number of rush attempts are also down as he averaged 8.3 carries in the first seven games but only 5.3 over his last four. Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka noted that quarterback runs are still a part of every game plan, but he tipped his hat to opposing defenses for doing a good job lately of preparing for Jones' legs.
"I think defenses have done a good job of defending that," said the offensive coordinator. "When we look at the schemes of how we get DJ on the perimeter, some teams might play the defensive end just a little bit different so that they take away the QB run if that's being effective. We got to be flexible and create complements off of those things. That's where we're at right now within the season is what are we doing really well, how can we build complements off those things? And then we have to go and execute it."
In last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Commanders allowed QB Marcus Mariota to gain 49 yards on just six carries (8.2 avg.). Washington also surrendered rushing touchdowns to Texans QB Davis Mills and Eagles QB Jalen Hurts in their two previous games.
'GOOD TO SEE' BELLINGER BACK OUT THERE
Evan Neal isn't the only Giants rookie looking to make his return to the field on Sunday. Similar to Neal, tight end Daniel Bellinger was also injured during the Week 7 game in Jacksonville when he suffered a serious eye injury. Bellinger had been developing into a key part of the offense prior to the injury with 15 receptions and three total touchdowns from Weeks 2-6. The team hopes it can get its starting tight end back on the field for this weekend's important divisional matchup.
"Daniel (Bellinger) has done a good job," said Kafka. "He had a good day yesterday; it was good to see him out there and bouncing around in the pads. Any time you can add another guy to the offense gives you some flexibility from a personnel standpoint and then gives you some flexibility from an execution standpoint."
In Bellinger's absence, the Giants have relied on two unlikely sources for production out of the tight end position. Tanner Hudson signed with the Giants towards the end of training camp and had just three receptions for 40 yards through Week 7. But in the two games following Bellinger's injury, Hudson finished with three receptions in each one, totaling 82 yards on the six catches. Additionally, Lawrence Cager has helped fill in over the last month after joining the practice squad on October 18. Cager has caught five passes for 49 yards over the last three games, including his first career touchdown.
"I'd say this, I think the guys that we had in, they stepped up," the offensive coordinator said about the team's tight ends. "We had a great 'next man up' mentality, really throughout all these injuries that we've had. Guys have stepped in, they've played huge roles for us as an offense. They've stepped in and done everything they can. They've played their butt off.
"Really, when I'm looking at that, obviously when Bellinger comes in – he does a good job and he goes and does his job. That's what we're going to ask these guys to do, whether it's the run game, whether it's the pass game. We're asking our guys to go out there, run the fundamentals and techniques that we ask them and play as hard as they can. Our guys are doing that. That's one thing you can build on."
KAYVON 'ON THE RISE'
Although the result of last week's Thanksgiving matchup was not what the GIants were hoping for, one bright spot was the performance of Kayvon Thibodeaux. The rookie outside linebacker went into the game with three quarterback hits in his first eight games. In Week 12 alone, the 21-year-old registered five quarterback hits on Dak Prescott, while Pro Football Focus had him down for nine total pressures.
Thibodeaux was all over the field against the Cowboys, which defensive coordinator Wink Martindale noted was the rookie's "best game to date." Clearly, the outside linebacker has impressed with his performance on the field, but it sounds as if he's done just as much off the field to excite his defensive coordinator.
"I just have confidence in him," Martindale said about the fifth overall pick. "I just know that he's on the rise, he's on the come. He's much better than what I originally expected as far as all the other little stuff. I'm not saying that just him personally, I'm saying rookies, he's much further ahead than most of the rookies in his class as far as how he prepares for the game and his knowledge of the game already and of the defense itself."
SLOWING DOWN WASHINGTON'S RUN GAME
During their current two-game losing streak, the Giants have struggled to limit opponents in the run game. The Cowboys gashed the Giants for 169 yards on the ground on Thanksgiving, only four days after the Lions gained 160 rushing yards at MetLife Stadium. The team is 1-3 this season when allowing their opponent to run for 150 or more yards, which has led to the defense ranking 26th in rushing yards per game (138.9) and 30th in yards per attempt (5.2).
"We're just going to have to get 11 hats to the football, and right now statistically, our run defense isn't very good," Martindale said Wednesday. "We need to continue to work on fundamentals and technique and getting everybody to the football. When you start putting in all the other runs, the wide receiver sweeps and all the other plays off of it, I think run averages are up across the league, but I think we need to get better at it."
The defense will have another tough challenge this weekend as they try to contain a Commanders run game that has enjoyed a lot of success over the last month. Since Week 9, Washington is averaging 154.5 rushing yards per game while topping the 150-yard rushing mark in each of their last three outings. Their rushing attack is led by Brian Robinson Jr., who has totaled 467 yards on the ground this season. The rookie back is coming off the best game of his career in which he reached the century mark for the first time in the NFL, totaling 105 yards on 18 carries (5.8 avg.) while adding two receptions for 20 yards and a touchdown.
"He's a load," the defensive coordinator said about Robinson. "He ran over that corner from Atlanta. He seeks out contact, so he's going to be another one of those tough backs that we're going to have to get a lot of people to the ball to get him down."
Antonio Gibson is another member of the Washington backfield that cannot be overlooked. Gibson has carried the ball 130 times for 476 yards this season, good for an average of just 3.7 yards per carry, but has also caught 40 passes for an additional 306 yards and two scores. The defense will have to keep their eyes on the dual-threat running back.
SCOUTING THE REST OF THE COMMANDERS
The Commanders began the season 2-4 with Carson Wentz under center. Taylor Heinicke took over in Week 7 and hasn't looked back. Heinicke has led Washington to victories in five of their past six games, with the sole loss coming against the Vikings. He has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,169 yards (194.8 avg.), seven touchdowns and five interceptions while adding a score on the ground. Terry McLaurin has been Heinicke's favorite target, as the talented fourth-year receiver ranks eighth in the league with 840 receiving yards.
"He's a dynamic player," Daboll said about McLaurin. "(He) does really everything well at the receiver position, can threaten short and take it long, intermediate, vertical. So, we're going to have to do a good job of rushing the passer when he passes and tackling in open space and staying on top of him in the deep part of the field."
Moving over to the defense, Sunday's game might represent the 2022 debut for the biggest name on the unit, defensive end Chase Young. The second overall pick in the 2020 draft has not played since tearing his ACL in Week 10 of last season. In 24 career games, Young has registered nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits along with six forced fumbles.
"We'll see how many snaps he plays when he gets back," Daboll said about Young. "Obviously, he's a dynamic guy with where he was selected, how he's played. All hands on deck."
If Young is active, he will join Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne on a stacked defensive line. Sweat currently leads the team with seven sacks, while Allen and Payne are at 6.5 apiece. All three have double-digit tackles for a loss.
"They're good at the run and the pass," said the Giants coach. "I think that's what (makes them so good). I think having strong fronts – both defense and offensively – is kind of where you want to build your football team. And they certainly have done it. I think the last eight games, they've up 16 points – that's without Chase. So, they've got some other good players in there – two 'Bama guys inside. I was with Payne for that one year. Allen. Sweat.
"They're challenging on both fronts. They don't give up a lot of points. They haven't given up a lot of points here in the last eight weeks or six and seven. I think they play physical style football. (Commanders head) Coach (Ron) Rivera – I got a lot of respect for him and how he. They're physical on both sides of the ball and the kicking game. That's what I think makes a good football team."
The defense took a recent hit when starting linebacker Cole Holcomb, who leads the team with 69 total tackles, was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. However, fellow inside linebacker Jamin Davis is enjoying a strong season as the second-year player has three sacks to go with his 68 total tackles. In the secondary, safety Darrick Forrest leads Washington with three interceptions, while veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller has a team-high 11 pass breakups.
Once again, the New York Giants are bringing back their classic blue uniforms from the '80s and '90s this Sunday as part of two Legacy Games presented by Quest.