EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The stark challenge for the Giants' offense this Sunday is evident with a quick glance at the NFL's weekly statistics.
In their first two games, the Giants scored 17 and 14 points in losses to Dallas and Buffalo, teams currently ranked third and tied for fifth in the league in scoring defense. They had far more success in their last two games, scoring 31 and 24 points (seven on a defensive touchdown) in victories against Tampa Bay and Washington, which are ranked 30th and 31st in that statistical category.
Now they host the Minnesota Vikings, who are in the top 10 in seven significant defensive statistical categories, including points allowed, where they are tied with the Bills for fifth. Given that Minnesota has six former defensive Pro Bowlers, five former first-round selections in its secondary and arguably the league's best pass rush tandem in Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, it's no stretch to say this is the biggest challenge the Giants' offense has faced this season – particularly rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, whose first two starts were against the Buccaneers and Redskins, teams that have struggled in many aspects of defensive football.
The Vikings have impact players at all levels of their defense. They've allowed 15.8 points a game, no more than 21 in any of their two victories or two defeats, and more than 16 just once. Which is why offensive coordinator Mike Shula was asked how does he coach Jones to face a defense like this?
"They're really good," Shula said. "You try to coach him like you do every other week. We all want to be aware of the kind of defense we're facing. They're talented across the board. They have a really good scheme. They feed off of mistakes made by the offense. As most defenses are, they're even better in long yardage.
"I think the biggest thing, the point of emphasis, is getting the ball out on time, making good decisions, don't think you have to make big plays and don't think you have to win the game on every play. We talk about, as we do every week, staying ahead of the chains, so to speak. Staying out of those long yardage situations. Now that he has a couple of weeks under his belt, teams are getting a little feel for what he's like, so we just have to make sure we stay on course with the task at hand."
Jones has completed 69% of his passes, demonstrated his toughness and smart decision-making and has bounced back from sacks, interceptions and an 18-point deficit in Tampa. He acknowledges Minnesota's defense has numerous strengths, but facing it is another in a continuing cycle of challenges.
"They are a good unit, a good team," Jones said. "We'll be prepared. I think when you look at them, they are a strong front seven and they are good in the back end, too. I think we'll be ready. We have a good plan in place. I'm excited and I think we will be prepared."
Keep an eye on these five players when the Giants host the Vikings in Week 5.
The Vikings will certainly present Jones with a look or coverage – or several – that will be new to him.
"There are elements to their defense that he hasn't seen from the previous two teams," coach Pat Shurmur said. "But there are things that their defense has done. Zim (Vikings coach Mike Zimmer) always has a pressure of the week cooked up that we all have to adjust to. Yeah, there will be some things that he hasn't seen."
Which is another reason the Vikings are a formidable foe. They have three Pro Bowlers on their front in Griffen, Hunter and former Giant (and giant) tackle Linval Joseph. That threesome has combined for 7.0 of Minnesota's 11 sacks. Strongside linebacker Anthony Barr has played in four consecutive Pro Bowls and middle backer Eric Kendricks is on pace to lead the team in tackles for the fifth consecutive season; his 43 stops (30 solo) in four games are 19 more than anyone else on the team has. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith are among the very best players at their positions in the league.
Shurmur, tasked with calling plays against this group, was the Vikings' offensive coordinator in 2016-17 and is familiar with all of their best defenders.
"They have outstanding players everywhere," Shurmur said. "When you start saying, 'Okay, well, this is their best player. No, this guy is their best player.' All of the guys up front… they have two edge rushers. They have interior guys that can get push. They have linebackers that are Pro Bowlers. They have corners and they have safeties that have all been to Pro Bowls. They're well-coordinated and they put pressure on the passer, and they do a good job of stopping the run. That's what you want from a defense."
Shurmur said he is particularly close to Rhodes, because he sat across the aisle from him on the Vikings' charter flights.
"He is one of the league's best, for sure," Shurmur said. "I think he has a unique combination, he's very talented, he's very quick, but he's big and he's long. When you walk up on him, he's almost linebacker size. I have great respect for him. We used to sit next to each other on plane rides, he's just a nice guy. … We visited quite a bit, and then on the buses I would sit in front of Linval Joseph, so I got to know those guys and, obviously, I have a lot of respect for them."
The Giants will again be without star running back Saquon Barkley, who will be inactive for the second week in a row with a sprained ankle. But they will have wide receiver Golden Tate, who will play his first game of the season after missing the first four while serving an NFL suspension.
Tate doesn't have to be reminded of the challenges the Giants and he face after playing the Vikings twice a year during his 4½ seasons with the Detroit Lions.
"I think this might be the best defense that this squad has faced this year," Tate said. "It's going to be a great challenge, but I think it's just all about us. If we do our jobs the best we possibly can, I think we're going to give ourselves a really good chance to go out there and perform. If we are efficient on third down, protect the ball, score touchdowns and just play fundamental football, I think we're going to have a chance."
Against the Vikings' defense, that's a good start.
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