The time is finally here. After a long and unusual off-season, the 2020 NFL season is ready to kick off.
Joe Judge and the Giants will be immediately tested in their Week 1 matchup, as Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger and the talented Steelers defense are coming to MetLife Stadium for a Monday night showdown.
With a big week ahead, let's take a look at five big storylines to follow heading into the Giants' Week 1 game against the Steelers.
Daniel Jones against a tough Pittsburgh defense
Daniel Jones showed plenty of promise in his rookie campaign last year. In 12 starts, Jones completed about 61 percent of his passes for 3,010 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while adding 44 rushes for 274 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and two scores.
The young signal-caller flashed at times in 2019, finishing the season with three games of 300+ passing yards, 4+ touchdown passes and zero interceptions, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to accomplish that feat at least twice. Jones set Giants rookie records for passes, completions, and passing yards. He also led NFL rookies and set a team rookie mark for TD throws.
It wasn't a perfect season, as he led the league with 18 fumbles (11 lost). Working on ball security was one of Jones' biggest priorities and he will be put to the test right away. The 2019 Steelers led the NFL with 54 sacks, 18 fumble recoveries and 38 takeaways and are returning most of the same talented players on defense.
Jones and the offensive line will have to keep an eye out for T.J. Watt and Bud Depree on the edge, as well as Cameron Heyward up the middle. In the secondary, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick can cause trouble.
Slowing down James Conner
The Giants' run defense received a big boost when Leonard Williams was acquired halfway through last season. Beginning in Week 10, Big Blue did a great job of holding the opposing team's lead back in check.
Le'Veon Bell (1.9 yards per carry on 18 carries), David Montgomery (1.7 ypc on 13 carries), Aaron Jones (1.6 ypc on 11 carries), Miles Sanders (3.0 ypc on 15 carries), and Adrian Peterson (2.4 ypc on 15 carries) struggled to find running lanes against the Giants in the second half of the season. With a full off-season to integrate Williams into the unit, along with another year of development for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dexter Lawrence and the addition of linebacker Blake Martinez, the run defense could replicate it's late-season success against the run.
Although Pittsburgh averaged just 90.4 rushing yards per game last year, they were playing without starting running back James Conner for a large portion of the season. Conner played in a career-low 10 games in 2019, but still managed to accumulate 715 yards and seven touchdowns on 150 touches (116 carries, 34 receptions). A healthy Conner in combination with Pittsburgh's talented offensive line will provide a difficult matchup.
Nick Gates gets his first start at center
One of the most intriguing competitions in training camp was the battle for the starting center position between Nick Gates and Spencer Pulley. Gates, who signed a two-year contract extension at the beginning of August, is listed as the starting center on the first unofficial depth chart. Pulley, who started 10 games at the position for the Giants over the past two years, is second on the depth chart. The two have been competing for the starting role and Judge suggested the competition will continue this week.
While he has never taken a game rep at center, Gates has shown tremendous versatility throughout his football career. After starting 25 consecutive games at left tackle for Nebraska, Gates filled in at right tackle and right guard for the Giants last year and received high grades from Pro Football Focus. The young lineman should benefit from the presence of veterans Kevin Zeitler and Will Hernandez on either side, and the three will look to form a formidable interior line.
The Giants' Week 1 opponent isn't providing Gates with any help in his first start at center. In Monday's matchup, Gates will be tasked with stopping Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh's two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman. Heyward is coming off possibly his strongest season in which he registered 9.0 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 23 quarterback hits and 60 total pressures on his way to a First-Team All-Pro selection.
The first few weeks of the season will be a good litmus test for the new center with matchups against Chicago's Akiem Hicks, San Francisco's Javon Kinlaw and Los Angeles' Aaron Donald. But it all starts on Monday night against Heyward.
Getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger
It is no secret that the Giants struggled to get pressure on the quarterback last year. Big Blue took down opposing quarterbacks just 36 times in 2019, but things are looking up for the pass rush this season.
The team's three leading pass rushers are returning. Markus Golden racked up 10 sacks and 27 quarterback hits. Lorenzo Carter is entering his third season and stood out as one of the stars of training camp. In the team's Blue-White Scrimmage at MetLife Stadium, Carter was unofficially credited with at least three sacks and constantly applied pressure.
Second-year edge rusher Oshane Ximines will look to build on his 4.5-sack performance as a rookie, which he accomplished while playing just 45 percent of the defensive snaps. Veteran free against Kyler Fackrell was added to the group this off-season. He totaled 10.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits for the Packers in 2018. Between these four outside linebackers, along with rookies Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has plenty of talent to deploy.
When the two storied franchises take the field for kickoff, it will be exactly 365 days since Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in a game, as the 38-year-old suffered a season-ending elbow injury last September. The Giants will have to make sure the veteran doesn't get comfortable in the pocket if they want to limit Pittsburgh's passing game.
Joe Judge's head coaching debut
With everything that has gone on this year, it seems like a lifetime ago that Joe Judge stood at the podium at MetLife Stadium for his introductory press conference shortly after last season. However, the 38-year-old is finally set to make his head coaching debut.
"We're going to put a product on the field that the people of this city and region are going to be proud of because this team will represent this area," Judge told the media in January. "We will play fast, we will play downhill, we will play aggressive. We will punch you in the nose for 60 minutes, we will play every play like it has a history and a life of its own, with a relentless, competitive attitude. We will play fundamentally sound, we will not beat ourselves. That is our mission right here."
Judge, his coaching staff and all of his players have been reiterating this message since the start of training camp. Playing smart, fundamentally sound football has been one of the biggest themes of camp, evidenced by the penalty laps that players and coaches have had to run after making mistakes in practice.
Monday night will be the first time we get to see Judge on the sideline as a head coach. Although it is only the first game of the season and teams typically take a few weeks to get into their groove, this battle against a strong, veteran team should serve as a great opportunity for the Giants to practice what their head coach has been preaching.
The Giants will hold a virtual Season Kickoff Event presented by Investors Bank featuring several players and team executives Thursday, September 10, at 7 p.m. ET. The event will stream LIVE on Giants.com, the Giants Mobile App, and the Giants YouTube channel.CLICK FOR DETAILS
View photos of the history between the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers.