EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – 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."
View photos from the Week 1 matchup between the Giants and Steelers on Monday Night Football.
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.