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Giants' surging defense meets Justin Herbert


TUCSON, Ariz. – Patrick Graham constructs and implements plans for a living, so he stayed in both his personal and professional character by devising one for the Giants' flight from Miami to Tucson last Sunday night. The team's defensive coordinator would review his unit's performance in the loss that afternoon to the Dolphins, then begin his in-depth study of the Los Angeles Chargers, whom the Giants meet Sunday in SoFi Stadium.

"I pulled up the Chargers and I think it's the third play I saw (quarterback Justin) Herbert drop back and threw a ball like 25 yards down on a rope and I said, 'I'll get to this tomorrow,'" Graham said.

He could only delay the inevitable, which was formulating a strategy to stop one of the NFL's most prolific and versatile offenses. The 7-5 Chargers have dynamic performers at the ball-handling positions, they've posted imposing numbers and they play aggressively, particularly on fourth down.

The Giants have faced and will face offenses that are ranked higher statistically – Dallas, which visits MetLife Stadium next week – is No. 1. But few bring the diversity and explosiveness of the Chargers, who are seventh in yards-per-game (382.1) and ninth in scoring (26.2 points a game).

"This is a very explosive team," coach Joe Judge said. "It's a team with some explosive weapons on offense. They've got a very, very talented young quarterback who can make a lot of plays, extend plays. Very accurate passer. He really fuels the entire offense. Herbert, who is 6-6 and 237 pounds, is third in the NFL with 27 touchdown passes, second with 315 completions and first with seven 300-yard passing games. He has the arm strength to place the ball accurately in any part of the field.

"It's hard because you try to bring the awareness to the guys," Graham said. "Just take, for example, when they get past the 50-yard line. He can do it from drop back. He can do it from the gun, in terms of from under center. He can roll one way and throw it back to the other end zone. It's a challenge. He's a big guy. I would say size-wise probably in terms of height and stuff, it's like (Pittsburgh quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger) when you're dealing with Ben. In terms of arm talent, probably like him, (Kansas City's Patrick) Mahomes, those guys that can just throw the ball a mile and he throws it on a rope and pretty accurate."

View photos from practice at the University of Arizona as the Giants prepare for their matchup against the Chargers.

Herbert has a strong supporting cast. Running back Austin Ekeler is second in the league with 15 touchdowns (eight rushing, seven receiving) and has run for a team-high 663 yards. Keenan Allen is tied for second in the NFL with 86 receptions, Ekeler has 56 catches and wideout Mike Williams has 55, seven of them for touchdowns.

"It's a big challenge for us," cornerback James Bradberry said. "Anytime you mix good receivers with a good quarterback they're going to be an explosive offense, they're going to be able to put points up on the board, so it's definitely a challenge for us.

"(Allen and Williams) are both elite receivers, but in how they are elite receivers I feel is different. Williams, he's more of a big body deep threat. He has a huge catch radius. He's going to get all the explosive routes down the field, but then you've got Keenan Allen, who makes a lot of his explosive plays off yards after the catch because he's such a good runner. He has great awareness, great savviness to his game. He runs good routes, a lot of over across option routes and stuff like that. They're different, but both of them can make explosive plays. We've got to continue to communicate and execute when we go out there and play."

Allen and Williams, as well as cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., spent the week on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but the Giants expect them to play.

"I know Keenan," safety Logan Ryan said. "I've been playing against him for years. My second year in the league as a Patriot, we put Darrelle Revis on Keenan Allen and that was eight years ago, and he's still been that guy for that many years. I think he's one of the best receivers in the league. It drastically changes whether he plays or not. We're definitely going to – we have packages to prepare for Keenan Allen and we'll prepare for that and if he's not there, that's good news and we'll do the best we can."

"I think my luck over the last 13 years in the league, they're probably going to play," Graham said with a laugh. "That's what I think. We prepare for all the scenarios. Obviously, we'll have to be ready to adjust. It's no different than what happened as recently as last week with (Dolphins wide receiver DeVante) Parker. He got activated on Saturday, but you have to have a contingency plan and to be ready for that stuff. I talk to you guys all the time about that, just you've got to be ready. We've got to be ready and whatever scenarios come up, that's part of our job.

One of the scenarios likely to arise is the Chargers going for it on fourth down. They have done so 21 times this season, succeeding on 13 of them, a 61.9% success rate.

"You have to be mindful," Graham said. "(They have a) defensive-minded head coach (Brandon Staley), I'm sure it has something to do with the analytics part of it. Each situation is different. It might be analytics. It might be a feel in the game. You look at some of the stuff that happened in the Baltimore game. Baltimore had a good lead and maybe they felt like they needed to go ahead and take their chances there. It presents a challenge. No matter what play we make on third down to get a stop, guys have got to be alert on the sidelines, be ready. I've got to make sure I'm alert because sometimes you get so used to on third down, again, to get into fourth down, you're like it's a good play, but you might be going through the series in your mind, but you've got to stay alert. They might stay out there, so it's a challenge. It's definitely a challenge."

That will be true for the defense no matter what the down and distance is.

"You have to be mindful on second down, too, because you don't know when they're going to sprinkle in the tempo," Graham said. "I would say there's a few situations where they like it the most. They get a big play first-and-10 within a series and boom, tempo. Sometimes to keep you out of your exotics on third down, they'll go from second to third down, which is a good strategy right there. You've got to prepare for that, so whether it's from third to fourth down, the key is for me as the coordinator, us as coaches, is to have calls that fit the situation. Potentially, you might have a longer list of calls, but really all the same calls, but like you've got to do it out of different groupings. You've just got to be aware of that.

"The key is, and I think a lot of defensive coaches think like this, an example being Flo (Dolphins coach Brian Flores) last week with Miami – keep pressure on them the whole game. That's just another way to keep pressure on them. Normally, you make a play on third down, OK, ready to get off the field. Fourth down, what are they going to do? It just causes you to practice it. You've got to deal with it. It's a good strategy."

Graham and his defense will do all he can to ensure the Chargers don't succeed with it on Sunday.

View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Chargers ahead of their Week 14 matchup.


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