EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Mike Shula holds a unique and vital position in the Giants' offense, but in one respect he is no different than anyone else. The offensive coordinator is eager to see how it works when all of his key players are on the field together for the first time on Sunday in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars in MetLife Stadium.
Odell Beckham, Jr. sat out all four preseason games, and Saquon Barkley the final three. Eli Manning missed two games and the entire starting group didn't play in the finale a week ago vs. New England. Now the ballhandlers must work with the rebuilt offensive line and become a cohesive and productive unit against a Jaguars defense that ranked second in the NFL last season in points allowed (16.8 per game) and yards allowed (286.1 yards per game), and led the league in pass defense (169.9 yards per game).
The Giants have a sound plan that will be challenging to execute.
"We feel like we have to use the guys the best way we can," Shula said. "The number-one thing is to have our guys playing fast, and knowing what to do and doing it fast, because we feel like if they do that, it gives us our best chance. We've got a quarterback in Eli that is a fast thinker and can get the ball out, but we don't want to force the ball to any one of those guys. We want to have Eli make good decisions and take what they give you. You hear that all the time, find the one-on-ones and things like that. Then, as coaches, we want to make sure that we have enough stuff that gets the ball around to all those guys. We want to be versatile with our scheme, whether we're running it, throwing it, quick game, drop back, play action, misdirection, but also versatile with where the ball's going based on our personnel."
While all of the players mentioned above are holdovers from the 2017 season, they are being coached by a new staff. Head coach Pat Shurmur will call the plays. Shula, who works primarily with the quarterbacks, has a large role in putting together the game plan. Each offensive position group has a new coach except for the running backs, where Craig Johnson is beginning his fifth season.
"There's a newness, regardless, in the fact that we're all here with coach Shurmur, all of us that are new," Shula said. "You'd like to have every snap, as many snaps as you can, game-like snaps together. But we've also got some guys with Eli and some other guys that have been here, and I think as coaches through the years you kind of get used to that, maybe the first time going through it. You've been around offenses that haven't had that (and) you kind of get a little nervous, but you learn a little bit from that. Sometimes that might be the best thing, too, where you're resting guys and they're feeling fresh, so there's tradeoffs a little bit. We're all excited about the opportunity to watch these guys for the first time together."
One group that has been intact since the spring – and started three preseason games together - is the offensive line, where center Jon Halapio, guards Patrick Omameh and rookie Will Hernandez, and tackles Nate Solder and Ereck Flowers have become a close-knit unit on and off the field.
"Every snap we get out there on the field with those guys being together, collectively offensively, we feel like we're going to get better," Shula said. "We don't have a lot of time on task together. You can tell our guys are talented. It means a lot to them, they communicate very well, and now it's time. We've got live bullets coming Sunday against a really good team. We feel very comfortable with those guys, and (I'm) looking forward to them helping lead our offense."
"The idea is that we can play consistent, efficient, be able to protect the quarterback, be able to run the ball - those are all the things we constantly work at," Solder said.
But nothing will come easy against that formidable Jacksonville defense that features six 2017 Pro Bowlers, including four starters. And the standouts are spread throughout every level of the defense – Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson up front, Telvin Smith at linebacker, and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. The unit powered the Jaguars all the way to the AFC Championship Game last season.
"They're so talented," Shula said. "Their scheme, they are well-coached. It starts with the guys up front. They can be very disruptive up front in both the run game and the pass game. They've had a bunch of sacks last year just with rushing four people, and then everything else fits off that. They're very talented in the back seven as well - guys that can cover man to man, they're fast when they're in zone, they get to the ball very fast, and there's a lot of guys that can get to the ball quickly. They're really good. There's a reason why they went as far as they did last year."
On Sunday, the Giants will confront them with an offense that will finally be fully together.
"We've had some really good work," Shula said. "It's been a fast six or seven months since we all got here. Guys have worked really hard, and we've talked to all of our players on our team and offensively about earning the right to be here, having something to prove, which I think we all do. The guys are excited for the season, they've earned this opportunity to be here. We've got a tough challenge ahead."
View the starters for Sunday's matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars