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Players to Watch: Young pass rushing duo

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It's been nearly five months since the Giants first reported to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for the start of training camp. Now, the fate of the season comes down to the final four games - otherwise known as meaningful December football.

Sunday night's matchup against the Commanders has potentially significant playoff implications. Due to the teams' tie two weeks ago, the winner of this game will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the other. This is especially meaningful given the fact that both teams enter this weekend with identical 7-5-1 records and in the thick of the Wild Card race, along with the Seattle Seahawks (7-6) and Detroit Lions (6-7).

"I think every game you have to be urgent," coach Brian Daboll said. "You have to be urgent in Week 1 against Tennessee just like you have to be urgent here. It's a division game, so that's always important. We haven't done very well in the division, obviously. So again, our urgency and our preparation really never changes based on who we play or when we play them. I think you have to have that all the time."

Here are five players to watch on Sunday Night Football:

QB Daniel Jones

Going up against the Philadelphia Eagles' talented defense, Daniel Jones completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 169 yards with one touchdown. It marked the third consecutive game in which Jones threw a touchdown pass without an interception after he threw two picks against the Lions in Week 11. Over that same three-week stretch, Jones has rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on 19 rushes (5.8 avg.).

Jones had perhaps his most efficient outing of the season against the Commanders. The fourth-year quarterback completed 25 of 31 passes (80.7 percent) for 200 yards and a touchdown (104.3 passer rating). He also registered a career-high 12 rush attempts, which went for 71 yards (5.9 avg.). This will mark Jones' fourth game at FedExField, where he has put up some solid performances over the years. He has 813 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions there, with a 67.6 completion percentage to go with 111 yards and an additional score on the ground.

"I think it's big for all of us," Jones told the media. "It's not about me, it's not about any one guy, it's about the team, it's about an opportunity we all have to play in the playoffs. The only way we're going to do that is taking care of business one week at a time. That's where we're focused, that's where I'm focused, and we're excited for the opportunity."

The Commanders had the week off and enters this matchup with the league's No. 8 passing defense, although their 20 touchdowns allowed through the air is tied for 22nd in the league.

"I think everyone realizes the opportunity and how big of a game this is, Sunday Night Football," said the young signal-caller. "Nobody is going to have an issue getting amped up for it. You can't skip any steps this week. It's one day at a time in the preparation and making sure we're where we need to be by Sunday night."

View photos from practice as the Giants prepare for their Week 15 matchup against the Washington Commanders.

RB Saquon Barkley

After a stellar start to the 2022 campaign, Saquon Barkley has slowed down a bit over the past month. Since gashing the Houston Texans for 152 yards on a career-high 35 rush attempts, Barkley has gained a combined 152 yards (2.9 avg.). Although he has caught 13 passes over that same span, he hasn't topped 20 receiving yards. In fact, he's had more than 20 yards through the air just once since the Packers game in London (4-25 vs. Jacksonville in Week 7).

Barkley still ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,083 rushing yards. This weekend he will have an opportunity to build off his last performance against the Commanders, a game in which he totaled 81 yards on 23 touches (18 rushes, five receptions) and found the end zone. In six career games against Washington, Barkley is averaging 91.2 rushing yards along with 39.8 receiving yards per game, including 6.0 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per reception.

"I would say we're going to do whatever we need to do, whether that's play him 60 plays, whether it's to have other packages," Daboll said about the running back. "It's Wednesday here; we'll see how he does here in practice today and tomorrow. And we'll do what we think is best."

The Commanders have a top 10 run defense this season as they've allowed an average of 110.4 rushing yards per game and just seven rushing touchdowns. However, their 4.4 yards per carry allowed ranks 15th.

OLB Azeez Ojulari

The Giants' pass rush has undoubtedly received a jolt of energy with the return of Azeez Ojulari. The second-year outside linebacker missed around two months due to a calf injury, but was able to return to the field for the first matchup against the Commanders. In the two games since, the Giants have racked up a total of nine sacks from seven different players, with the unit generating consistent pressure in the face of both Taylor Heinicke and Jalen Hurts.

Ojulari picked up a sack, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble against the Commanders and followed with two sacks against the Eagles last weekend. He has registered four sacks on the season, despite playing in less than four full games. Over the past two games, Ojulari has also picked up 10 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

"I'd definitely say being back on the field together with Azeez has been big," said Kayvon Thibodeaux. "He's a great ball player and just being able to put those things together has been everything. Now going into this next game, being able to really sharpen our tools and go make plays."

View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and the Washington Commanders.

OLB Kayvon Thibodeaux

Speaking of Thibodeaux, the Giants selected him with the fifth overall pick in this year's draft to pair him alongside Ojulari in hopes of creating a fearsome pass rushing duo. Injuries kept the pair from taking the field together for most of the season. But over the last two weeks, we have finally gotten to see what the defense can look like with the two talented edge rushers healthy.

Since Ojulari returned, the two young pass rushers have combined for four sacks, six quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 18 pressures. Thibodeaux has 17 pressures over the last three weeks, which has brought his season total up to 36 in 11 games. He ranks third among rookies, behind only Detroit's Aidan Hutchinson (39) and Kansas City's George Karlaftis (37), who have each played 13 games.

The Commanders come into Sunday Night Football having allowed 37 sacks, which is tied with the Arizona Cardinals for 25th in the NFL. Heinicke has been sacked at least three times in three of Washington's past five games.

"We're not even getting in over our heads about this game," the rookie outside linebacker said. "We realize what helped us win those first seven games is what's going to help us continue to win. We've just got to get back to that, get back to playing, and showing our swagger and showing our personality. I think it's going to be fun."

LB Jaylon Smith

As we saw the last time these two teams met, the Commanders offense revolves around their run game. Washington ran the ball a whopping 36 times for 165 yards in Week 13, which marked their fourth consecutive game with at least 150 yards on the ground. The Commanders rank seventh in the league with 401 total rushing attempts, although their seven rushing touchdowns are tied for the fourth-fewest.

Jaylon Smith finished with five tackles (two solo) in the first game against the Commanders. He has registered at least five tackles in each of the last six outings, and had 19 tackles (14 solo) in the two recent games against the Eagles and Cowboys. The veteran linebacker has been on the field for at least 74 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the past four games after reaching that mark just once in his first six games this season.

Smith will play a large role in the defense's effort to slow down the running back duo of Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson. The 27-year-old linebacker will have to keep an eye on Gibson in the passing game, as well, as the young back ranks third on the team with 42 receptions for 326 yards and two touchdowns this year.

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