EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – To help illustrate his points and accentuate the challenges his unit confronts, Wink Martindale likes to compare current NFL players to all-time greats at their position.
Before the season opener last week, the Giants' defensive coordinator likened Tennessee running back Derrick Henry to Jim Brown, arguably the best player in history at carrying the football.
The Giants held Henry to 82 rushing yards in their 21-20 victory, but Martindale said today, "I knew exactly what I was doing (comparing him to Brown)."
On Sunday, the Giants will begin the home portion of their schedule when they host Carolina in MetLife Stadium. In Martindale's estimation, the Panthers' offense has two players with similarities to Hall of Fame players, running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Baker Mayfield.
"This guy (McCaffrey) is Barry Sanders (who rushed for 15,269 yards and was inducted into the Hall in 2004)," said Martindale. "I mean, it's unbelievable; and I know I'm going all old school, but I'm old. So, that's where I'm at with it. This guy's unbelievable."
Mayfield was traded to Carolina from Cleveland on July 12. His four seasons with the Browns coincided with Martindale's tenure in the AFC North as the Baltimore Ravens' coordinator. They faced each other eight times, with Baltimore winning five of the games.
Martindale was asked if that familiarity is helping him prepare this week.
"I know him, and he knows me," Martindale said. "So, it helps him, too. He's one of those guys. And I've done this comparison before with him, and I said before when he first came out and playing against him, he's a gunslinger. Who did they always call gunslinger? Brett Favre. Right? And what did Brett Favre do? He left Atlanta, went to Green Bay, and he took off. Might be the same thing here for Baker."
Mayfield threw 303 passes against Martindale's defense, completing 177 (58.4%) for 2,221 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was sacked 10 times. But Mayfield absorbed four of the picks and five of the sacks in his rookie season.
Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard was Mayfield's teammate at Oklahoma in 2015.
"He's one of the biggest competitors that I know other than Saquon (Barkley)," Shepard said. "Definitely a guy that you've always got to continue to fight and try to get down. He's not one of those guys that's going to go down easily, he's not going to give up, he's definitely keeps his group up and the morale up of those guys. I mean, he's smart, so defense definitely has their challenges, but I'm sure Wink is getting those guys right and getting them prepared for his play style."
Mayfield was at his swashbuckling best last week against his former team. In the first three quarters, he completed 11 of 21 passes for 104 yards, one interception and a passer rating of 46.5 as the Panthers fell behind the Browns, 20-7. But in the final period, he hit five of his six throws for 131 yards, one touchdown and a perfect rating of 158.3. Mayfield led a rally that saw Carolina take a 24-23 lead, but the Panthers lost on a 58-yard field goal by Cade York with eight seconds left.
"He's definitely a guy that if you let get heated up, he can make plays, be effective and he can do all the things that you want in a quarterback," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said of Mayfield. "At the same time, if we get on him early and often, we can get him frustrated and make him make mistakes. He's known for getting a lot of balls batted down, so we put a lot of emphasis on the D-line and guys rushing the quarterback to get their hands up, knock some balls down.
"Also, he drops back pretty deep for an NFL quarterback. You're just used to quarterbacks in the NFL stepping up more when they feel that pressure whereas a quarterback like Baker Mayfield, he wants to make a play, so sometimes he will drop back even deeper and scramble out the back. As a defensive line, sometimes we don't mind that because it kind of gives us another bite at the apple as long as we keep hustling."
While quarterbacks Mayfield and Daniel Jones will certainly put their imprint on the game, for the second week in a row the Giants will both line up with and face one of the NFL's very best running backs.
Last week, Barkley had twice as many rushing yards (164-82) as Henry and led all NFL players with 194 yards from scrimmage. On Sunday, the comparisons will be between Barkley and McCaffrey. Among players on current rosters, McCaffrey is second in scrimmage yards-per-game (112.9) and Barkley is fifth (102.5). Barkley led the NFL with 2,028 scrimmage yards as a rookie in 2018. McCaffrey topped the league the following season with 2,392.
He totaled only 57 yards against the Browns (33 rushing, 24 receiving), but coach Brian Daboll said the Giants' challenge vs. McCaffrey is similar to what they faced last week against Henry.
"Two very, very good players in that position," Daboll said. "McCaffrey is dynamic with the ball in his hand as well, maybe a little bit different. Obviously, doesn't have the size, but he's a hard player to cover. He's very, very good in space. He can take it the distance anytime he touches the ball. They can line him up at one, two, three, in the backfield. He can break tackles. But he's very athletic. He's a unique player in the fact he can do a lot of things playing that running back position, but he can also do them on the perimeter if they choose to use him."
McCaffrey has averaged 6.1 receptions in his 59 career games and had four catches last week. Henry has only 94 receptions in 87 career games. Against the Giants, he was targeted just once and did not have a catch. But fellow back Dontrell Hilliard caught three passes for 61 yards, including a 31-yarder and 23- and seven-yard touchdowns.
The Giants' D this week must deal with a more accomplished pass-catcher in McCaffrey.
"It's a huge challenge," Martindale said. "And we got to continue to work on it. There's some different looks that they gave us, and the kid that they brought up, they just took off the practice squad. We know who Christian McCaffrey is."
They hope to prevent him from becoming more famous on Sunday.
View photos from practice as the New York Giants gear up for the home opener against the Carolina Panthers.