Preseason Game Preview: Pittsburgh at New York Giants

After nearly two weeks of hitting each other, the New York Giants are finally going to square off against guys in different jerseys when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to MetLife Stadium Friday night.

Head coach Ben McAdoo will say that the objective is to win the game, but don’t expect the Giants to game plan much for any of their preseason games, which is what you really need to do if you want to win.

Right now, the Giants need to “win” in some other key areas, namely answering some of the personnel questions which are outlined below.

Above all, they need to come out of this game healthy. The Steelers are good, tough and physical opponent for a Giants team that has been chippy in practice.

If McAdoo wants to see “tough, smart, disciplined and committed to poise” football from this team, then the Steelers are a good test.

Lineup Notes 

McAdoo said Wednesday that he’ll follow a similar plan for the preseason opener as he did last year.

For those who don’t remember what that plan was, McAdoo sat quarterback Eli Manning and receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and only played the offensive starters for two series, while letting the defensive starters go a little longer.

This year, expect that to flip. Yes, Manning and Beckham will probably take a seat, but the starting defense, which last year had a lot of new faces and which was trying to learn to work together, will probably be on the field for a couple of series at the most before taking a seat for the rest of the game.

The offense, which has several new parts and an offensive line that really needs to quell people’s fears about the inconsistency it showed last year, could see a few extra snaps.

Injury Report 

The following injured players are not expected to participate Friday due to injury.

  • RB Shaun Draughn (ankle/PUP)
  • LB Mark Herzlich (stinger)
  • WR Tavarres King (ankle)
  • S Ryan Murphy (lower body)
  • LB Keenan Robinson (concussion)
  • WR Sterling Shepard (ankle)
  • WR Kevin Snead (lower body)
  • LB J.T. Thomas (knee/PUP)
  • DT Robert Thomas (“sore”)

What to Watch on Offense 

Last year around this time, all eyes were on the defense and the new pieces added to help salvage a unit that the year before finished dead last, but which miraculously morphed into a top-10 unit.

This year, the hope is that the offense will follow suit. For this week at least, they’ll probably have to do with without their starting quarterback, their star receiver, and their starting slot receiver, but there are plenty of other reasons why you shouldn’t change the channel when the Giants are on offense.

We’ll start with the running game. The backfield was renovated in the offseason, with McAdoo taking the rare step of declaring Paul Perkins the team’s starter without even holding a competition for the job. If McAdoo’s intention was to instill confidence in Perkins, it’s worked, because he’s running with more power, more decisiveness and more authority.

Behind Perkins will be Shane Vereen, coming off that season-ending triceps injury and an early camp lower body ailment; Orleans Darkwa and rookie Wayne Gallman. The Giants missed Vereen’s presence on third down, while Gallman has shown, at least early on, that he can be that big bruising back that the team really hasn’t had since Brandon Jacobs.

Speaking of the running game, McAdoo and his staff must decide whether to keep a pure fullback—Jacob Huesman is a guy to watch here, as he’s started to flash as a blocker—or if they’re going to be content with having the tight ends, or more specifically Rhett Ellison, handle the lead blocking duties. (Spoiler alert: we think it will be the latter.)

We certainly can’t talk about the running game without mentioning the offense line, which last year was a large part of the running game’s problem.

The Giants are returning the same five starters, and while we shouldn’t expect to see all five work together for more than just a handful of snaps, we sure hope to see the two offensive tackles, Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, put their offseason hard work to good use. We’d also like to see D.J. Fluker, a man mountain, do his thing in the run-blocking game.

The Steelers, remember, run a 3-4 base defense. The Giants offensive line has done most of its work against a 4-3, so they’ll need to be on their toes Friday night against that aggressive Pittsburgh front.

While on the topic of the offensive line, keep an eye on the backup depth at offensive tackle. Chad Wheeler, who got off to a slow start in camp, has really come on of late, even earning snaps with the first team offensive line at left tackle Wednesday, is someone to watch as is sixth-round draft pick

 

Adam Bisnowaty at right tackle. Bisnowaty is an eager young lineman but he’s been a bit up and down thus far in camp with his pad level.

Moving to the passing game, all eyes will certainly be on rookie Evan Engram and the many ways McAdoo plans to use him. Meanwhile veteran Brandon Marshall will probably get a few snaps but don’t’ expect him to play for more than a series or two at the most.

That brings us to one of the main events of the evening: the backup quarterback battle. Last year, the coaching staff gave the lion’s share of the quarterback reps to Ryan Nassib, the clear backup to Eli Manning. It’s not exactly known how McAdoo plans to distribute the snaps this year, but a safe guess would be to have Geno Smith and Josh Johnson take turns carrying the bulk of the snaps each week.

For this week, my guess is Johnson will draw first blood, followed by Smith. And rookie Davis Webb will probably get a series or two late in the game.

What to Watch on Defense 

Although the Giants defense returns mostly intact from a year ago, there are still a bunch of questions that need to be answered.

The most glaring one is the identity at defensive tackle. Johnathan Hankins is in Indianapolis, leaving Jay Bromley (who is expected to start) and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson as the two main contenders for the position. Bromley has had a solid camp so far, but Tomlinson has really come on string in the last several days. the winner at this spot will probably be whoever can push the pocket with the most success.

Staying on the starter trail for a moment, the Giants will have their eighth new inside linebacker in as many seasons. Second-year man B.J. Goodson, whose job it is to lose, has been a physical presence and an enforcer in the middle, something this team really hasn’t had since, you could say, Jon Beason.

Can Goodson handle calling the plays and getting people lined up? And will he be exposed in coverage, thus confirming what some believe, which is he’s a two-down linebacker. We’ll find out, just as we’ll also find out if the Giants have any guys who can provide depth behind the starters. Calvin Munson, who’s been getting a lot of work on the first-team special teams, could be a guy to watch here, as can safety/linebacker Eric Pinkins, another enforcer on specials.

From a depth perspective, the identity of the third defensive end is going to be key. The 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl teams each had a solid three-headed prong at defensive end, something that this team didn’t really have last year. That lack of a third defensive end hurt them down the stretch when starter Jason Pierre-Paul went down with what turned out to be a season-ending injury.

Romeo Okwara is currently the incumbent, but rookie Avery Moss has been starting to come on in recent days. Kerry Wynn and Owa Odighizuwa are both fighting to hold on to a roster spot, while newcomer Devin Taylor, who dealt with an early camp injury, might be someone who sneaks up on everyone and grabs that spot.

Lastly, how is the bottom of the cornerback depth chart going to shape up? Right now, Michael Hunter and Donte Deayon are trying to close in on those last two projected spots, but journeyman Valentino Blake has his eye on a roster spot.

What to Watch on Special Teams 

The only battle really dominating the headlines these days is at kicker, where veteran Mike Nugent, added last week, will try to get a leg up against the relatively untested Aldrick Rosas.

Although McAdoo hasn’t said what the plan is for the kickers, a safe bet might see one guy handling kickoffs exclusively and the other handling the scoring, with each man rotating for each upcoming game. For example, Rosas might handle all the scoring and Nugent the kickoffs this week, and then they’ll flip roles the following week against Cleveland.

Of course, the fly in the ointment would be if there are no scoring opportunities to be had, but that’s a bridge they’ll cross when they get to it. In the meantime, there won’t be a guaranteed number of tries for any kicker any given week. So therein lies your pressure scenario as every place kick made  better end up counting for something good.

A secondary battle to keep an eye on is at punt returner. Rookie Travis Rudolph, who will likely see a lot of time in the slot on offense, has been returning punts in camp. Can he upend veteran Dwayne Harris for the job? We’ll find out starting Friday.

The Final Word

It doesn’t matter who wins this week, or next week or the next two weeks thereafter. What matters the most is that the coaches get a good look at the new pieces of the puzzle and the potential depth, and come to a conclusion about which of the plays  they’ve run in practice have a chance at finding their way in the regular-season rotation and which need to be dropped.

When watching the game, some of the broader picture things to watch for include such questions as: Do the Giants start out fast on both sides of the ball? Are they making a lot of mistakes? Are they playing back on their heels?

The game isn’t going to be perfect, but it’s not meant to be. So long as some pieces start to fall into place and the serious injuries don’t factor into the outcome, that’s all you can really hope for this time of year.