The Giants Pose a Big Problem for the Packer Defense
It was nice to see the Packers finally put up some points, and Mike McCarthy and company did seem to learn from previous mistakes and show some creativity in play calling. Aaron Rodgers didn’t look exactly like his old self, but he looked better. Jordy Nelson continues to work his way back to form, and a reduced role for Davante Adams paid off. Even Eddie Lacy got rolling, and actually has a respectable 5 yards per carry on the season. The offensive awakening was especially timely given the almost total collapse of the secondary without Sam Shields, who is still recovering from a concussion.
Going into this season I thought the secondary was Green Bay’s strongest unit, with Damarious Randall a potential star in the making, Quinten Rollins at least average with solid upside, and Ladarius Gunter perfectly fine as a fourth corner. With two potential All-Pro safeties, this unit should have been able to withstand injuries better than any other. Instead, without Shields, Randall has been completely ineffective, having been torched by two good, though certainly not great receivers in Stefon Diggs and Marvin Jones. These struggles have cascaded through the entire secondary as, by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the Packers are the second worst team in the league at covering both primary AND secondary outside receivers.
This is almost unbelievable as the Packer pass rush has been fierce, and getting to a quarterback almost always makes the secondary look better than it otherwise would, but that has not been the case here. The team will, mercifully, have Morgan Burnett back after he missed the Detroit game with a groin injury, and that should help, but the corners are still likely to struggle without Shields, and face their toughest test of the season in the petulant Odell Beckham, the excellent rookie Sterling Shepard, and Victor Cruz, who is enjoying a nice bounce-back campaign.
When is it bad to shut down the run?
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this entire season is the dominance of the Packer run defense. Whether you use conventional metrics (the Packers are holding their opponents to 1.8 yards per attempt), advanced (they are 2nd in DVOA against the run), or the good old fashioned “eye test”, they look fantastic. It seems like shutting down the running game should universally be a good thing, but that’s not really the case. In a world where all NFL teams were required to maintain a perfect 50/50 split between running plays and passing plays, it would be a good thing, but that is not the case. Teams are free to attack their opponents’ weaknesses, and having a big split between your rush defense and pass defense can, in certain circumstances, be counterproductive. This is such an instance.
The Giants are not particularly good at running the ball, and their best back, Shane Vereen is out for the year. Rashad Jennings has missed time with a thumb injury and last week Orleans Darkwa, Bobby Rainey, and Paul Perkins carried the load at RB. They combined for 18 rushes while Eli Manning threw the ball 45 times, and while they did trail throughout the game, they never trailed by much, meaning the decision to abandon the run was strategic, not just made out of necessity. On the season the Giants only run the ball on 38% of their offensive plays, while the Packers run a considerably more balanced 43% of the time, and that dip to 28.5% last week is worrisome. The Packers actually have a better run defense than the Vikings this year, but if the result is the Giants simply funneling more plays to their wide receivers, that actively hurts the Packers, it does not help them. Odell Beckham is an immature malcontent, but he is also a transcendent talent with a chip on his shoulder and a favorable matchup. It would not be surprising to see him put up absolutely huge numbers on Sunday. The Giants aren’t a good team, and they are currently very banged up, but they are also a bit of a matchup nightmare for the Packers.
That said, it’s not all bad news for the Packers. The Giants’ defense is banged up, and if this does turn into a shootout the Packers should be able to hold up their end. The Giants are playing a road game on a short week whereas the Packers have had a bye to get healthy and game plan. Those are all huge factors, and the loss to Minnesota suddenly doesn’t sting as much now that the Viking defense has dismantled Carolina and the Giants in successive weeks. The Giant secondary is especially banged up as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eli Apple, Nat Berhe, and Darian Thompson have all recently been injured, and after a strong start to the season they allowed 29 points to Washington, and 24 to the Vikings, who, for all of their defensive prowess, have not put up points this season.
The teams mirror each other to some extent as the Giants are also stout against the run (5th by DVOA, 3rd by yards per attempt) but struggle against the pass (23rd by DVOA). That makes a shootout very likely, and I suspect the team that wins will simply be the team that attempts the most passes. Aaron Rodgers has attempted 34, 36, and 24 passes this season in his first 3 games, for an average of 31 per game. Eli Manning has attempted 28, 41, 38, and 45, an average of 38 per game. Three of four Giant games saw the Giants either win or lose by 3 points or less and two of those were relatively low scoring. Those gaudy passing attempts numbers were not just a result of the Giants trying to catch up, they were conscious decisions from Giant head coach Ben McAdoo and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. My single biggest worry for the Packers is that they attempt to stay balanced while the Giants' pass offense runs wild all over them. Hopefully Mike McCarthy and company surprise me.