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How the Steelers defense will impose their will on the Giants’ offense

The Giants have a lot of unknowns heading into 2020, but one known is the force they will be going up against in Week 1 as the Steelers’ defense comes to MetLife Stadium.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to game week!

Ah, that felt good. After months of reflection and anticipation, we can finally look forward to an actual opponent. I couldn’t be happier if Jack Lambert showed up at my door, autographed my bald head and then shoved Cliff Harris into the bushes on his way out.

Today, we are previewing Monday night’s opponent, the New York Giants. Specifically, our focus is on the Giants offense. Where do they excel? Where do they struggle? How might they attack the Steelers? And how might the Steelers defend them in response? Let’s dive right in.

To begin, here’s a quick review of New York’s 2019 season on offense. The Giants (4-12) finished in the middle of the pack in points per game (19.3) but were 27th in offensive DVOA and 30th in turnovers. Their overall turnover margin was dead last at -17. They had a talented young running back in Saquon Barkley but little else. Their line was bad, their receivers mediocre and the quarterback position in flux, with rookie Daniel Jones replacing two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning in late September.

Jones started twelve games and put up decent numbers — 3,027 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions — but his best moments came against some of the weakest pass defenses in the league. Versus the New York Jets, Washington and Detroit, he threw a combined 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Those defenses finished 18th, 24th and 29th in pass DVOA, respectively. Against New England (1st), Minnesota (7th) and Green Bay (9th), he had three touchdowns against seven interceptions and completed just 53% of his throws.

The Giants asked Jones to do a lot as a rookie. He threw the ball 35 times or more in ten of his twelve starts. This was partly a factor of New York trailing in many of those games and having to throw to catch-up. But Jones took a lot of hits (he was sacked 38 times, including eight in a loss to Arizona) and it’s likely the coaching staff will look for ways to better protect him in 2020.

Speaking of, the staff is new. Pat Shurmur is out after going 9-23 in two seasons. He has been replaced by Joe Judge, who spent the last eight years as the wide receivers coach for the New England Patriots. Judge has brought in former Dallas Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett as his play-caller. Together, the two will look to reduce turnovers, run the ball with the dynamic Barkley and find ways to better protect Jones.

Here, then, are three intriguing elements to look for when the Steelers defense takes the field against New York’s offense.

Defending 11 Personnel: Base 3-4 or 2-4-5?

Any defensive game-plan for New York must focus on Barkley, who is their best player on either side of the ball. Last season, the Giants ran 74% of their offensive plays from 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers). That was the 2nd highest percentage of 11 personnel plays in the league. They were solid running from this grouping, with a 53% successful run rate and an average of 6.1 yards per carry. When they got into bigger personnel groups, however, their run success plummeted. From 12 and 21 personnel, they averaged 2.8 and 3.7 yards per carry, respectively. Clearly, Barkley benefited from 11 personnel sets that spread a defense out and gave him room to find a seam.

Barkley’s vision makes him an ideal single-back zone runner. In the GIF below, Barkley attacks the weak side of a 3x1 set, jump-cuts away from a penetrating defender then immediately redirects and gets vertical. There is no indecision or wasted movement:

Once Barkley is up to the second or third level, he’s a load to bring down. He’s 235 pounds, runs with a low pad level, cuts sharply and has legs like a lineman (Barkley squatted over 600 pounds while in college at Penn State).

Barkley is a good receiver, too. He’s caught 143 passes in his two seasons in the league. He runs crisp routes (look at his sharp break across the face of a Detroit linebacker in the GIF below) and is a threat to make an explosive play any time he catches the ball with room to run:

Given the fact Jason Garrett is also big on 11 personnel (the Cowboys ran 67% of their plays from 11 the past two seasons), it’s likely the Steelers will see a heavy dose of it Monday night.

One way they will defend New York’s 11 grouping is with their 2-4-5 package. This would shine a spotlight on the role previously occupied by Mark Barron. Barron often replaced Vince Williams at linebacker in the 2-4-5 last season. Will Williams stay on the field, pushing Devin Bush into Barron’s role? Or will Ulysees Gilbert III assume Barron’s duties, as has been speculated throughout the summer? Safety-turned-linebacker Marcus Allen is a candidate for reps here as well.

An alternative to this strategy would be for the Steelers to play some base 3-4 against 11 personnel and attempt to force New York to throw. Jones was a decent passer from this grouping last season (his 90.6 passer efficiency rating placed him in the mid-tier of qualifying quarterbacks) but 38 of the Giants 43 sacks came from this grouping as well. New York could align Barkley in the slot against the Steelers’ base 3-4 to match him on a linebacker or safety. But that would leave a tight end to block Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt or force Jones to throw from five-man protection. Neither option seems attractive for the Giants.

This is one of the more intriguing match-ups of the contest. Will the Steelers play 2-4-5 against New York’s 11 personnel, betting they can stop the run with two down linemen? Or will they prioritize the run by playing 3-4, look for ways to pressure Jones and hope their linebackers hold up in coverage?

To blitz or not to blitz?

Jones is a young quarterback playing his first game with a new coordinator and a new head coach. Accordingly, the Steelers may be tempted to blitz the daylights out of him. The lack of pre-season games could be beneficial in this regard, as defensive coordinator Keith Butler has had all summer to devise blitzes the Steelers have never put on tape that might confuse the young signal-caller.

That thinking makes sense. Jones was not terrible against the blitz last season (65-115, 666 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT, 5.8 yards per attempt). He did, however, take a sack once every 9.8 attempts versus the blitz as opposed to one every 14.7 attempts without one. As you can see below, he was prone to freezing up and holding the ball too long, indicating he was taking his eyes from downfield to look at the rush. The Steelers may feel they can lock down New York’s receivers man-to-man and rattle Jones by bringing heat.

Then again, in Dallas last season, Dak Prescott was sacked just six times on 155 drop-backs against the blitz, or once every 25.8 attempts. Prescott is a veteran and further along in his progression than Jones. He is also more mobile and plays behind a better offensive line. It’s hard to compare the two. Still, it’s worth asking how much Jason Garrett’s scheme figures into those numbers. It’s quite possible that Garrett is superior to Shurmer in preparing for the blitz and that Jones will benefit from his tutelage.

The Steelers, for their part, blitzed on 38.4% of their snaps last season, which was the sixth-highest percentage in the league. They were actually more effective against the pass when they didn’t blitz. When sending five or more pass rushers, they averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt. When sending four or less, that average fell to 5.0, which was tops in the league.

It’s no mystery as to why the numbers were better without blitzing. Adding better secondary players (Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick) and Bud Dupree’s emergence as a pass rusher let the Steelers pressure the quarterback and reduce the seams in coverage while rushing just four. The Steelers love to blitz, no doubt. The question is, how often should they? Pittsburgh’s blitz frequency will be one of the schematic story-lines to look for Monday night.

How will Judge’s experience in New England impact New York’s game plan?

Finally, Judge’s experience in New England, where the Patriots had great success against the Steelers, may factor in as well.

New England and Pittsburgh met seven times during Judge’s tenure with the Patriots, with the Steelers going 1-6 in those outings. Tom Brady routinely carved up the Pittsburgh defense. His numbers in those contests were ridiculous: 170-240 (70.8%), 2,244 yards, 17 TD, 2 INT. Thankfully, Judge will not have Brady at his disposal Monday night. Still, he is likely to include some things he learned in New England about attacking the Pittsburgh defense into the game-plan.

One thing to look for from the Giants offense will be an early gadget play. Bill Parcells, under whom Bill Belichick was groomed, believed that teams needed to run gadget plays early in games because once one team did it, the other would be on high alert the rest of the way. When it came to gadgets, Parcells believed you had to beat your opponent to the punch.

The Patriots did just that in last year’s season-opener at Foxboro, executing this play on their second drive when the game was still scoreless. Brady lateraled the ball to Julian Edelman in the right flat. Edelman then threw it across the field to running back James White, who had slipped out of the backfield unnoticed. White had a wall of blockers in front of him and turned it into a 32 yard gain. New England scored on the following play, seized the momentum and rolled to a 33-3 victory.

(Side note: watch the GIF again and focus on the Steelers safeties. It looks like the Keystone cops back there. Thank God for Minkah. That’s all I’ll say).

One play won’t decide the contest between the Steelers and the Giants on Monday night. But an early gadget (or, if not a gadget, an attempt at a big play) could put the Steelers on their heels and give an underdog New York team the confidence it needs to get rolling.

There is no question the match-up between the New York offense and the Pittsburgh defense favors the Steelers. Nothing is a given, though, and what happened in 2019 won’t have much relevance Monday night. To be successful, the Steelers must do all of the fundamental things well — get into their run fits, fill their gaps, tackle, communicate in the secondary, play fast and execute. From a game-plan perspective, they need to have an answer for Saquon Barkley, particularly out of New York’s 11 personnel grouping; they must decide how often to blitz Daniel Jones; and they must not give the Giants momentum by yielding a big play early on. If they can do these things effectively, it should be a great start to the season for the Steelers.