from Jon Wagner
Saturday night’s preseason opener between the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers was the type of typically lackluster August contest that only coaches might find exciting.
While the Giants expectedly displayed some issues they’ll need to improve upon during their 18-13 road victory, those problems were overshadowed by several things which had to please New York’s coaching staff.
The Giants’ big play potential in the passing game looked like it was in midseason form, as wide receiver Victor Cruz caught a pass from quarterback Eli Manning over the middle, and quickly turned what would often be a routine first down reception by many other NFL receivers, into a 57-yard touchdown that gave New York a 10-3 lead with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
After overthrowing second-year wide receiver Reuben Randle up the left side, Manning went right back to Randle for a nice 16-yard, first down completion to the Giants’ 37-yard line, two plays later, which set up Cruz’s score only three plays after that. Randle’s catch continued the impressive play he showed during training camp.
Just three penalties (for 20 yards) were committed by the Giants. Of course, even one penalty can lose a game, depending on what it’s for and when it happens. But coaches are generally thrilled with that number, even in the Super Bowl. So, for New York to be whistled for just three flags in a first preseason game, probably had Mr. Attention to Detail Himself, head coach Tom Coughlin, wanting to do postgame cartwheels.
Rookie defensive end Damontre Moore appeared ready to make general manager Jerry Reese look good for grabbing him as a third-round pick. The game’s opening possession ended with Moore blocking a punt deep in the Steelers’ end. The play led directly to a field goal and a 3-0 Giants lead, but more (or should we say Moore?) importantly, Moore was extremely active with four tackles (three solo), a quarterback hit, and several other times he just barely missed making a big play.
Even with starting defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul sitting the game out with injuries, the Giants were able to apply good pressure on Pittsburgh quarterbacks, while recording five sacks and seven quarterback hits. Defensive end Adewale Ojomo led the way in each of those categories, with 1.5 sacks and a pair of quarterback hits. Notably, cornerback Charles James had a sack, as did veteran defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, whom New York brought in this year after he spent seven years in Green Bay and two more in Philadelphia. Jenkins’ sack was tone-setting, as it came on 3rd-and-16, two plays after he was slightly hurt, and one down before Moore’s punt block.
Safety Tyler Sash had four tackles (all solo) and a pass deflection, but it was his ability to be in the right place at the right time that made the Steelers pay on a couple of their own unforced errors. Sash pounced on backup quarterback Landry Jones on Pittsburgh’s first play of the third quarter, to give New York a safety and 15-6 lead. Later in the period, Sash was there again to catch a muffed punt out of the air to secure the ball on the Steelers’ only turnover of the game.
With offensive linemen Chris Snee, James Brewer, and rookie Justin Pugh already sitting out, second-year guard Brandon Mosley more than held his own against the Steelers’ first-team defensive front. The Giants might be able to use that sort of depth along their offensive line if Mosley can provide it going forward.
It’s no secret that the linebacker spots are a glaring Giant weakness. But with five tackles (four solo), all of which came during a seven-play span on Pittsburgh’s second drive, Spencer Paysinger made a strong case to take the lead in the race to land a starting job. Meanwhile, Dan Connor, whom New York picked up in the offseason from Dallas, had three tackles (two solo) and opened some eyes with some energized play.
Another offseason signee whom the Giants are counting on is tight end Brandon Myers, who caught 79 passes with Oakland last year, after totaling just 32 receptions in his first three years in the league. A nice 20-yard catch by Myers, from backup quarterback David Carr, early in the second quarter, was a decent sign that Manning might be able to rely on more than Bear Pascoe or Adrien Robinson as an extra receiver at the tight end spot.
Safety Ryan Mundy went from playing for the Steelers over his first four seasons, to trying to stop them for the Giants. He did so by leading New York with five solo tackles.
Punter Steve Weatherford looked ready for the regular season to begin, as he booted six punts for a 49.5-yard average, the longest of which was 58 yards.
Leading 10-6, New York extended its lead to 13-6 as the first half expired, largely because Carr was able to start a 62-yard, two-minute drill with completions of four yards to tight end Adrien Robinson, 15 yards to wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan, and 12 yards to wide receiver Louis Murphy (who also recovered Moore’s blocked punt). Having some lower depth receivers each making plays with the half winding down, showed some good poise and playmaking ability in a clutch situation, should such receivers ever need to be called upon in such situations.
Rookie running back Michael Cox, hailing from Cruz’s UMass, had a decent 33 yards on nine rushes, including runs of 11 and 12 yards.
Even Coughlin had something to be happy about with himself, as he won his only challenge. Even though he had the advantage of seeing the play right in front of him on the Giants’ sideline, Coughlin successfully reversed what appeared at first, to be a nice diving catch by Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who ultimately lost the ball as he rolled over, out of bounds.
The list of issues was a short one for New York, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some fairly alarming things to review on tape. One of those was the Giants’ running game. While passing will their strength, they’ll need to run at least adequately, and as of now, that potential ability remains in doubt. The offensive line had trouble opening holes, and New York averaged just 2.5 yards per carry 84 total yards on 33 rushes). Second-year, first-round pick David Wilson managed seven yards on his first four carries before he finally rushed for nine yards on his final attempt.
On the opposite side, the Giants also had trouble stopping the run, particularly with the starters who were playing for them. Pittsburgh running back LaRod Stephens-Howling carried seven times for 40 yards, 17 of which came on the Steelers’ second drive, which ended with a field goal that tied the game, 3-3.
New York was able to avoid any major wounds to a starter, but the Giants did lose two players to some bad injuries. Wide receiver Kris Adams suffered a non-contact, fractured left leg as he ran a route over the middle on the second play of the third quarter, and higher up on the depth chart (and thus, potentially more costly to New York) left offensive tackle Chris DeGeare was likewise carted off of the field later in the quarter, with a torn MCL.
Center Matt McCants snapped a ball high over the head of quarterback Ryan Nassib head, and into the end zone, for the Steelers’ only touchdown, which got Pittsburgh to within 15-13 early in the fourth quarter. After that, McCants was quickly replaced at center by Jim Cordle.
Although Manning’s last two passes were the completions to Cruz and Randle, he misfired on his first three attempts.
Overall, the Giants’ defense was good up the middle, but poor on the edges.
Wilson, at times, was effective on blitz pickups, and ineffective at others.
On a limited number (four) of attempts, running back Andre Brown totaled 23 yards, for a 5.8-yard average, and on the third play of the second quarter, turned what looked like nothing into a 6-yard gain. But he also coughed the ball up without any contact at all, after which he came to the sideline and got an earful from Coughlin.
Running back Da’Rel Scott has a nice 20-yard catch out of backfield for a first down late in third quarter, and caught another pass for nine more yards, but he rushed for a paltry 12 yards on a game-high nine carries.
Nassib had a disastrous introduction for the rookie fourth-round pick, who was sacked, had a delay of game penalty, and the bad-snap touchdown on his first NFL series. His second series ended with a three-and-out and another sack. However, he later completed a 29-yard pass to wide receiver Julian Talley.
New York wanted to re-sign kicker Lawrence Tynes, but he wanted to test the free agent market and the Giants couldn’t wait. Thus, enter veteran kicker Josh Brown, this offseason. On one hand, Brown went 3-for-4, made a couple of short field goals, and nailed a 47-yard field goal that pushed New York’s lead from two to five points, with 4:32 remaining. Yet, he also missed a 38-yarder in the third quarter that could have given the Giants an 18-6 advantage.
The Giants will try their luck at stopping emerging star quarterback Andrew Luck, when they host the Indianapolis Colts, at MetLife Stadium, on Sunday, August 18, at 7 p.m.