The New York Giants are, through three weeks, a terrible football team. Even among your 0-3 football teams, they’re the one that other teams have been pointing at with a look of relief. “At least we’re not the Giants!” they probably exclaim, while additions are being built on Tom Coughlin’s already-massive doghouse. They’re not the Buccaneers, who are two plays away from 2-1. They’re not the Jaguars, who appear to be a performance art piece’s reflection on tanking. They’re not even the Steelers, who showed signs of life before eventually capitulating in last night’s home loss to the Bears. The Giants have, per Advanced NFL Stats, not once been a favorite to win a game this year at any single point during the second half. In total, they’ve been the team more likely to win for 19 minutes and 56 seconds through their first three games, which is less than 11 percent of the running time. The Giants have been ahead proportionally this season for what amounts to the cold open of Breaking Bad and have been likely to lose for the remainder of the episode. They are a brutally flawed, distressingly sloppy football team. And they have 13 more games left. I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but I’m sorry.
So why, exactly, are the Giants so awful? What about them has changed? And what about those changes is likely to stick around for the remainder of the season? As tempted as I am to just write “everything” and move on to more compelling teams, that’s not accurate. So let’s go through the Giants, piece by piece, and figure out where things have gone wrong.
Start with that gruesome turnover margin. Last year, the Giants had a very impressive turnover margin of plus-14, the fourth-best figure in the league. This year? Blech. Through three games, they’re at minus-9, tied with the Steelers for the worst margin in football. Only nine teams in the 16-game era have produced a worse turnover margin through their first three games, and like the Giants, they were terrible, going a combined 3-24 in their first three contests. The good news is that their turnover margin generally didn’t stay that bad, although it didn’t often get significantly better, either. Those nine teams were a combined minus-36 in the turnover battle over the rest of their respective seasons.
And the truth is that the Giants will get a little luckier with turnovers. They lost all five of the fumbles in their Week 1 loss to the Cowboys and have recovered just two of the nine fumbles in their games, a 22 percent recovery rate that would be virtually unprecedented. They’re not “due” to recover a bunch of fumbles, but they should recover about half of the fumbles in their games over the rest of the season.
There are good excuses for a bunch of Eli Manning’s interceptions, too, even if his pick yesterday was a sloppy throw on a Victor Cruz option route. Three of his four interceptions in the Broncos game came in desperate situations at the end of a half or on fourth down while behind multiple scores, and the fourth was on a ball that was accidentally kicked up in the air like a hacky sack. He had a screen pass bounce off Da’Rel Scott’s hands in Week 1 to Brandon Carr for a game-sealing pick-six. Every quarterback will deal with fluky picks like that here and there, but Manning’s have been pretty heavily concentrated in these first three games; they’ll stop rearing their head quite as frequently.
It would also help if the Giants could create some takeaways, but their usual path to doing so — pass pressure — has been closed off for most of the season. Through three games, the Giants have sacked opposing quarterbacks on just 2.5 percent of their drop-backs, which is, I am sad to report, the lowest rate in football. It’s not like they’re getting to the passer and narrowly missing sacks, either. Jason Pierre-Paul’s lone sack is also his lone quarterback knockdown. Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph each have a half-sack and two knockdowns; Mathias Kiwanuka has a sack and two knockdowns, making him the best pass-rusher on the team so far. Nobody past the front four has picked up a sack; the Giants have just three in three games.
Pierre-Paul, for one, is slowed by an injury; he’s playing through it and is less than 100 percent, but the Giants have a number of other players who haven’t been able to make it onto the field. They lost one of their starting safeties, ball hawk Stevie Brown, before the season to a torn ACL. Andre Brown broke his leg in the preseason. Offensive lineman David Diehl is out for the first six weeks of the season after thumb surgery, and while Diehl isn’t great, he’s at least some depth. Corey Webster missed Sunday’s game with a hip injury, and his replacement, Aaron Ross, was targeted successfully on virtually every one of Carolina’s big plays.1
So, what’s the solution for the Giants? For one, let regression take hold. They can’t turn the ball over this frequently every week, even if they’re trying to. Manning’s interception rate will go down, and they’ll recover a higher percentage of those fumbles. They’re going to finish the year averaging more than one sack per game, even if it’s just from a quarterback slipping while he’s busy pointing and laughing at pass-rushers. One place they can genuinely change things up: third down, where they have been terrible. After converting 40.6 percent of their third downs last year, which was 11th in the league, they’re all the way down to 29.4 percent, which is 29th. They need to develop another weapon beyond Cruz on third downs; Hakeem Nicks would seem to be that guy, but he went missing against one of the league’s worst secondaries on Sunday, picking up just one late-game target as his only appearance on the score sheet.
The Giants also need to get better at running the football. Last year, although they cycled through three backs, they were very impressive regardless of who picked up the carries. Ahmad Bradshaw averaged 4.6 yards per carry, while David Wilson was at 5.0 and Brown was up at 5.3. This year, with Bradshaw gone, Brown hurt, and Wilson in the doghouse for most of the first two weeks, Giants halfbacks are averaging 2.4 yards per carry. That’s not a typo. Even worse, that was with fullback Henry Hynoski around; Hynoski fractured his shoulder on Sunday and will likely miss the rest of the season. At this point, I would be happy if the Giants just started bringing back famous players from the Super Bowl–winning teams to fill in. Call up Madison Hedgecock! Start throwing passes to Howard Cross! And hey, the Giants are so thin at linebacker, now would be a great time to bring back Chase Blackburn! Oh, he plays for the Panthers now? Shit.2
The truth, amazingly, is that the Giants aren’t necessarily done. They play in one of the league’s worst divisions, the NFC East, which is filled with flawed teams. They’ve only lost one game in the division so far, so they’re not screwed by tiebreakers at the moment. And there is some — slim — historical precedent for comebacks from 0-3. Four teams in the 16-game era have started 0-3 and made the playoffs,3 most recently the 1998 Bills, but that was a Bills team that lost its first three games by a combined nine points and had a significant tactical move waiting for it on the bench by committing to Doug Flutie over Rob Johnson. The Giants have lost their first three by a combined 61 points, and their backup quarterback is Curtis Pai— [starts crying].
Irsay It Ain’t So
The biggest upset of the week came in San Francisco, where the Colts — 10.5-point underdogs at kickoff time, even after acquiring Trent Richardson midweek for a first-round pick — unexpectedly stomped the 49ers at Candlestick.4 After an uneven start to the season, Indianapolis dramatically outplayed San Francisco on both sides of the ball on Sunday, leading to newfound hope that the Colts can be a Super Bowl contender in 2013 with an improving Andrew Luck under center. It will be a tall order for them to play as well as they did this week, but if they can keep up this level of play, nobody is going to be taking the Colts lightly from here on out.
Despite all the hype heading into the game, Richardson predictably didn’t know much of the playbook and was a relative non-factor; he scored the game’s opening touchdown on a plunge, but ended the game with a mere 35 rushing yards on 13 carries, a 2.7 yards-per-carry figure that was reminiscent of his Cleveland days. Instead, Indianapolis had success running the ball with the guy who lost his job as a result of the Richardson trade. Ahmad Bradshaw carried the ball 19 times for 95 yards, including five carries for 42 yards on the backbreaking fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Colts a 20-7 lead with 4:13 left.
That drive, which went 80 yards in 11 plays while taking just over seven minutes off the clock, saw the Colts pick up just 12 passing yards; they grabbed 14 yards on a pair of penalties that produced first downs, then added a whopping 54 yards on their nine rushing attempts, allowing them to seal what was shaping up to be a narrow victory. Part of that was undoubtedly due to an absent Patrick Willis, who went down with a groin injury just before the end of the third quarter, but this is exactly the sort of drive the Colts want to pride themselves on after appointing Pep Hamilton offensive coordinator and trading for Richardson. We know Luck can throw the ball, but if the Colts can run the ball when the game depends on it, it will add another element to their offense going forward.
Absent 49ers clearly affected the way San Francisco played to a greater extent than any previous regular-season game during the Harbaugh Era.5 Willis’s absence was the team’s notable defensive injury, but the 49ers were more noticeably hampered on the offensive side of the ball by the missing Vernon Davis, out with a hamstring injury. Colin Kaepernick was left with one receiver of any note to throw to, and while Anquan Boldin caught five passes on eight targets for 67 yards, he wasn’t able to break any big plays, and the 49ers had nobody else who could get open. San Francisco’s other receivers caught just eight of the 19 other passes Kaepernick threw on Sunday, producing a mere 83 yards in the process. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham weren’t superstars a year ago, but Michael Crabtree was, and Moss and Manningham were a step up on the likes of Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton. The Colts only sacked Kaepernick three times, but they frequently collapsed the pocket and prevented him from finding a reliable throwing lane for any of his targets. They broke up six of Kaepernick’s 27 throws, including two breakups from free safety Delano Howell, who made his first career start in the stead of the injured LaRon Landry.
The 49ers had more success running the football, but got away from their bread and butter during an ineffective second half. San Francisco’s one impressive drive of the day was paced by great work from Frank Gore, who appeared to get back to his previous ways with an eight-carry, 70-yard first half. The 49ers had 102 yards on 16 carries before the break, but afterward, Gore got just three carries for 12 yards as the Niners finished up with seven second-half carries for 13 yards. It was enough to reportedly produce a shouting match between Gore and Jim Harbaugh after the game.
The more disturbing story after the game involved Aldon Smith, who only suited up under bizarre circumstances. After being arrested midweek under suspicion of DUI after a one-car accident in which Smith was reportedly found asleep at the wheel with his foot stuck on the accelerator as he sat in the car, there were suspicions that Smith might be held out of Sunday’s tilt. Shortly before game time, various reports revealed that Smith had unidentified prescription drugs in his car and that he would enter a rehab program, but only after participating in the game against the Colts. Smith played every defensive snap in the loss, but was relatively invisible and failed to record even one of San Francisco’s seven quarterback hits on Luck. His locker was cleaned out immediately after the game, and owner Jed York said Smith would be taking an “indefinite leave of absence” from the team.
It’s still unclear why the 49ers let Smith suit up despite the incident and his apparent lame-duck status with the team. York alluded to the idea that a one-game suspension would amount to a paid vacation for Smith, which seems bizarre to suddenly care about; the $99,000 in base salary Smith made for playing Sunday is a drop in the bucket for both player and team alike. York suggested it was important for Smith to “face the media [and] his teammates,” but Smith gave a 30-second prepared comment apologizing for his mistake before leaving without taking any questions. More disconcerting is the identity of those prescription pills. If those pills are painkillers, it’s difficult to reconcile the idea that the 49ers would send Smith away to rehab while having him play in a game in which he would likely incur some of the pain that might force somebody to develop a dependence on painkillers. Regardless of what the pills might be, if Smith’s problem is so obvious that he’s willing to enter a rehab program midseason, isn’t it pressing enough that Smith should have gone before the game on Sunday? It’s a very strange situation that seems to raise more questions than answers at the moment; I just hope that Smith gets help for whatever’s ailing him.
As for the Colts, they picked up a very impressive win after two disappointing performances at home to start the campaign. In a narrow win over the Raiders and a close defeat to the Dolphins, the Colts looked to be a limited team, one with a transcendent quarterback capable of making plays seemingly at will and not much else. Sunday was their best performance as a team, from top to bottom, during the Luck Era. They’re right where they’re supposed to be at 2-1, but most expected that to include a loss to the 49ers and a win over the Dolphins; this, if anything, is a more impressive 2-1 start because it shows they can beat an elite team on the road, something they didn’t do last year. If the erratic Colts that started the season with a home split show up for most of the remaining 13 games of the season, Indy will be an entertaining but flawed team. If the Colts that shut down the 49ers and finished them off in the fourth quarter show up on a regular basis, the Colts are going to be a very dangerous (and successful) AFC contender.
More Than a Slogan
What’s gotten into the Tennessee defense? After finishing last in scoring defense a year ago while allowing 29.4 points per game, a resurgent Titans D has allowed just 18.7 points through its first three forays of 2013, dropping it into competition as one of the league’s most improved units. That comes on the heels of an offseason during which the Titans conspicuously ignored their defense while adding parts for their offense in free agency and on draft day; the only notable additions Tennessee made to its defense before the season were safety Bernard Pollard and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, who missed Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Chargers with an ankle injury. Instead, the Titans have gotten more out of the young talent on hand than they did a year ago. And much of the credit for that goes to their senior defensive assistant, an obscure gentleman by the name of Gregg Williams.
Williams’s calling card before his name was implicated in the Bountygate scandal was pressure: His teams blitzed the quarterback, forced bad decisions, and created tons of takeaways. When Williams arrived in New Orleans, Sean Payton’s defenses had averaged just over 21 takeaways per season during his first three years at the helm. In Williams’s first year with the team, the Saints produced an unlikely 39 takeaways en route to a magical Super Bowl run. That figure fell off a bit after the immediate success, but New Orleans’s average takeaway rate during Williams’s three years there was still 26.7 turnovers per year, a healthy improvement upon their previous run.
He has already begun to improve things in Tennessee. Last year, the Titans only produced 24 takeaways in 16 games. In 2013, they’ve improved slightly; they’re on pace for just under 27 turnovers in 16 games, which includes a pick-six from Alterraun Verner. They’ve also gotten more pressure to collapse the pocket than they had a year ago: The Titans are producing sacks on 7.9 percent of opposing drop-backs, up from 6.4 percent a year ago. And even if that pressure doesn’t always create sacks, it throws quarterbacks off and creates uncertain throws, like that pick-six to Verner in Week 2. Part of that is simply that teams haven’t seen the Titans run many of these blitzes on film before, since Williams has only been working with this unit for three games. He’s still unveiling wrinkles that other teams simply can’t account for on the fly.
Tennessee’s young talent in its front seven has also taken a step forward. When Robert Mays and I adopted the Titans last week during our NFL podcast, we both found a lot to like with their young defensive linemen, notably tackle Jurrell Casey. Casey had a mammoth game against the Steeelers in Week 1, laying waste to David DeCastro and backup center Kelvin Beachum (who filled in at right tackle last night when Marcus Gilbert was benched). Defensive end Derrick Morgan showed a ton of raw talent on film heading into the season, and he has been a handful through the first three weeks. Zach Brown has attracted a lot of attention just by virtue of how frequently he seems to be around the football. There are still some holes at linebacker, and there’s no obvious star pass-rusher, but there’s a bunch of talent on the Tennessee defense, and Williams has done a good job of coaching it up and putting players in situations where they can succeed.
If Williams can keep the pressure up, the Titans might have a shot at competing with a disappointing Texans team and an inconsistent Colts squad in the AFC South. Jake Locker is still missing throws, but his athleticism has allowed Tennessee to stay in games, and the new-look offensive line should coalesce and become a better run-blocking unit as the season goes along. They get the Jets this weekend, but after a three-game stretch against the Chiefs, Seahawks, and 49ers, the Titans come back from their bye with games against the Rams, Jaguars, Raiders, and a pair against the Colts. If Tennessee can win six of those nine games, it’ll be at 8-4 and likely sell playoff tickets for the first time since 2008.
They’ve Got 96 Problems and a Defense Is One
On the other hand, the defense that helped push the Vikings into an unlikely playoff berth one year ago has been a no-show through three weeks. After a wild 31-27 loss to the Browns on Sunday, Minnesota has now allowed a whopping 96 points through three games, tying for third-worst in the NFL. As much speculation as there’s been about the Vikings possibly benching quarterback Christian Ponder for Matt Cassel, the Vikes have actually produced a respectable 81 points this year;6 it’s a defense that ranked 14th in points allowed one year ago that simply hasn’t kept up with its prior performance.
And what’s missing for the Vikings through three weeks? Well, it’s tough to isolate any one factor. Start with the front four, because Minnesota’s once-formidable set of defensive linemen has aged and struggled to make the same sort of impact they routinely did over the past several seasons. A unit that was once known for the “Williams Wall” in the middle of the field simply hasn’t been able to do much against the run this year. Kevin Williams, the remaining member of that aforementioned wall, missed Week 1 and has since been operating at less than 100 percent with a knee injury. Sharrif Floyd is his long-term replacement, but until he created a pick with a hit on Brian Hoyer yesterday, he hadn’t made a noticeable impact. The Vikings have allowed opposing rushers to produce 342 yards on 78 carries, an average of 4.4 yards per attempt. Considering that they’ve played the relatively docile rushing attacks of Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit so far, that figure doesn’t bode well for the future.
More distressing has been the disappearance of Minnesota’s pass rush. Jared Allen & Co. had just one sack heading into Sunday, and while they added three more of Hoyer, that leaves them with a mere four takedowns amid 141 drop-backs this season. That’s an anemic sack rate of 2.8 percent. That would be the worst rate in football over most full seasons. A year ago, they took down opposing passers on 6.7 percent of their pass plays, more than twice as frequently. Last year, their three most prominent pass-rushers — Allen, Brian Robison, and top reserve Everson Griffen — combined for 28.5 sacks. In 2013, those same three ends have combined for merely one. With Allen, Robison, Griffen, and Williams all in contract years, it’s a disappointing start to the campaign.
One way to help would be to keep the defense rested and refreshed on the bench, but the Minnesota offense hasn’t really helped there. While it has produced points, the steady chunks of yardage that came from the running game a year ago haven’t been around in 2013. You remember when Adrian Peterson busted off a 78-yard touchdown run on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage this season and it seemed like we were ready for another year of All Day taking over games? Since then, Peterson has toted the rock 63 times but run for a mere 203 yards; he has averaged under three yards per carry, which seems impossible for a guy who averaged 6.7 yards per carry over the second half of last season. It was reasonable to expect that Peterson would take a step backward, but he’s been stifled by eight- and even nine-man fronts in a way that he wasn’t one year ago.
And while that’s all true, it’s also accurate to say that Minnesota is probably pretty unlucky to be 0-3. It started the season with a 10-point loss to the Lions that was close for most of the contest and has blown leads on the final drive of the game against the Bears and Browns in consecutive weeks. It’s another example of how “learning how to win” is a flawed concept. The Vikings went 10-6 last year by virtue of winning a ton of close games and running the ball extremely well, traits classically associated with knowing how to win tight games. This year, they’re not winning the close games and they’re not running all that well, but nobody is mentioning that they had learned how to win a year ago and have otherwise forgotten now. Minnesota faces an extremely tough schedule the rest of the way, and while two of its next three games are against currently winless opponents, it’s hard to imagine that the Steelers and Giants will be pushovers. At 0-3, the Vikings might already be done in the NFC, and their hopes of making it back into the playoff reckoning revolve around a winning streak that must start right now.