Snap judgments on Week 1 of the NFL season can be a dangerous proposition, given the way things can change so quickly with the inevitable twists and turns over the next four months. It’s a long, drawn-out process that can render what happened early in the season a moot point by the end.
Be that as it may, what we saw from the Giants’ defense in Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the Cowboys is surely a major cause for concern. Panic? Not yet. It’s just too early.
But to watch the Cowboys humiliate a team defense that is now without several key veterans from the recent past – starting with Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Landon Collins and Jason Pierre-Paul – was even worse than expected. Yes, there are growing pains with a young defense that now features rookie cornerbacks DeAndre Baker and Corey Ballentine, and rookie defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. And yes, we are talking about the Cowboys’ offensive line, which may be the best in football.
But the absence of any sustained pass rush – it looked like the Giants were counting one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi before going at Dak Prescott – bore out the concerns on defense coming into the season. Those concerns largely were overlooked in the obsessive study of quarterbacks Eli Manning and Daniel Jones, but they were there nonetheless.
And if a defense that simply lacks the talent to compete at a high level in this league is going to have these kinds of struggles over a prolonged period, then Joe Montana in his prime couldn’t overcome the problems, no less Manning or his rookie understudy.
Middle linebacker Alec Ogletree suggested during training camp that the Giants could have a top five defense this season, but the initial results suggest they might not be a top 25 defense. Prescott threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, having his way all afternoon with the Giants’ inexperienced secondary. The Giants gave up 494 total yards, second worst behind Miami (643) after Sunday. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s group was overmatched from the start.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore wisely chose to throw at any cornerback other than veteran Janoris Jenkins, who is one of the league’s top cover corners. And it stands to reason that the rest of the Giants’ opponents will do precisely the same until further notice.
An unintended consequence could be the hastening of the Manning-to-Jones transition, especially if the Giants get off to yet another slow start and don’t contend for a playoff spot. It’s premature to suggest they won’t find at least some success in the early going – the schedule does soften up over the next few weeks with games against the Bills, Buccaneers and Redskins. But it’s not too soon to wonder whether there is enough talent on this unit to keep the Giants competitive.
There is simply not enough firepower on offense, even with All-Pro running back Saquon Barkley, for the Giants to get into high-scoring games if the defense can’t give them a hint of consistency. And with such a small margin of error, the results won’t be good enough.
General manager Dave Gettleman clearly believed the defense needed to be overhauled, and there is merit to that argument. But they got a player in Lawrence who looks like he has a chance to be a good run-stuffer but isn’t quick or agile enough to be an inside force in the pass rush. Let’s put it this way: He’s no Warren Sapp or Aaron Donald.
Pass rusher Lorenzo Carter was talked about as a player ready to have a breakthrough season, but he didn’t get a sniff of Prescott.
Baker, Ballentine and the rest of the younger players in the secondary will need time to adjust to the NFL game, no question. Like coach Pat Shurmur said following the loss to Dallas, after Baker gave up a touchdown pass, it’s not an easy transition. So improvement can be expected.
But if the front seven can’t get a good enough push at the quarterback, then no amount of coverage skills can mask that problem. Cornerbacks and safeties can only do so much if the quarterback has time to run through his progressions as easily as Prescott did on Sunday. If other opposing quarterbacks get that kind of time, then this is going to be a long and painful season.
The net result might be that Jones plays sooner rather than later, but even Jones can’t be expected to shoulder the burden on offense when the defense might be this bad.
A one-game snapshot isn’t a guarantee of what’s ahead. But in this case, it’s a legitimate warning sign.