In their first two games, the Giants’ defense made Teddy Bridgewater and Taylor Heinicke look like Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady.
What’s even worse? In the coming weeks, they’re due to face the actual Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. And Dak Prescott and Matthew Stafford and, when they take the field next Sunday, Matt Ryan.
The foreseeable future of the Giants’ schedule is loaded with some of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, and while they might not all be invincible or currently playing on championship-contending teams, they create an urgency for the Giants to figure out what the heck has gone wrong with their schemes and coverages.
A secondary that was supposed to be the strength of the team, a unit that was supposed to be able to carry the group through this first phase of the season while the offense found its legs, instead has buckled and collapsed in the face of what should be second-tier passers. In the two games, Bridgewater and Heinicke have completed 62 of 82 passes for 600 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception.
On Thursday night, the Giants gave up a touchdown on a two-play, 17-second drive that covered 75 yards in the fourth quarter, could not get Washington off the field as it drove for the winning field goal to cap an 11-play sequence, and allowed three other scoring drives of at least 11 plays in length. It was so bad that during the team’s ride back to New Jersey, head coach Joe Judge and his closest lieutenant, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, held a postgame film session to figure out what went wrong.
Their conclusion? A rare admission from Judge that the players need to step it up.
"As I stressed to the team, at this point in the year, it’s not some magical scheme there that we draw up and go out there," he said. "It’s about details. It’s about fixing the little things one by one and making sure we’re on the same page and playing together 11 at a time. If we go out there and if everyone does their job the right way, we’ll have success. We’ve got to call it the right way, we’ve got to put our players in position to make plays, and we have to go out there and execute."
That hasn’t been occurring. James Bradberry, coming off a Pro Bowl season, has been targeted 15 times and allowed 12 receptions. That’s 80% of passes in his direction completed. All last season, he was targeted only 78 times and allowed 44 receptions (56.4%) according to Pro Football Focus.
He did have a key interception late in the game Thursday — "I needed that play," he said of it countering his early struggles — and Bradberry is far from alone in his inability to make the kind of plays that change games.
Up front, the Giants had just one sack and no other tackles for losses. In the middle, the team has struggled to cover tight ends. And on the back end, Xavier McKinney has been quiet and Logan Ryan has been getting mated in his chess matches with opposing quarterbacks more often than not.
"We strive for perfection and we haven’t been perfect, so we’re definitely below our standard," Bradberry said.
As for getting carved up by the likes of Bridgewater and Heinicke, Bradberry wasn’t having any of the talk about them not being worthy opponents.
"I’ve seen Heinicke make some plays," Bradberry, a teammate of his in Carolina in 2019, said after the game Thursday. "He’s a starter in this league. You can’t underestimate any quarterback that you line up against whether he is well-known or not."
The Giants have a knack, it seems, for allowing them to shed their anonymity or doubters. They are star-makers. It was their disappointing performance during joint practices in New England, don’t forget, that allowed Mac Jones to shine and ultimately earn the starting job. Now they may have given Heinicke a depth chart elevation.
Asked on NFL Network after he led Washington to the comeback win whether he thought he had done enough to earn the full-time starting job for his team — Thursday was his first regular-season start for Washington in place of the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick — Heinicke spoke with a bravado that the Giants’ defense seemingly imbues in all quarterbacks.
"I do," Heinicke said. "And I have confidence that I can do it. If those guys in the locker room and the facility believe in me, that’s all that matters."
The Giants will face Washington in the final game of the season. If they don’t straighten themselves out quickly, not only will that be a meaningless game, but it could be another chance for Heinicke to get an ego boost heading into the offseason . . . or even the postseason.
Long before that, though, the Giants have to figure out a way to stop Brady and Mahomes from looking like Bridgewater and Heinicke did against them.