Saquon Barkley was a non-factor. Daniel Jones threw a pair of costly interceptions. The defense gave up the go-ahead touchdown in a two-minute drill that ended the first half.
And Joe Judge liked what he saw.
No, not that aforementioned stuff that cost the Giants the game, ruined Judge’s debut as a head coach and led to the Steelers’ 26-16 victory at an empty MetLife Stadium on Monday night. He was appropriately miffed by those elements. What impressed him was the way his players functioned as a team, how they showed the type of grittiness he is trying to bring out of them.
This is a roster that isn’t being built to win now, wasn’t designed to beat these Steelers on this night. But they competed with them. In fact, had a few plays gone their way, the Giants might have come closer to toppling a team many project will play deep into January.
In that regard, Judge was pleased. "I wanted to see a team that played together for 60 minutes and fought regardless of score, circumstance or situation, and I saw that," he said. "I’m proud of the way our guys played."
That’s a line Giants fans have been fed before, that losses somehow feel different and there are signs of improvement beneath the surface. Maybe this is another of those fruitless promises that never quite blossom, the kind that the past few head coaches around here have offered up before they were shown the door after two seasons or less. It has become the soundtrack for a franchise that has been unable to stop its freefalling.
What’s important is that the Giants walked out of MetLife Stadium believing that they are turning things around. "There are certainly things we need to clean up and tighten up and learn from this first game, but as a team I think we showed what we can be," Jones said. "I don’t think anyone is discouraged. I think if anything, the guys are motivated and looking forward to next week and the next challenge."
That doesn’t mean this didn’t sting. Even Barkley and his perpetual optimism seemed to teeter on frustration at times as he struggled to reach the line of scrimmage and amassed 6 yards on 15 carries. Eight of those carries were for a loss of yardage, and his visage on the sideline showed it. That smile that flashed in all of the commercials between the action all weekend was absent once the cameras came back to the game.
"I guess I probably showed a little emotion on my face," Barkley said. "I’m human at the end of the day."
The Giants allowed several opportunities to slip away. They settled for a field goal on their opening drive after Devante Downs recovered a muffed punt at the 3. There also was a three-and-out after the Steelers’ special teams again opened the door for them in the fourth quarter with a kickoff that went out of bounds.
Trailing 16-10 in the third quarter, the Giants began at their own 9 and went backward 4 yards on the first play before converting a third-and-14, a third-and-1, a fourth-and-1, a third-and-6 and a third-and-3 to push all the way to the Steelers’ 4. Even Barkley, who had been running into walls most of the game, had a modest 7-yard carry that seemed like a momentum-shifter. The offense was in a groove.
But on second-and-3, while rolling to his left, Jones tried to fling a pass into the back of the end zone for Darius Slayton, who had touchdown receptions of 41 and 7 yards. Jones was hit during the throw by linebacker Bud Dupree and the ball fluttered only to the goal line, where Cameron Heyward pulled it in for an interception.
Eighty-seven yards, 19 snaps, 8:50 of clock used . . . and nothing to show for it. "Down at the goal line, that’s something we can’t have," Judge said of Jones’ interception. "A 19-play drive, especially down in the lower red [zone], that’s not acceptable."
The Steelers turned the turnover into a 36-yard field goal to extend their lead to 19-10 with 14:19 left. By the time Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:28 left to go ahead 26-10, it was hard to tell whether the stadium was empty because of a pandemic or for the reason it normally is at that stage of home games: disheartening football.
The most glaring difference was the lack of Terrible Towels imported for the occasion.
"Obviously, there are some things we have to clean up," Judge said. "The mark of a good team is the improvement you can make moving on from Week 1. This next week will be a big test."
As for this first exam, it was a failure in terms of winning being the ultimate objective. But there are other ways to grade a game.