Will Lions Loss Cost Giants a Playoff Berth?
NFL Week 11 - Coming into the final third of the NFL regular season, it feels as though only now do we have a true separation of teams. Like oil and water in a mixed solution, this is where we see most of the true playoff contenders rise to the top, separating themselves from those pretending to be competitive football teams. While some of Week 11's results were obvious displays of regression—the Minnesota Vikings rolling over to the Dallas Cowboys, or the New York Jets finally succumbing to their poor quarterback play—none felt as obvious of a course correction as the one made by the New York Giants.
I won't go as far as to invoke the late, great Dennis Green, but by DVOA, the Giants have turned into the team we thought they would be over the last few weeks. New York had a sparse roster to begin the season, but an easy schedule and an impressive new coaching regime headed up by Brian Daboll allowed the Giants to overcome a lot of their shortcomings. New York became one of the most run-heavy teams in the league with Saquon Barkley as the main weapon, supplementing their running game with a passing attack simple enough to be run by the fourth- and fifth-string talent the Giants were forced to use because of injury. Defensively, Wink Martindale's exotic blitz packages were enough to keep opposing quarterbacks pressured, providing some support for their subpar secondary.
Over the last few weeks, the wheels have pretty much fallen off the cart altogether. After starting 6-1, the Giants have lost two of their last three games and posted three of their worst four games by DVOA this season. Fascinatingly, by DVOA, each poor performance has highlighted one weakness of each team. Their loss to Seattle saw New York put up one of their best defensive efforts of the season while simultaneously posting their worst offensive DVOA of the year. Their one-score win over the current top-draft-pick-holding Houston Texans was one of their best passing games of the season but simultaneously their worst pass-defending game of the season.
Then, New York met Detroit. On the exact opposite trajectory as the Giants, the Detroit Lions have strung together three consecutive wins after dropping five straight. In Giants fashion, though, each of Detroit's victories has come in its own unique way. Detroit pulled out a win against the Green Bay Packers by putting on their best performance by defensive DVOA since Matt Patricia's inaugural season with the Lions. Week 10's high-scoring affair against the Chicago Bears was won all through the air, with Detroit posting their best offensive passing DVOA game of the season.
This week? Everything was decided on the ground. The New York Giants posted one of their worst games this year by defensive rushing DVOA, and Detroit posted their best team performances on the ground. Jamaal Williams continued his stretch of exceptional running back play, notching his 10th, 11th, and 12th touchdowns. Justin Jackson, the former Los Angeles Chargers back turned Detroit RB3, led the team in rushing, including a near-game-icing 27-yard run. That run game doesn't get going without a much-improved Lions offensive line, which ranks third in adjusted line yards.
There's not a ton that the Lions did offensively to deserve a victory on Sunday. Jared Goff played one of his worse games, ending up with his second-fewest passing yards of 2022 and failing to find the end zone through the air for the third time. Amon-Ra St. Brown was the only real source of offense Detroit could generate through the air, and even then, most of his receiving yards came as a byproduct of the run game. He had seven receptions on eight targets, but 32 of his 76 receiving yards came on one catch on the Lions' longest touchdown drive of the day, which allowed Detroit to jump out to a 17-6 lead before half. The pass opportunity opened up through Detroit's game script, getting New York rolled up to the line of scrimmage in a single-high look, only to have the Lions run play-action and get St. Brown streaking across the middle of the field without any coverage.
This really was a defense-earned win for Detroit. The Giants have leaned heavily on Barkley this season, but the Lions almost entirely neutralized him as a threat. Detroit consistently engaged quality run fits against New York, eliminating any holes for Barkley to run through. Barkley finished with 22 rushing yards on 15 carries, by far his worst performance of the season in both volume and yards per carry. His longest run of the day was just 4 yards, a run earned solely through Barkley's churning legs fighting through bodies for extra yards. New York finished with 89 rushing yards, 50 of them coming from Daniel Jones fake handoff keepers, a consistent source of offense because of how downhill Detroit would get when biting on the handoff.
Most of Detroit's offensive opportunities were created by the defense. Two of the Lions' four touchdowns were set up off short fields from defensive turnovers by second-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson has had an interesting rookie season, seeing his impact fluctuate game-to-game. His Week 2 game against the Commanders saw him finish with three sacks, while his Week 5 performance against the New England Patriots had color commentator Jonathan Vilma emphasize a need for a "go-to" pass-rush move to have success going forward. One thing that is undeniable about Hutchinson's game, however, is his motor. Hutchinson should not be the man to make this play given where he lines up, yet his motor and pursuit lead to the quick stop against Barkley.
Hutchinson also flexed some pass-coverage chops by intercepting Jones on a drop into coverage. He starts the play by beginning his pass rush, only to abort out of it and follow Jones' eyes right into the passing lane. The quarterback never sees Hutchinson drop back, throwing the ball directly into his lap when trying to hit Slayton on the crossing route.
Hutchinson is just one of the several players highlighting just how Detroit is "restoring the roar" and establishing their rebuild. Detroit's run game would be nothing without their much-improved offensive line, led by former first-round pick Penei Sewell and long-tenured Lions tackle Taylor Decker setting the edge. Defensively, the Lions run stoppage would not have been possible without Alim McNeill, the 2021 third-round nose tackle who served as a human drainplug, recording two tackles for loss in the run game and a sack to boot.
The Lions have gotten a lot out of other teams' castoffs such as Jonathan Cominsky, the Atlanta Falcons' 2019 fourth-round pick released this past offseason. Cominsky's start against the Giants was just the second of his professional career, and he provided consistent pressure against Jones in space, generating a sack, an extra tackle for loss, and a tipped pass on the day. Detroit even capitalizes on situational players. 2021 undrafted free agent tight end Brock Wright saw just two targets on Sunday, both coming on the exact same designed play. Goff ran a play-action bootleg, with Wright running a drag route underneath. Both times, Goff hit Wright for the drag. Both times, Wright picked up a first down to push Detroit into the red zone or a goal-to-go situation.
The full roadmap for Detroit could be boiled down to the game-sealing 27-yard run by Jackson. The play came from another team's castoff who saw the most action he has seen all season. While Decker's block into the second level created the opportunity for Jackson to pick up more yardage, the play doesn't happen without St. Brown—the team's top wide receiver—staying engaged with his lead block more than 10 yards down the field. This is the block that allowed Jackson to cut the run back outside and up the sideline, placing Detroit in a position to ice the game with a score. That's the level of engagement you'd hope for out of all your players.
Detroit doesn't have much of a competitive path forward this season (although a win this weekend did up their playoff odds by nine percentage points). However, the core they have put together has shown flashes of competence in each phase of the game. The last step—often the hardest in football—is putting it all together, but the recent string of success is an indication that, at the very least, this rebuild is headed in the right direction.
By the DVOA
After the loss, the Giants sit at 21st overall in total DVOA, ranking 15th on offense, 27th on defense, and 20th on special teams. At -8.0% in DVOA, they currently stand as the fifth-worst 7-3 team in DVOA history. Part of the explanation in out-performing their current DVOA comes from their luck in one-possession games. New York is currently 7-1 in such games. New York saw the biggest drop in our playoff chances of any team in Week 11, falling 22.4% to a virtual coin-flip to make the postseason.
Giant Tree Fall Hard
Despite the volume shown off in the box score, the Giants had a hollow offensive performance on Sunday. We have already spent a good deal of time addressing the run game, but it should be added that New York simply failed on a lot of blocking assignments. Certain players were unaccounted for on some plays, while on others Detroit simply beat the Giants outright in the trenches. The result was a total neutralization of the Giants' rushing attack and their single most effective skill position player.
While the box score may suggest otherwise, the pass game was not much better. Daniel Jones' 341 passing yards are the third-highest total of his career, but 132 of those yards came from yards after the catch, with rookie receiver Wan'Dale Robinson leading the way with 57 (of his 100 total). Also, 70 of those yards came on the Giants' final drive of the game, which saw Jones exclusively passing and connecting deep downfield and also led to his only passing touchdown of the afternoon.
Jones' production mostly came off short comeback routes or intermediate crossing routes, successful against Detroit's man coverage looks. None of Jones' throws were overly impressive for the volume they resulted in, though. Daboll's passing attack opened up a lot of opportunity for New York through the air, but there was never a moment until garbage time when the Giants air game felt as though it was testing a weak Detroit defense in any real capacity. Jones also had some rough misses through the air, either overthrowing receivers or throwing behind his target. While I can absolve Jones on the Hutchinson interception, I cannot say the same of his pick to Kerby Joseph. The ball is thrown over the head of Lawrence Cager to a single-high safety whom Jones should have a sense is there.
New York is in an extremely unenviable position as far as rosters go, especially when it comes to their passing attack. Robinson, who emerged as a premier pass-catcher for New York amid their shuffling of receiver personnel, has torn his ACL and is done for the season, joining Sterling Shepard on the IR. With Kadarius Toney now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Giants have lost three of their expected top five receivers at the start of the season. Daniel Bellinger, the rookie success story at tight end, fractured his orbital bone and has not played since Week 7. While Jones has not looked stellar as a thrower, it becomes slightly more forgivable when his two of his top three receivers are former Day 3 reclamation projects in Richie James and Isaiah Hodgins. This also doesn't consider Kenny Golladay, whom the Giants signed to a four-year, $72-million contract in 2021 and currently boasts four receptions on 10 targets this season.
The defense has not fared much better in their season-long bout with the injury bug, losing Azeez Ojulari and Xavier McKinney for stretches while also losing Adoree' Jackson to a torn MCL this week. Beyond the impressive defensive line New York has managed to put together in Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, and Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Giants have little high-value talent left healthy on their roster.
New York was never expected to be a true contender, with 2022 serving as an opportunity for Daboll and Joe Schoen to take stock of the current roster and evaluate for future seasons. The over-performance in September and October was a result of an easy schedule and some swings of opportunistic plays in one-score games. The road ahead for New York will not be easy, ranking as the fifth-hardest remaining schedule in the league. New York has a road game against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, then still has both matchups against the Eagles and Commanders remaining with a road game in Minnesota and a home game against the Colts sprinkled in. New York has an uphill battle if they hope to keep their playoff hopes alive, but with injuries piling up and having already exceeded both preseason expectations and current performance, the Giants should at least hang their hat on having turned things around a bit ahead of schedule.