They Might Be Giants: The Steelers Week 13 Opponent Preview

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Of the Steelers’ remaining opponents,  the team with the best record is the 8-3 New York Giants. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Giants are coming to Heinz Field, although two road wins in a row, the second on a very short week, does make that seem slightly less important. But only slightly.

The question which comes first to my mind at least is, are the Giants as good as their record? Let’s take a look and see what we see.

One knock against the Giants is their schedule. As I’ve said several times in the past few weeks, you can only play the teams on your schedule. But it is fair to question how much weight to give the Steelers’ wins against a team which hasn’t won a game in almost a year (the Browns’ last win was December 13th of 2015) and against a backup quarterback and otherwise banged-up Colts team.

And in the same way it’s fair to judge the impressiveness of the Giants’ six-game win streak when the best team they have played, record-wise, is the Ravens. And that was in mid-October, when the Ravens were still missing some important pieces on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, the only road wins were against the LA Rams and the Browns. The Rams are currently 4-7, the Browns 0-12. [The Browns were also rather beaten up, having just played the Steelers. Just sayin’.]

This makes Sunday’s game a very interesting matchup. The Steelers have found ways to lose games they perhaps should have won, and have totally stunk in two of them. The Giants have found ways to win games they maybe should have lost, and their worst loss was by 14 points. It’s clear this game is an important measuring stick for both the Giants and the Steelers.

Somebody has to win (or at least somebody does the vast majority of the time,) and a very close loss might not consign either team to the status of “pretender,” but it will weaken the playoff hopes of either team. The Giants are two games back of the division-leading Cowboys, and the Steelers are a tie-breaker behind the Ravens. So let’s do a little measuring of our own.

When you look at the stats for the Giants, a few oddities emerge. The Giants have 203 first downs this season, and their opponents have 218. They are averaging 21 points per game, which is good for No. 21 in the league. Their 79.5 rush yard average makes them No. 31 in the league.

On the other hand, the offensive line has given up 14 sacks, which is excellent, and they have sacked their opponents 25 times, which is also excellent.The Giants possess the ball an average of 26:54 per game.

Their defense has 10 interceptions, as do their opponents. However, the turnover ratio is -5. Their special teams have over 500 yards in kick returns, but they have given up almost 600 to their opponents. They are averaging 6.8 yards per punt return, and their opponents are averaging 11.

They have scored 231 points this season—their opponents have scored 213. They had a point differential of only +4 before they played Cleveland last week. Cleveland is the only team they have beaten by double digits, winning 27 to 13 last Sunday. Two of their wins are by one point, against Dallas in Week 1 and Cincinnati in Week 10. The only win they have by as much as a touchdown other than last Sunday is a Week 7 game against the LA Rams (17-10.) The most they have won by is 14 points, against the Browns.

All of their losses came in a three-week stretch. They have not lost a game since Week 5. So they may not be winning by much, but they are finding ways to win. As Mike Tomlin would say, they don’t award style points, and they obviously all count the same in the W column.

Let’s look at these same metrics for the 6-5 Steelers:

  • Steelers 1st downs: 222;  Opponents 1st downs: 215
  • Points per game: 24.2 (No. 13)
  • Rush yards per game: 100.9 (No. 18)
  • Sacks given up: 24;  Sacks gained: 14
  • Time of possession: 29:49
  • Steelers interceptions: 7;  Opponents: 8
  • Turnover ratio: +4
  • Steelers kickoff return yards: 330; Opponents: 346
  • Punt return average: 9.8; Opponents 10.3
  • Steelers points: 266; Opponent points: 222

Unlike the Giants, the Steelers have both won games by a lot and lost them by a lot. They gave up 31 points to the Eagles in Week 3, in a game which will live on in infamy, and beat the Chiefs by 29 points in Week 4, a game Steeler Nation has mostly forgotten about. We’re a funny fan base…

To compare the teams a bit further, let’s have a look at my go-to website, Football Outsidersto see what they think. We will begin with the offensive line.

As noted above, the Giants have given up 14 sacks, and all of those are considered to be on the offensive line. This gives them an adjusted sack rate of 3.4%, good for No. 2 in the league. The Steelers have given up 24 sacks, but FO only considers 14 of those to be on the offensive line, which is interesting. This puts them at No. 4 in the league, with an adjusted sack rate of 3.9%.

Run blocking is another story for the Giants’ line. They are ranked No. 27 in this category, which perhaps explains why they are 31st in rushing yards. The Steelers, on the other hand, are also ranking well in run blocking—No. 7, to be precise.

There is a fascinating feature on the FO Offensive Line page. They rank how well the back(s) do running straight up the middle, left end, right end, left tackle, and right tackle. According to this chart the Steelers run best off the left end (No. 3), left tackle (No. 4), and right tackle (No. 5.) They probably shouldn’t even try to run between the guards (No. 17) or off the right end (No. 18.) The Giants run the best by far off the right end (No. 3) and left end (No. 5) but not well at all behind the actual offensive line. Curious…

There are six players who have rushing yards for the Giants. (Eli Manning also has 18 attempts, for a net -6 yards, so I didn’t count him.) Their total of 874 yards in 11 games is not a great deal more than Le’Veon Bell has (699 rushing yards)—in eight games. And some of those are jet sweeps and such-like by receivers. So let’s hope their main man (Rashad Jennings) doesn’t have a career day on Sunday, now that I’ve mentioned this…

In terms of total team offense, the Steelers are now No. 9 (up from No. 10 last week), the Giants No. 18 (down from No. 17 the previous week.) Total defense is another story, as you might suspect. Happily, PIT is moving up rapidly, and is now at No. 11, up from No. 14 the week before. The Giants are at No. 8 (down from No. 7 the previous week.)

When looking for information on the Giants, the one thing I keep seeing is what a large part a no-huddle offense plays in their strategy. I couldn’t find any actual figures so I had a look at their last four games, three of which were at home (they were @ Cleveland last week.) Of course, it is going to be easier to run a no-huddle on your home turf with a friendly crowd, so much so that Mike Tomlin even called on Steeler Nation to make a lot of noise and disrupt the Giants’ communications. Here are the numbers, from the NFL Play-by-Play:

If you remove the first play of each drive, which naturally can’t be no-huddle, and kneel-downs at the end of the game or the second quarter, the Giants run the no-huddle most of the time. How much of the time? For these four games, the offense was in the no-huddle for 161 of the 196 snaps (the 196 figure is minus the first play of each drive.) This translates to running a no-huddle on 82% of the snaps. If you take out the Cleveland game, they ran the no-huddle on 86.5% of the snaps. And why not? It’s obviously working for them.

I also did the math for the Cleveland game, which, as noted, was the only away game for the Giants, and despite the fact that I would assume the wounded Browns fans weren’t a really intimidating 12th Man last week, as the team was already 0-11, the percentage of no-huddle was only 66% of the snaps. So Mike Tomlin is obviously correct—if the fans can make a lot of noise, I suspect we will see an even lower percentage of no-huddle on Sunday. Which is probably good.

Finally, the most visible members of the Giants’ offense are Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. I thought it would be interesting to compare what they have done so far this year with Ben and AB. Here’s the stats:

  • Beckham/Manning: 65 receptions, 918 yards, 9 TDs
  • Ben/AB: 82 receptions, 998 yards, 10 TDs (Actually, seven of the receptions and 106 of the yards, but none of the TDs, were with Landry Jones at QB)

Of course, the Giants have other offensive weapons. But like the Steelers, a large part of the production runs through their No. 1 receiver. Beckham has 1/3 of the total receiving yards and, probably not coincidentally, 1/3 of the total touchdowns. If you remove the five rushing touchdowns and three defensive touchdowns, he has 9 out of the 20—almost half.

For the Steelers, AB has just about 1/3 of the total passing yards but less than 1/3 of the touchdowns. Remove the one defensive touchdown and the eight rushing TDs from the total of 33 and he has 10 of 24.

In other words, it’s clear they are both a large part of their offenses, but Beckham is even more crucial than AB, particularly as an increasingly large amount of the offense is now centering on Le’Veon Bell. However, Sterling Shepard is getting an increasing workload for the Giants, and had a season-high 11 targets two weeks ago. (Curiously, he was not targeted at all last week in Cleveland, and Manning apologized to him publicly, so expect him to get plenty of attention on Sunday. I did notice that he only caught five of the 11 passes he was thrown in Week 11, so maybe that had something to do with it…)

Mike Tomlin was asked whether there would be any attempts to “rile up” the notoriously volatile Beckham, and he replied that they hoped to frustrate Beckham by disrupting his targets. Tomlin implied that if Beckham then did something dumb that was okay by him, but they wouldn’t be wasting any coaching time talking about ways to fire him up. Good call, Coach T…

As far as injuries go, the Steelers are about as healthy as you can be at this time of year. Tomlin hinted that DeAngelo Williams and Darrius Heyward-Bey are getting close to returning, and we might see Shamarko Thomas on Sunday. That may not seem like a big deal, but special teams have suffered with Thomas and Hey-Bey out. The Giants had a number of guys on the injury list yesterday, including the starting left guard and right tackle. Both of them were limited participants so I expect to see them Sunday. All of the guys who didn’t practice are back-ups.

So now the question is, does the Roethlisberger Rust Syndrome come into play after a mini-bye? I’m thinking not. But the in-your-face and fierce Giants defense might make it a rather long day for him anyway. I expect a lot is going to depend on whether the O-line can continue to keep his jersey clean. At any rate, by about 8 pm we will perhaps have a better idea of who is the contender…

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