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Wild Card Preview: Packers must exploit a Giants defense that can’t cover tight ends

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It’s time to see how the Packers can best attack the Giants’ defense, and why Jared Cook should be a featured player this Sunday.

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NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

All the signs show that the New York Giants’ defense has struggled against tight ends all throughout the 2016 season. But what does that mean? And does it matter?

Dom Capers builds his defense with the pass in mind. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Green Bay Packers will usually be playing with a lead (or, at least, a manageable deficit) and so this makes sense, but occasionally you run into a read-option Colin Kaepernick/Jim Harbaugh, or Russell Wilson, and everything goes haywire. The Giants are a fantastic defense, with a gaping weakness in their inability to defend tight ends. The Packers should do what has been done to them so many times in the past, and exploit this weakness to the fullest extent possible. This is why you sign Jared Cook in the first place.

I cite Football Outsiders’ DVOA a lot, and the Giants are 26th in DVOA in tight end defense, but occasionally it is useful to look behind the advanced stat to see if it makes sense. In this case, it really does. As a unit, tight ends caught 89 of 137 targets against the Giants (65%) for 1052 yards, and surprisingly only 4 touchdowns. They averaged 11.8 yards per reception and 7.7 yards per target. Their more explosive wide receiver brethren caught 196 of 352 targeted passes (just 56%) for 2598 yards and 11 touchdowns. They averaged 13.3 yards per reception, but because they caught fewer targets, only 7.4 yards per target..

That difference may not seem so bad, but early in the season, whether it was better health, or better matchups, the Giants were actually fine against tight ends. Jared Cook missed the first Packers-Giants game, and in his absence Richard Rodgers caught one of 5 targets for 6 yards. After their bye week, the Giants cratered. Starting with the Eagles on November 6th, the Giants have allowed all tight ends to catch 71% of their targets for 14 yards a reception and 9.9 yards per target. Over the same time frame, receivers actually caught even fewer balls than their season average (just 52%) and had a lower yards per target (7.3) than their season average.

DVOA is onto something here. If I were the Packers, I would take a long, hard look at the Pittsburgh-New York game from December 4th. Pittsburgh is a decent comparable for Green Bay for several reasons:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger is no worse than the 3rd-best quarterback the Giants faced all season. Only Rodgers and Brees have a case to be better.
  2. Both teams now possess excellent dual-threat running backs.
  3. Both possess similar tight ends in Ladarius Green and Jared Cook, athletic field-stretchers who have occasionally struggled with catch % and with the mental side of the game.

Roethlisberger played very well in this game (24/36, 289, 2 TDs, 1 INT) in large part thanks to Green, who caught 6 of 11 targets for 110 yards and a touchdown. Antonio Brown did his damage in an uncharacteristic underneath role hauling in 6 of 7 targets for 54 yards and a touchdown, and Le’Veon Bell was a complete workhorse, carrying the ball 29 times for 119 yards and catching 6 passes for another 64. Jordy Nelson has played the Brown role well this season when asked to do so, and Ty Montgomery is capable of doing what Bell did, perhaps in a more limited fashion on the ground.

Pittsburgh’s offense performed better against a fully loaded Giants defense than any other team this year, but the Eagles did a similarly impressive job in their first meeting. Carson Wentz is a poor quarterback, but Zach Ertz and Trey Burton combined to drop 152 yards on 11 receptions (on 11 targets!) in their first meeting, a narrow 28-23 loss.

Other notable TE performances:

Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert had 3 catches on 5 targets for 96 yards against the Giants in a narrow 21-20 loss.

The BearsZach Miller caught all 3 of his targets for 61 yards and a touchdown in a narrow 22-16 loss.

Only three receivers have had 100 yard games against the Giants all season: Randall Cobb, Terrelle Pryor, and Golden Tate. Featuring outside receivers against this team has not been a recipe for success, and I expect Davante Adams to mainly serve as a decoy. That’s a perfectly fine role in this instance, and if all goes according to what should be the plan, we will see Cook go deep and Jordy and Geronimo Allison thrive underneath, all while Montgomery creates matchup problems out of the backfield. Combine that with the best quarterback the Giants have faced, and there is a way to solve this defense.

Now it’s up to McCarthy.

PS: The Running Game

The Giants have a great defense, but they didn’t face a ton of great offenses, and especially not great quarterbacks. They did bottle up Brees, but both Roethlisberger and Rodgers had good success against them, and while they were banged up against the Packers, I think that’s overstated a bit. The Giants also rank highly in stopping the run, but they’ve also faced some garbage running attacks. Eddie Lacy lit them up in their first meeting, gaining 81 yards on 11 carries. Jerick McKinnon of all people also ran for 85 yards on 18 carries, Jordan Howard has 77 on 17, and while they bottled up Zeke Elliott in September, he did pretty well against them in December rushing for 107 yards on 24 carries. Darren Sproles had a game of over 4 yards per carry, as did Le’Veon Bell. Sure, they bottled up Dwayne Washington, Ryan Mathews, James Starks, Robert Kelley, Isaiah Crowell, Jeremy Hill, Terrance West, and poor Todd Gurley, but honestly, who hasn’t.

The Packers possess an elite offensive line, and since joining the backfield, Ty Montgomery has been much more similar to (or better than) the good people on this list than the bad ones. Just check out this honor he received from the PFF staff. It is not out of the question that he has a surprisingly effective day on the ground.