EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants’ longshot playoff hopes died on Sunday in a way that seemed perfectly fitting for this season.
They were shut out.
One week after they scored 40 points in Washington, the Giants’ offense reverted to its pre-bye week form in a 17-0 loss to the Tennessee Titans. They couldn’t get anything going at all — not even behind super-rookie Saquon Barkley. And in a steady rain with some gusty winds, Eli Manning was terrible, completing 21 of 44 passes for 229 yards and an interception, plus a lost fumble.
It was a reminder that despite what the Giants have shown over the last five games when they averaged 31.4 points, their offense is still basically broken – especially when Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t on the field.
The Giants’ loss, coupled with the Minnesota Vikings’ win over the Miami Dolphins, left the Giants 2 ½ games out of the final NFC wild-card spot with two games to go. So it’s over.
And here are five takeaways from the game that officially rendered the rest of the Giants’ season moot:
1. The Giants run defense just hasn’t been the same since they traded Damon Harrison.
They were absolutely bludgeoned on the ground by the Titans on Sunday. Derrick Henry rushed 33 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns and the Titans gained a total of 216 yards on the ground. The Giants’ run defense had been yielding 113.8 yards per game on the ground in the seven games before “Snacks” was traded to Detroit for a fifth-round pick.
In the seven games since, they’ve given up an average of 143.1 rushing yards per game.
The trade of Damon Harrison was always a strange one, but remember at the time the Giants were basically punting on their season. They were 1-6 and didn’t think they even had an outside shot at the playoffs. It’s not like the trade made them better. It’s not like the fifth-round pick will be a huge help. It’s that they knew Harrison was gone after the season and they had a young player ready to replace him in Dalvin Tomlinson, so they took whatever they could get.
But Tomlinson isn’t nearly the run-stuffer that Harrison is, so the Giants left a huge hole in their defense – a hole that has been exposed.
2. The Giants are not better off without Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup
This is one of the stupider narratives to come out this season. It got some fringe traction after the Giants lit up the Redskins 40-16 a week ago when Beckham was out with what we now know is a hematoma in his quad. As the theory goes, Beckham is like former Giants tight Jeremy Shockey, who proved to be a huge sideline distraction to Manning. Once Shockey got hurt in 2007, Manning thrived.
That’s true about Shockey. But the same can’t be said about Beckham, who may get frustrated at times on the sidelines, but by all accounts he hasn’t reached the distraction point – at least not to his quarterback. Also, everyone overlooked the fact that in that game Eli Manning only completed 14 passes for 197 yards and no receiver had more than two catches (Saquon Barkley had four and tight end Evan Engram had three). The Giants’ explosion in Washington was all about Barkley’s 170 rushing yards and the Redskins awful play behind fill-in quarterback Mark Sanchez.
In this day and age a team can’t run an effective offense without a No. 1 receiver, and that was pretty clear in the pouring rain on Sunday when Manning didn’t complete more than two passes to any of his wide receivers. And Sterling Shepard, the defacto No. 1, caught two passes even though he was targeted nine times.
3. Tight Evan Engram can be an effective weapon when used correctly
It wasn’t clear that Engram had a place in the Giants’ offense earlier this season. His playing time was diminishing. The other tight ends were getting more attention in the passing game. It seemed the Giants viewed him mostly as a guy who could be useful in the two-minute drill when defenses were laying back.
But Engram caught eight passes for 75 yards against the Titans, and he really appeared to be a secondary option all game long with Beckham out of the Giants’ lineup. Clearly when at full strength the Giants would rather run their offense through Beckham and Barkley. But with Barkley and receiver Sterling Shepard struggling, Engram picked up the slack nicely.
The Giants aren’t going to run their offense through the tight end like the old Jim Fassel days. But he can be a real effective guy to take advantage of defensive mismatches. Engram has terrific speed and he seems to know how to get open. Even if he’s just a fourth or fifth option going forward, that could be huge if the Giants use him.
4. As Saquon Barkley goes, so goes this offense
Not that everyone didn’t know this already, but it’s important for the Giants to remember as they build towards the future. The Titans did a tremendous job on Barkley on Sunday, holding him to just 31 rushing yards on 14 carries (and four catches for 25 yards). It’s no coincidence that the Giants couldn’t get anything going offensively. Taking Barkley away took away the play-action for Manning and made the Giants essentially a one-dimensional team.
It also did what it always does in the NFL — it caused the coach to abandon the run too early. After all these weeks of Pat Shurmur talking about how his offense has to run through Barkley and how he has to stick with the run, he appeared to get a little gun-shy when Barkley struggled. Midway through the third quarter, when it was still a 7-0 game, the Giants’ ratio was already 22 passes and 13 runs. That was before Shurmur called for six straight passes to make it a 28-13 pass-run ratio.
The final ratio was 47 passes to 15 runs. That’s not smart when Barkley is clearly the best and most important player on the team.
5. Kyle Lauletta is not the Giants’ quarterback of the future — at least not yet
The Giants got their look at the fourth-round rookie out of Richmond last Sunday in Washington and obviously they didn’t like what they saw. There was really nothing positive at all about his 0 for 5, one-interception debut. That’s why he was back to being the inactive, third-string quarterback this week.
Not that anybody seriously thought he had a chance to replace Manning in 2019, but if that was even a thought he wouldn’t be inactive this late in the season. The Giants consider him a developmental project with plenty of potential, but he clearly needs some work. If they’re determined to replace Manning sooner than later — and they’re not, by the way — it will be with someone else.