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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF GIANTS-VIKINGS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota as the New York Giants will face the Minnesota Vikings. Here’s what you should know:

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – JANUARY 01: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants in action against the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium on January 01, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants defeated the Colts 38-10. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)


GIANTS OFFENSE, WHILE NOT OVERLY TALENTED, IS SUCCEEDING

Brian Daboll, the former offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns and ex-New England Patriots assistant, is the new head coach of the New York Giants and has become the first coach to take “Big Blue” to the postseason since Ben McAdoo in 2016. His importation, along with new general manager Joe Schoen (also from Buffalo) has brought competency and legitimization to New York.

Daboll’s offensive approach continues to mimic that of what he used in Buffalo and New England – built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, run-pass options (especially in the red zone), deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups. They also use plenty of pre-snap motion and shifts and have expanded upon their play-action game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).

Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka (formerly of the Chiefs) have used this scheme to resurrect the career of quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones, a former first round draft pick and the successor to Eli Manning, had struggled for three years while toiling with a franchise that employed two head coaches and little aptitude surrounding him at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Now with Daboll calling the shots, Jones – while not among the league leaders in most statistical categories – has provided a steady hand while cutting down on his interception total to just five and ending 2022 among the top five rushing leaders at quarterback (along with Josh Allen, Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts).

The Giants’ top offensive weapon is running back extraordinaire Saquon Barkley. The 6-foot, 233-pound Barkley evokes comparisons to Marshall Faulk and Barry Sanders for good reason – able to make plays in both the passing and running game, Barkley possesses the strength and quickness to break tackles and slither in and out of gaps. The quote “Give me 18 inches of daylight, that’s all I need” from Hall of Famer Gale Sayers certainly applies to New York’s tailback, as he can make big plays with his change of direction, burst and excellent vision.

After accumulating over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns as a rookie in 2018, Barkley’s production dipped over a span of three years mainly due to injuries and ineffectiveness. But Barkley’s enjoyed a career renaissance in 2022 with 1,650 yards from scrimmage and 10 scores, and he hasn’t done it alone – he has performed behind multiple blocking schemes executed by a rebuilt offensive line. Former first round picks Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal, ex-Bill Jon Feliciano and guards Mark Glowinski and Nick Gates are the Giants’ starters in the trenches.

Following wide receiver Sterling Shepard’s season-ending injury, the Giants’ main wideouts have been the unsung Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins and Richie James. Kenny Golladay, the former Detroit Lion, has been a major disappointment following a big free agent contract with just 43 catches and one touchdown – caught in this year’s season finale – in two years in the Big Apple.

LANDOVER, MD – DECEMBER 18: New York Giants linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) in the trenches during the New York Giants game versus the Washington Commanders on December 18, 2022, at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. (Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


NEW YORK’S DEFENSE NOT ELITE, BUT HAS GOOD SCHEME

Coordinated by Don “Wink” Martindale, the former defensive shot caller for the Baltimore Ravens, New York blitzes at one of the highest rates in the league and mostly does so on overload and fire zone rushes out of single-high coverage looks. He has multiple front looks he’ll show at the line of scrimmage – oftentimes showing six or seven-man rush schemes but bringing just five, making him one of the hardest defensive coaches to gameplan against.

Not to be confused with the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” of the 1980s with names like Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson and George Martin or the Giants’ defense of the 2000s with Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jessie Armstead and Jason Sehorn, this New York team has some talent, but few blue chip prospects. Kayvon Thibodeaux, the fifth-overall draft pick out of Oregon, has shown flashes of his pass rush ability but finished with just four sacks while adjusting to life in the pros. Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams can do a little bit of everything – filling gaps against the run and get to the quarterback – and they are joined by Azeez Ojulari on the team’s defensive line.

At linebacker, New York has a hodgepodge of veteran castoffs surrounding a rookie. Micah McFadden, a fifth-round pick in 2022, is joined by ex-Cowboy Jaylon Smith, agile former Lion Jarrad Davis and Landon Collins (who has returned after a three-year stint in Washington) is solid in both man and zone coverage against running backs and tight ends – which serves him well as a one-time safety.

On the back end “Big Blue” has three defensive backs brought in via free agency in Adoree’ Jackson, Fabian Moreau and Tony Jefferson while slot corner Darnay Holmes and safeties Julian Love and Xavier McKinney were acquired via the draft.

Despite the excellent scheme, Martindale’s charges haven’t performed that well in 2022. 25th in totals yards given up, 14th against the pass and 27th versus the run (along with being 18th in points allowed, 25th in takeaways and 13th in sacks), this side of the ball has a long way back to respectability.

LANDOVER, MD – NOVEMBER 06: Harrison Smith #22 of the Minnesota Vikings returns an interception against the Washington Commanders during the second half of the game at FedExField on November 6, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)


VIKINGS’ DEFENSE TALENTED, BUT UNDERACHIEVING

After eight years of executing the defensive schemes of Mike Zimmer, the defensive unit of the Vikings now operates Ed Donatell’s tactics. Donatell, who is in his fourth stop as a coordinator in the NFL, used to be a heavy proponent of man coverage and blitzing in his earlier days. But as pro football has evolved, so has he – between 2011 and 2021 he worked alongside longtime defensive guru Vic Fangio at various stops and his influence has clearly rubbed off on him.

Like Fangio, Donatell doesn’t like to blitz much. Relying on a four-man pass rush and two-deep safety looks more often than not, he heavily employs well-disguised hybrid coverages that feature man and zone concepts (especially Cover Four, or “quarters”). The system is at its best when it gets elite play from its linebackers, and luckily for Donatell he has one of the NFL’s best edge rush pairs in Danielle Hunter and ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith, who he liberally moves around defensive fronts to find good matchups. His inside linebackers are Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, who are adept in coverage, filling gaps against the run and blitzing.

On the back end, Minnesota has one of the league’s best safeties in Harrison Smith. An 11-year veteran who boasts a great combination of versatility, aggressiveness and intelligence, the two-time All-Pro was supposed to be joined this season by rookie first round pick Lewis Cine but Cine is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a compound fracture in his leg and has been replaced by Camryn Bynum.

Fellow two-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson, now in his 12th NFL season, has been a physical, sure tackler and a strong cover artist for most of his career, but the depth behind him is suspect. Cameron Dantzler and Akayleb Evans are the starters along with Peterson and Kris Boyd, Chandon Sullivan and rookie Andrew Booth Jr. are also on the team’s dept chart (Evans and Booth have both dealt with injuries lately). The Vikings’ defensive line is stout, and headlined by former Buffalo Bill Harrison Phillips, Dalvin Tomlinson and Ross Blacklock.

This unit comes into Sunday’s game tied for eighth in takeaways but Minnesota is tied for 21st in sacks, 20th against the run, 31st versus the pass and 30th in points given up. Additionally, the Vikings are 11-0 in one-score games this season – a league record and an incredible run of good fortune.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 19: Minnesota Vikings Wide Receiver Justin Jefferson (18) lines up with Running Back Dalvin Cook (4) in the fourth quarter during the game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles on September 19, 2022 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


MINNESOTA’S OFFENSE CHANGING, BUT NOT THAT MUCH

The Vikings’ new head coach is Kevin O’Connell, a former backup quarterback in the NFL and assistant coach in Washington and Los Angeles. Having been hired after winning a Super Bowl with the Rams as offensive coordinator, it’s no surprise that his offensive philosophy is similar to his mentor’s – Sean McVay, who comes from the Shanahan-Gruden tree of the West Coast offense (as did former Vikings offensive coordinators Gary and Klint Kubiak).

The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders towards the sideline on outside-zone running plays while leaving backside lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches and countless tailbacks have had success in it, and one of the NFL’s best backs in Dalvin Cook, a strong and speedy ball carrier, is the beneficiary of it.

In front of him are offensive linemen Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradberry, Ed Ingram and Brian O’Neill (out due to injury and replaced by Oli Udoh) and they have helped the Vikings execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers). The main difference between the McVay and Shanahan schemes is the former doesn’t use fullbacks much while the latter does, but C.J. Ham remains on Minnesota’s roster from the prior regime – it helps that he’s a great run-blocker.

One tactic that McVay and O’Connell love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Vikings’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.

Passing-wise Minnesota is aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages and will align wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.

Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.

It’s an offensive scheme that quarterback Kirk Cousins is familiar with from his time in Washington with O’Connell. Cousins is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely timing, rhythm, ball distribution and bold decision-making – but doesn’t offer much in terms of mobility nor pocket presence.

The weapons that Cousins has at his disposal are wideouts Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn and Jalen Reagor and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Thielen has long been one of the NFL’s savviest route-runners while Hockenson – acquired from the Detroit Lions for a pair of draft picks – is among the league’s most physically gifted players at his position.

Jefferson, meanwhile, has become one of pro football’s best wide receivers since being drafted in 2020 with the draft pick Minnesota acquired from Buffalo in exchange for Stefon Diggs. Versatile and excelling in every area, the Vikings also like to use Jefferson and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence defensive backs to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Jefferson on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

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