The Minnesota Vikings are looking to improve to 4-0 in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football, but, as they have run an early-season gauntlet against the top teams of the NFC, the 2-1 New York Giants will continue the heavy hitters the Vikings need to beat to remain undefeated.
The biggest question in New York is how the Giants are going to produce because they are severely shorthanded at key positions.
One player who never misses time is quarterback Eli Manning.
Since becoming a starter midway through his rookie season in 2004, Manning has never missed a start. He’s never been a scrambler, so he spends most of his time in the pocket. Most of his passes are of the quick-release version. He won’t be easy to sack and, on many pass plays, defenders will likely keep an eye on Manning and try to get their arms up to deflect passes because he typically gets rid of the ball extremely quickly to avoid defensive pressure.
The running game is in a huge transition. Starter Rashad Jennings is questionable with a thumb injury that kept him out of the lineup last week and runner/receiver Shane Vereen was placed on injured reserve last week, further depleting the running game. With Vereen out and Jennings a question mark, the running duties may fall to a committee of Orleans Darkwa, journeyman Bobby Rainey and rookie Paul Perkins. If Jennings can go, he will likely get the majority of the rushing attempts, but thumb injuries can be tricky because they limit how tightly a player can hold the football and could make them susceptible to fumbling.
One of the biggest challenges for the Vikings defensive backs will be to slow down a full complement of receiving weapons. The headliner is Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr., who can dominate games if not consistently double-teamed. The problem with doubling Beckham is that the Giants got a big talent infusion in the offseason with the healthy return of veteran Victor Cruz and the quick ascent of second-round rookie Sterling Shepard. Shepard is second on the team with 16 catches for 233 yards and has two of the team’s four receiving touchdowns. The Giants use a lot of formations utilizing all three receivers, so the Vikings will have to likely go away from their base defense more times than not.
When the Giants play power football, they have both strong blocking and receiving options at tight end with Larry Donnell, Will Tye and rookie Jerell Adams. Both Donnell and Tye have earned a reputation as dangerous red zone receivers, so they may be asked to do more than just block for the running backs and protect Manning on pass plays.
The Giants have built a very strong offensive line, using both the draft and free agency. The have three high draft choices on the line with tackle Erick Flowers (1st round, 2015), left guard Justin Pugh (1st, 2013) and center Weston Richburg (2nd, 2014). On the right side, the Giants fill a need through free agency with former Bengal Marshall Newhouse (who won’t play on Monday) at right tackle and former Dolphin John Jerry at right guard. With Newhouse ruled out of Monday’s game with a calf injury, eight-year veteran Will Beatty will take his spot, leaving the Giants with only two healthy pure offensive tackles on the game-day roster, barring a practice squad roster move. The offensive line has been one of the strengths of the Giants and will provide the Vikings defensive front one of the stiffest challenges it will face all season.
The Giants defense was miserable last season, especially late in games. They allowed an average of almost 300 yards a game passing and blew late fourth-quarter leads five times. That lack of success led to head coach Tom Coughlin losing his job and changes being made to improve the stock of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl in 2011 and have had three straight losing seasons.
The Giants pass rush was dismal last year, recording just 23 sacks, so the team made a big splash in free agency by signing Olivier Vernon to line up opposite sixth-year star pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. Vernon has already made a splash, but the Giants still have only four sacks – and just two from their defensive line.
The linebackers remain a weak link in the defense that has been cobbled together. The biggest playmaker of the group is former Patriot Jonathan Casillas, who is off to a strong start this season, leading the team with 26 tackles. Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and strongside linebacker Devon Kennard have combined for just 15 tackles and have been abused by tight ends and running backs in the passing game. This is an area that can be exploited by the Vikings because it is a position in need of upgrading.
The biggest concern for the Giants coming into Monday’s game is depth in the secondary, especially at safety. The Giants have just four safeties on the 53-man roster and two of them – starter Nat Berhe and rookie backup Darian Thompson – have been ruled out (Berhe is in the concussion protocol and Thompson is out with a foot injury). As a result, the only two healthy safeties on the roster are second-year man Landon Collins and undrafted rookie Andrew Adams.
Complicating the issue is that the Giants are also banged up at cornerback. First-round rookie Eli Apple is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury and veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is questionable with a groin injury. Neither of them practiced all week, which doesn’t bode well to either being a big factor Monday night. Fortunately, one of the Giants’ big offseason signings to improve the secondary was to sign Janoris Jenkins away from the Rams. Veteran Leon Hall is likely going to get pressed into starting duty if Apple and/or Rodgers-Cromartie can’t go. The only backup help is provided by unproven youngsters Trevin Wade and Michael Hunter. This is a group that can be exploited because their numbers have been thinned dramatically and has turned what was viewed as a strength into a vulnerable group of players.
The Vikings have had their fair share of success against Manning and the Giants, winning five of the last seven meetings. New York is coming off a tough division loss, so they need to put their best foot forward, but injuries at running back and in the secondary could be too much for New York to overcome against a Vikings team that is hitting on all cylinders defensively and showing some improvement on offense.