Thursday Night Football Preview: The Wild, Wild East
It's been a crazy first two weeks in the NFC East.
The Cowboys sit atop the standings with a 2-0 record. That's not a surprise. What is a surprise is that they now have to hold this spot without their starting quarterback Tony Romo and All-Pro wideout Dez Bryant, both out due to serious injury.
Chip Kelly and the (presumed) high-flying Eagles offense have had their wings clipped, generating just 32 points and 625 yards of total offense (25th in the league) to drop to the bottom of the division with a winless record.
Joining the Eagles in this spot are the New York Giants, who sit at an 0-2 record after blowing a fourth-quarter, 10-point lead this past Sunday for the second time in as many games.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the season thus far has been the Washington Redskins. After an impressive win against the St. Louis Rams -- who themselves were coming off a big defeat of the Seattle Seahawks to open the year -- and with improvements in the performance of their once-leaky defense, the Redskins find themselves in second place of the division at 1-1, with an eye toward the top of the leaderboard.
And while we're only one-eighth of the way into the season, it's hard to ignore just how far off script everything in this division has gone so far.
On Thursday, with the Giants set to face off with the Redskins at home, we get another glimpse of whether or not these trends will continue to hold, or if we're merely looking at early season illusions.
The Pre-Game Rundown
Expectations were high for the New York offense going into year two of Ben McAdoo's offense; with a full year out of superstar wideout Odell Beckham ahead of them and after acquiring pass catching tailback Shane Vereen in free agency this offseason, many thought Eli Manning and this team would hit the ground running to open the season.
But perhaps feeling the loss of starting left tackle Will Beatty -- who suffered a torn pectoral muscle back in May -- the Giants have mustered just 677 yards of total offense through two games to rank them 17th in the league, and this is despite the team playing two teams (Dallas and Atlanta) who ranked in the bottom-10 of the league in adjusted defensive efficiency as measured by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.
But for how mediocre this offense has been, perhaps the real blame for the Giants 0-2 start should lie with the defensive unit. Last season the Giants ranked 22nd and 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency against the pass and rush, respectively, according to our NEP metrics, and this offseason things have not gotten better for this group.
Marred by injury -- most notably Jason Pierre-Paul's fireworks incident -- this team has failed to put up a fight against opposing offenses, allowing 25.5 points per game (19th) and generating just two sacks over the first two games of the year.
But the Redskins are not without their offensive injuries either. DeSean Jackson's pulled hamstring suffered in the season opener has forced wideout Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed to step up in this passing game. And so far the duo has done an admirable job, grabbing a combined 25 receptions for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns this season.
While capable in the passing game, the Redskins' true strength lies in their revamped running game. After grabbing Brandon Scherff, arguably the nation's best run blocker in this year's NFL Draft, with the fifth overall pick and then electric Florida tailback Matt Jones in the third round, Washington is enjoying an effectiveness in the ground game it hasn't seen since perhaps Alfred Morris' rookie season under head coach Mike Shannahan.
On the strength of Jones' 123 yards on the ground last week against the stout Rams defense while splitting snaps with incumbent starting back Morris, the Redskins now lead the league in rushing with 343 yards on the ground through the first two games.
On the other side of the ball, the Redskins went to work this offseason, shoring up their glaring deficiencies on the defense. Last season, while the team did rank sixth against the rush according to our Defensive Rushing NEP metrics, they unfortunately also ranked dead last against the pass.
And so far, early indications suggest that the new additions to this defense by the Redskins front office are already beginning to pay dividends. After signing free agent nose tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Stephen Paea and trading for safety Dashon Goldson, this defensive unit has produced two admirable performances already this season.
In the first two weeks of the season Washington's defense has held the Dolphins and Rams to a combined 27 points, including holding the latter team to just 217 yards of total offense one week after they lit the Seahawks up for 373 total yards and 3 touchdowns.
So what can we expect when these two NFC East teams meet for Thursday Night Football?
The Giants' Game Script
Many expected a down performance for Beckham last week with expectations of a 1-on-1 matchup against shutdown corner Desmond Trufant.
Instead, the Giants chose to move Beckham around the formation to get him the ball. Beckham caught 7 of his 12 targets for 146 yards and a touchdown despite Manning not once throwing Trufant's way on any of the team's 71 offensive snaps. And with Beckham likely drawing three-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall in coverage this week, expect a similar game plan for him in this game as well.
With the defense unable to stop anyone thus far, the offense will likely lean heavily on their offense to keep them in this game.
Unfortunately, this offense will have to operate once again without the services of salsa-dancing Victor Cruz, whose calf strain has kept him off the field the past few weeks.
Following the release of slot wideout Preston Parker, and with Cruz still on the shelf, many expect disappointing wideout Rueben Randle to slide into this role on the offense for Week 3. But while Manning has called for Randle to be more involved in the offense, it is unclear just how efficient he'll actually be; currently, Randle's 0.25 Reception NEP per target ranks him 84th out of 93 wideouts with 5 or more targets this season.
To get an idea of what the running game might look like against Washington, let's take a quick look here at the touch distributions for the backfield through the Giants first two games: Rashad Jennings (22 carries, 3 targets), Vereen (9 carries, 13 targets), Andre Williams (12 carries, 0 targets).
As expected, Jennings has taken the lion's share of the early down work, with Vereen taking most of the receiving looks, and Williams relegated to backup duties on purely rushing downs. And with Vereen leading the team in Reception NEP per target at 0.42, and sporting a 92.0% catch rate and Williams mustering a below-average -0.10 Rushing NEP per attempt, expect the touch distribution on Thursday to mirror these early-season trends.
But with starting left tackle and first round draft choice Ereck Flowers likely out this game along with the aforementioned Beatty on the Reserve/PUP list, this unit will be forced to run behind an offensive line that will be at less than full strength against Washington's revamped front seven.
So will all of this be enough to beat the Redskins?
The Redskins' Game Script
The stoppable force meets the movable object.
That's the name of the game when the Redskins offense takes the field against New York's defense this Thursday.
With Ryan Grant starting at wideout next to Garcon, the Redskins offense fields few options for quarterback Kirk Cousins to throw to outside of the aging veteran wideout and tight end Reed. But with the Giants injuries at cornerback and their inability to cover tight ends last season spilling over into this season -- in Week 1 the team gave up 8 receptions for 60 yards and 2 touchdowns to Jason Witten before giving up a 4-for-77 line to Jacob Tamme this past week -- Reed and Garcon might be all Cousins & Company need to put points on the board.
And while Garcon may draw top corner Prince Amukamara in coverage this Thursday, the Giants will likely be playing without opposite starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie because of a concussion suffered in last weekend's against the Falcons, opening up yet another hole on this defense for Washington to exploit.
In the running game, with Giants defensive end Robert Ayers and linebacker Jon Beason's statuses for this Thursday's game in doubt, expect Washington to once again pound the rock against New York's Giants underwhelming (and that's putting it nicely) front seven, who will once again also be without defensive end Pierre-Paul.
They'll look to wear down the Giants poor rush defense with a one-two punch of Morris as the early down bulldozer and Jones as the explosive change-of-pace back. In terms of workload splits, Jones outcarried and outgained Morris last week to the tune of a 19-123-2 line to Morris' 18-59-0. And while Jones still sits behind Morris on the official depth charts, with Gruden praising Jones as "a rare combination of size and speed" with "good vision," don't be surprised if Jones once again out-touched Morris in this game as well.
A holdover from Mike Shannahan's regime that drafted Morris four seasons ago, the new coaching staff in Washington owes him no loyalty and will play the tail back that gives this team the best chance to win. And with an obvious decline for Morris in terms of efficiency as measured by our advanced Rushing NEP and Success Rate metrics over the past four seasons, and the stellar play of Jones so far, it seems as though the Redskins rookie may be just that back.
Either way, the undermanned Giants defense will have their hands full keeping the Redskins offense off the field this Thursday.
Fantasy Football Implications
On New York's side of the offense,While I don't typically recommend aerial attacks in Thursday Night Football games, Beckham is as close to an every-week must start as you're going to get. Though the Redskins passing defense seems to have improved over last season, it's hard to ignore the fact that last year Washington surrendered the most fantasy points to quarterbacks, third most to wide receivers, and fourth most to tight ends last year.
While I also like to recommend guys in the rushing attack for Thursday Night Football games -- short prep weeks force a dependence on simpler playcalling -- with a three-headed rotation in the Giants backfield, and the strength of the Redskins rushing defense, it's hard to recommend Jennings, Vereen or Williams this week.
On Washington's side of the ball, go ahead and fire up the members of the Redskins backfield against a hurting Giants rushing defense. In standard-scoring leagues last year the Giants surrendered the eighth most fantasy points per game to running backs. With this unit in even worse shape for Thursday Night's game, given the run-heavy nature of this offense already, expect Morris and Jones to put up nice numbers on the ground despite the timeshare.
In the passing game, a nice play this week may be Reed. The Giants surrendered the 10th most points to tight ends last season and have already surrendered 12 receptions, 137 yards, and 2 touchdowns to Witten and Tamme the last two weeks. It also helps that Reed seems to be the apple of Cousins' eye as he leads this team in targets with 17 already.
Garcon presents a risky start but could be a worthwhile addition given the sheer number of targets that should be coming his way. As our Associate Editor Brandon Gdula has found, Garcon has been an inefficient wideout for most of his career, relying on volume in the passing game to succeed. Lucky for him, volume is exactly what he'll get as long as Jackson is sidelined with his hamstring injury Garcon should see plenty of looks as the team's only viable receiving option outside the aforementioned Reed.
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