HOW CAROLINA WILL TRY TO WIN::
Matt Rhule’s Panthers looked lost offensively to begin the season, adapting a hyper conservative game plan and not opening things up until deep into the fourth quarter in Week 1. It’s honestly a shame they almost came back to win late because it could lead to a somewhat validated feeling amongst the coaching staff, which is truly too bad considering the pieces of the offense. Christian McCaffrey maintains his position as one of the true workhorse running backs in the NFL, yet he was afforded only five first half touches in Week 1. For all intents and purposes, this team still has a lot to figure out as far as identity goes. One interesting aspect is the disconnect between feigned aggression and play calling as the Panthers ranked towards the top of the league in pace of play in Week 1, but were both timid on early downs and one-dimensional through the air until late in the fourth quarter. From a pure game planning perspective, we should expect the Panthers to get out ahead of the likely high blitz rates from the Giants, meaning short-to-intermediate passing to D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey.
The Panthers backfield is Christian McCaffrey’s. He played a massive 83% snap rate in Week 1 on his way to a 23% team target market share and 77% route participation rate; however, his low 17% targets per route run and 61% team rush share were well below his career norm. There’s two ways to look at this: (1) the floor is in for McCaffrey for the remainder of the year as the latter two values increase to meet his career norms, or (2) Rhule is making a concerted effort to lighten his load while not lessening his snap rate. The former makes a whole heck of a lot more sense to me considering the elite snap rate and route participation rate we saw in Week 1, while the latter seems like pure idiocy, in my humble opinion. As in, why in the world would Rhule not manage his workload by lessening his snap rate to get the same elite per-touch production instead of calling plays around his elite back while he’s on the field? All of that is a fancy way of saying, “CMC is going to be just fine, and I think we just saw a floor performance.” The matchup is middling against a non-formidable Giants defensive line, with the primary detractor being the shortcomings of Carolina’s offensive line. The only worry here is the lack of dynamic and schemed usage for CMC to start the year after two lost seasons, something I am not currently overly concerned about.
The Panthers were held to a paltry 53 offensive plays run from scrimmage against a Browns team that controlled the game throughout. The interesting part about the setup of this one is that the Giants are now strangely well-equipped to do just that – control the game through their defense and ground game. That said, and true to Rhuleian form, the top two wide receivers played every single offensive snap in Week 1. DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson accounted for 14-of-27 Baker Mayfield pass attempts, good for a combined 51.6% team target market share. My takeaway here is that DJM, CMC, and Anderson are going to be the driving forces in this offense on a weekly basis, which could present some buying opportunities before we see them put everything together. The high blitz rates of Wink Martindale’s defense on the other side should force heavier rates of man coverage and ball-out-quick from Mayfield, meaning D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey should see heavier target shares than the more downfield Robbie Anderson. And guess who holds a top-10 career success rate against man coverage? Yeah, D.J. Moore does (greater than 30% target share against man coverages each of the last three seasons.) His 2.40 yards of average separation versus man coverage is absolutely elite.
HOW NEW YORK WILL TRY TO WIN::
The Giants suddenly find themselves in good hands up and down the coaching roster, with head coach Brian Daboll delegating offensive play calling duties to former quarterback Mike Kafka, while the defense falls into the capable hands of former Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. We saw a classic Martindale approach to the defensive side in Week 1 as New York blitzed Tennessee an absurd 48.6% of the time – a notable development considering Baker Mayfield has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league over his career when under pressure. Carolina’s offensive line was ranked as PFF’s 24th unit entering the season and are coming off a game against a Cleveland team that amassed four sacks and six quarterback hits on a 15.6% blitz rate. Not good, Bob. By all accounts, this team is built from the defense forward (hence us starting there with our exploration,) which is an interesting shift in identity compared to previous seasons. The Giants played at the league’s 30th-ranked pace of play in the first half of Week 1 (the most “sticky” indicator of pace of play plans moving forward to start the season,) not increasing their tempo until forced to do so in the second half. They also, somewhat quietly and surprisingly, finished Week 1 with the third lowest pass rate over expectation – further indication that Daboll has come in and completely flipped the culture of this franchise on its head.
This is back to being Saquon’s world, we’re all just living in it. The electric running back amassed an elite 74% route participation rate, 82% snap rate, 37% team target market share, and 33% targets per route run rate en route to 34.4 DraftKings points on 18 carries and seven targets in Week 1. Daboll told us his offense would be built around his running back this preseason and he delivered on that promise immediately. New York’s rebuilt offensive line came into the season as PFF’s 18th-ranked unit but has fallen all the way down to 27th after nobody could hold down the left guard position (Ben Bredeson and Joshua Ezeudu rotated snaps throughout the game) and rookie right tackle Evan Neal struggled to hold his blocks in Week 1. That said, the sheer volume and explosiveness we can expect from Barkley is enough to keep him in the top three running backs conversation on any slate from here on out.
Richie James and David Sills played over Kadarius Toney in a game where rookie slot man Wan’Dale Robinson was forced to depart after only nine offensive snaps. That, my friends, is worthy of a great, big “oof.” At least Toney played over Darius Slayton, am I right!? All joking aside, this is not a straightforward pass-catching unit. Kenny Golladay led the team in pass-catcher snaps at 77% but saw only two targets. His inability to create any meaningful separation appears to still be a problem for quarterback Daniel Jones’ progressions. Sterling Shepard and Richie James were next in line for snaps at the position, playing snap rates of 72% and 70%, respectively, while David Sills mixed in for a 45% rate. The team also utilized a three-way rotation at tight end, with all of rookie Daniel Bellinger, Tanner Hudson, and Chris Myarick seeing playing time. That said, the Giants played almost exclusively out of 11-personnel to start the year, meaning none can truly be counted on in a three-way split. Robinson is currently listed as “day-to-day,” so look for an update from practice reports throughout the week (DNP on Wednesday). It’s anyone’s guess who is likeliest to step up should he miss, but I’d like to hope we’d see a bit more Toney (this feels very much like Brandon Aiyuk to start the year last year, where he couldn’t be counted on until he proved to his coaching staff that his head was fully in the right place.) Regardless, Giants pass catchers are difficult to trust from a guaranteed volume perspective unless we’re speaking of Saquon Barkley.
LIKELIEST GAME FLOW::
This game is likeliest to be dictated by the Giants defense, which sounds almost hilarious to type out considering the year this team had last season. Carolina will need to keep away from long down-and-distance situations so as not to allow the opportunity for the heavy blitz rates thrown around by Wink Martindale room to influence this game, as are almost assuredly to do if the Giants are able to control the tempo (most likely). The 29th-ranked offensive line of the Panthers, paired with the struggles of Baker Mayfield when under pressure, are likely to be too much if faced at any regular interval. That should theoretically provide the Giants with more than the 60 offensive snaps they were able to run a week ago, elevating Saquon’s expected volume slightly. The low combined pace of play and relative lack of offensive explosiveness limit the overall upside from each team, but each running back carries an elite range of outcomes due to how heavily they are relied upon and there are very clear paths of least resistance for each team – it’s simply unknown whether or not the inexperienced head coaches on each side will be bold enough to exploit those areas.