We’ve got the 49ers and the Giants on this evening. They’re coming into the game with a combined record of 3-14, so that should be super fun. Nick Mullens! Eli Manning! But seriously, George Kittle and Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham. So maybe we’ll see some fireworks.
Not much is on the line in this game, other than perhaps the future of the quarterbacks. Mullens can solidify his place in the league with another solid start, while Manning could lose his if he doesn’t manage to get things going.
It will once again be the Nick Mullens show this week, as the undrafted free agent’s spectacular debut start against the Raiders 11 days ago earned him the right to continue under center. Mullens completed 16 of 22 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns against the Raiders, posting a 151.9 passer rating. That was the second-best rating in the history of the NFL for a player making his first start, behind only Marcus Mariota. The question now becomes this: Can he do it again?
It’s difficult to know what we can take away from that first start because, well, it was against the Raiders. Oakland has allowed its opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes at an absurd average of 9.1 yards per attempt this season, while also allowing 21 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. That’s “good” for an average passer rating of 113.0, which is the equivalent of turning every quarterback into the best quarterback in NFL history. (Aaron Rodgers has the highest passer rating of all time at 103.5.)
There’s still one game left for Vegas and bettors to cash in on Week 10. It’s Monday Night Football between the Giants and 49ers. Sportsline’s advanced computer model simulated the game 10,000 times and says one side of the spread has all the value. See which one it is.
The Giants’ pass defense hasn’t been great, but it also hasn’t been anywhere close to as bad as that of the Raiders, and should provide a tougher test for Mullens in his second start. New York ranks 27th in pass defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and has struggled the most against No. 1 wideouts and players in the slot. That does not necessarily play to San Francisco’s strengths as an offense, as their passing attack tends to run through tight end George Kittle, with a sprinkle of misdirection plays used to get their running backs or fullback Kyle Juszczyk out of the backfield on wheel routes, or deep shots to their burners on the outside.
The Giants have actually been pretty good against tight ends this season, which is a massive change from a year ago when starting “tight end playing against the Giants” might have been enough to win you a fantasy football league all on its own. Last year, the Giants allowed an average line of five catches for 58 yards to tight ends, while also giving up 12 touchdowns to players at the position. Only one tight end has scored against New York so far this season, and players at the position are averaging almost a half-catch per game fewer than they did a year ago.
Kittle, though, has proven himself to be one of the best receiving tight ends in football, and the 49ers design screens and quick-hitting routes to get the ball in his hands so he can make hay after the catch. This is a different kind of matchup than any they’ve faced so far. The best places to attack the New York pass defense are still short and over the middle, and again, that means a lot of Kittle, and probably a bunch of the running backs and Juszczyk as well.
With both projected starter Jerick McKinnon and recent hot-hand Raheem Mostert on injured reserve, the running game is now based around only Matt Breida and Alfred Morris. Morris has been uninvolved of late while Breida has been playing obviously hampered by injury and has seemingly limped off the field at some point in five straight games. The Giants have been solid against the run this season … but much of their solidity was with Damon Harrison in the middle of the defense. They gave up 182 yards on the ground (5.5 per carry) to Washington in Week 8 after Harrison was traded.
I can’t believe we’re back here writing about the Giants offense again, but that’s what happens when a New York team plays a bunch of prime-time games. We’ve got to sit and watch Eli Manning and the offensive line undermine the greatness of Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr.
Everything we’ve written in this space all season about the Giants still applies. Barkley has been phenomenal overall, but inconsistent on a play-to-play basis. In eight games, he has 519 yards on the ground and 497 through the air. He’s the first rookie in NFL history with 500-plus and 400-plus through the first eight games of his career. He’s also the 17th player of any experience level to put up those numbers in his team’s first eight games of the year. He’s averaging over 4.5 yards per carry and is on pace for more than 100 catches, which is something that only LaDainian Tomlinson has done in the history of the running back position.
But as we’ve written before, so much of his value is tied to volume and a propensity to break big plays. Far too often, he is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Among 36 qualified players, Barkley ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ Success Rate on running plays. To put that in perspective, he’s tied with the Bucs’ Peyton Barber. So, yeah, that’s not great. A full 28 percent of Barkley’s carries have gone for a loss or no gain, one of the highest rates in the NFL. (If Barkley was a team by himself, it would be the third-highest percentage ahead of only the Eagles and Bucs.) Of course, he also has nine runs of 15 yards or more, three of which have gone for touchdowns.
And Barkley’s overall greatness has not lifted the quality of the offense. Last year, New York ranked 21st in yards per game, 31st in points per game, and 23rd in DVOA. This year, the Giants rank 21st in yards per game, 27th in points per game, and 23rd in DVOA. They’re basically the same offense.
And while Eli Manning’s passing numbers look better than they have in a few years, that’s coming amid the best passing season in the history of football. His net yards per attempt figure is below average, he’s checking down more than almost any quarterback in the league, and he cannot seem to find the end zone at all. Having Evan Engram back healthy should help but Manning’s been working with Beckham and Sterling Shepard all year and has still not been able to do all that much yet. If you think Engram is suddenly making him competent, you haven’t been paying attention.
This really feels like do or die time for this iteration of the New York offense. It’s very easy to see them making a change under center very soon if they can’t manage to dent the scoreboard with crooked numbers against a San Francisco defense that has not been very good this season. Given New York’s history, we shouldn’t expect them to do so.