The Giants so badly wanted to prove to everyone that they were true contenders, that their six-game winning streak wasn't a mirage just because of the poor quality of some of the teams they beat. They wanted respect. They wanted to be taken seriously. They wanted to be considered one of the best.
Instead, they came out flat and played down to the diminished expectations of their doubters as they took their first real step up in class.
It's unfortunate because they really do deserve more respect than they've gotten. Then again, all the flaws that were on display in their 24-14 loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday were hardly new. They were the same problems -- a stagnant offense, porous offensive line, bad running game, a defense that can't cover tight ends -- that were evident to anyone who really watched their six-game winning streak.
They got away with those problems then. They didn't on Sunday. And they're likely not going to get away with them much in the next few weeks.
That's a bit of a problem for the Giants (8-4) considering the wild-card race has tightened, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5), Washington Redskins (6-5-1), the Green Bay Packers (6-6) and Minnesota Vikings (6-6) nipping at their heels. Making matters worse, the Giants face two division-leaders -- the Dallas Cowboys (11-1) and Detroit Lions (8-4) -- in the next two weeks.
They probably need to win two of their last four games, but that might not be so easy, especially if they don't clean u psome of their problems from Sunday. Maybe they ought to pay attention, then, to my five takeaways from the Giants-Steelers game.
1.) Three's apparently a crowd for the Giants' offense
I have to admit, I'm perplexed by this one. One week after Sterling Shepard is ignored in the passing attack and isn't targeted once, Victor Cruz is held without a target. Now, a week ago against the Browns I dismissed it as an anomaly. The Giants only threw 27 passes as they balanced out their attack to protect a lead. They used Roger Lewis a little more and even got Dwayne Harris a rare target. Maybe Shepard just got lost in the shuffle.
But to do it to a different receiver one week later, in a game when they threw it 39 times (to 14 runs) while playing from behind? There's no excuse. And really, there's no good reason. It's not as simple as head coach Ben McAdoo needs to call more plays for Cruz. As Eli Manning explains, sometimes it's just going through progressions and going to the open receiver. But between the two of them, they need to find a way to really make use of what was supposed to be a Big Three. Turning them into a Big Two only helps the defense. The idea is that no one could cover all three of them at once.
It's great, by the way, that they're going more to Beckham (27 targets in the last two games, including 16 on Sunday). He should be the No. 1 threat. But with all those targets, he was absolutely surrounded by Steelers defenders, which is a big reason why he only had 100 yards on his 10 catches. If he's drawing that much attention, someone else has to be open. Shepard kind of was (4 catches on 8 targets for 21 yards). But Manning didn't even seem to look in Cruz's direction.
That has to change. This offense has become a one-man show -- Beckham or bust. They really need to figure out how to get all their dangerous receivers at least somewhat involved.
2.) Odell Beckham, Jr. has a point. He also doesn't
I understand Beckham's frustration. The offensive pass interference call he drew was terrible, though I also didn't think it was defensive pass interference. There were several questionable calls in the game, as there always are, but I don't think any of them really turned the game. The only one that really bothered me was when Giants tight end Will Tye was clobbered coming across the middle by Steelers safety Mike Mitchell on a ball that was thrown over Tye's head to another receiver down the field. Tye was actually pulling up when Mitchell drilled his shoulder into him. It was clearly unnecessary roughness to me.
Anyway, that said, here's where Beckham's argument goes off the rails: The Giants were called for four penalties for 24 yards. The Steelers were called for 12 penalties for 115 yards. The officiating was absolutely lopsided -- but in the Giants' favor. Moaning about the officials sure rings hollow in the face of numbers like that.
3.) Tight ends are a huge problem for the Giants. Both ways
Covering tight ends has been a problem all season long for the Giants, and it was again on Sunday when Ladarius Green caught six passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. But if you're looking for someone to blame, it might be defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I don't think this is a physical issue, where they don't have someone capable of covering a tight end. Although maybe that's a part of it.
Green was open too often, and when he wasn't he still had a little bit of space -- as if someone was late to react. I think the Giants can't settle on someone to cover tight ends and all the switching leads to confusion -- the kind of confusion we used to see constantly in their secondary. It doesn't even have to be good tight ends any more. The position in general seems to give their defense fits.
Meanwhile, the tight ends on the Giants' offense are just not up to NFL standards. Early in the game, Manning uncorked a deep pass near the end zone where Giants tight end Jerell Adams was waiting. All the 6-5, 240-pounder had to do was block out and out-jump Pittsburgh's 5-10, 187-pound cornerback William Gay. But he so badly misjudged the ball, it was comical the way it sailed over him and landed behind him.
Later, the Giants had a 4th-and-1 from the 3-yard line and Manning found Will Tye at the goal line and put the ball right in his chest. Sure, he was hit simultaneously -- and perhaps a little early -- by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. But a big, strong tight end has to hang on to that ball.
4.) The Giants' offensive line is still an issue
This goes way beyond stats. Manning was only sacked twice and wasn't hit much, but he was absolutely rushed and -- this can't be said enough -- this offense is built around quick throws in large part because the offensive line can't give Manning time to sit in the pocket. That's a problem. It's also why the yards per catch and yards after catch are so low.
Penalties are increasingly a problem, too. Three of the four Giants penalties were on offensive linemen. Two of them were on Ereck Flowers, who has been having issues at left tackle all season long. One -- an inexcusable holding in the end zone -- resulted in a safety. A holding penalty on John Jerry negated a big first down.
And don't blame the lack of a running game on the running backs. There simply aren't any holes for them to run through. Maybe it'll be better next week when Justin Pugh returns. But its problems are going to be glaring in a game when the Cowboys' league-best offensive line is on the other side.
5.) "Balance" must not mean what I think it means
Ben McAdoo always insists he strives for it, but he rarely achieves it. In this game, the Giants called 41 pass plays and 14 runs. Yeah, they were playing from behind. But they weren't behind by 40. It was 5-0 after one quarter, 14-0 at the half, and the lead was never larger than that until there was 1:39 remaining.
This is the real killer, though: The first five plays the Giants ran were to Rashad Jennings. He ran twice for five yards, caught three passes for 23 yards. Nothing spectacular, but the Giants were moving the ball. And they set up that aforementioned deep throw to Adams on 3rd and 4 that unfortunately killed the drive.
Then the Giants ran the ball on five of their next 18 plays in the first half (gaining 17 yards, by the way). Then they came out throwing on nine of their first 10 plays of the second half. I mean, it's like he got all the balance he needed on the first drive and then just said "Forget it. Fire away!"
I don't think the Giants' running game is very good, so I understand that. But a one-dimensional offense is much easier to defend -- especially when that one-dimensional offense is basically built around one receiver. Even with an anemic rushing attack, they'd be far better served by trying to run it, hoping to chip away at and wear down the defense over time.
Otherwise, teams will do what the Steelers basically did -- tee off on the quarterback and sit back in a shell to make sure Beckham doesn't get loose.