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2023 playoffs: 5 key matchups to watch in the Giants’ rematch with the Eagles

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2023 playoffs: 5 key matchups to watch in the Giants’ rematch with the Eagles
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Which matchups could determine the game between the Giants and Eagles?

The New York Giants will face a very familiar foe this weekend as they travel to take on the Philadelphia Eagles. This is the second time the Giants will travel to Philly to take on the Eagles in 13 days, though the Giants’ starters haven’t played the Eagles since Week 14.

The Giants have excelled at using personnel groupings, alignment, and play design to isolate opponents and exploit favorable matchups.

As offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said on Wednesday:

“We look at all the matchups, all the personnel, all the formations and see how they want to align to it and see if we can find just a little bit of an edge to gain an advantage for the offense. Whether it was a motion, a formation, a shift, the personnel grouping – changing in and out of those with the run and the pass. Trying to tie all that stuff together, that’s an extensive process that we go through each week.”

And make no mistake, this is going to be a match-up driven game. So which matchups could decide the game?

Adoree’ Jackson vs. A.J. Brown

This will be the first time the former teammates will face each other as NFC East rivals.

Jackson was dealing with an injury the first time these two teams met, while the Giants rested their starters in the second meeting. Both players are former Tennessee Titans and are very familiar with each other.

Jackson has been a key part of Wink Martindale’s coverage and blitz schemes, and has been a surprisingly good run defender. Brown emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL shortly after becoming a regular starter with Ryan Tannehill in 2019.

Last week we saw Jackson shadow Justin Jefferson in his (Jackson’s) first game back from injury. And while it looked like the Vikings’ receiver was going to take over the game, the Giants contained him and only gave up 47 yards receiving to the NFL’s leading pass catcher.

Brown is an excellent receiver in his own right, but has a different game from Jefferson and has a significant size advantage over Jackson.

Of course, this matchup won’t be played in a vacuum. A big reason for the Giants’ success against Jefferson was a commitment to bracketing him on every play. The Giants devoted two defensive backs to covering him for the majority of the game. While that created opportunities for receivers Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn, as well as tight end T.J. Hockenson.

And therein lies the problem that Brown has created with the Eagles’ offense. Trying to lock him down in one-on-one match-ups is a risky proposition. However, between wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins, tight end Dallas Goedert, and a varied running game, the Eagles have a lot of options. Philly’s offense can exploit other one-on-one matchups if the defense devotes too many resources to defending Brown.

How the Giants deal with Brown, and whether Jackson is able to keep the Giants from having to double-team him could go a long way to determining how the defense is able to deal with the Eagles’ offense as a whole.

The battle in the trenches

Broadly speaking, the rest of the key matchups could be summed up under this heading.

Both sides are going to try to win the line of scrimmage to facilitate their offense or disrupt their opponent. The Giants might need to try and disrupt the Eagles’ offense in the backfield to take pressure off their secondary and linebackers. The Eagles likely remember the success the Giants had down the field against them in the last two games and would certainly like to stop Saquon Barkley before he gets going.

There are a bunch of moving parts here, so we’ll break them down in a bit more detail.

Thibodeaux and Ojulari (if he plays) vs. the Eagles’ tackles

We should probably include Jihad Ward, Oshane Ximines, and Tamon Fox in here as well. Not only does Martindale love to rotate personnel, but we just don’t know how much Azeez Ojulari will play.

We also don’t know where the Giants’ various edge defenders will align from one snap to the next.

Jordan Mailata has become one of the best run blocking left tackles in the NFL, while Kayvon Thibodeaux has become a very good run defender for a rookie pass rusher. The Eagles are a very run-heavy team, and we should get some great battles if these two are matched up.

On the other side, Lane Johnson will (probably) be playing in this game after missing time with a groin injury. Ojulari, meanwhile, has been limited this week with a quad bruise. It’s been reported that how much Ojulari plays will largely be determined by pain tolerance. And while adrenaline is amazing, pain can still have subtle impacts on how we perform or compensate for injuries. We could well see Jihad Ward play a greater role and Ojulari be brought on in obvious passing situations.

Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence vs. Philly’s interior line

The Giants’ defensive tackles have established themselves as the undisputed strength of the defense. Williams remains a great run defender and is disruptive in the backfield, while Lawrence is blossomed into one of the best all-around defensive tackles in the NFL.

Williams has emerged as one of ESPN’s top run defenders, coming in at 10th in Run Stop Win Rate, while Lawrence is fourth in Pass Rush Win Rate.

On the flip side, the Eagles’ interior offensive line is experienced and stout themselves. They’re led by 35-year-old center Jason Kelce, who remains one of the best at his position despite his (relatively) advanced age. Kelce is one of just four centers to appear in the top 10 of both Pass Block and Run Block win rates, per ESPN. Left guard Landon Dickerson also has the distinction of appearing on both lists as ESPN’s second-best pass blocking guard and best run blocking guard.

The Giants have generated a lot of pressure with their defensive tackles, and their play has also helped facilitate Martindale’s blitz schemes. However, the Giants have also struggled against the run. The Eagles have the best running game in the NFL — helped in part by Jalen Hurts, which his injury throws into question. They also run a very varied running game that uses a variety of schemes and techniques to attack defenses in different ways.

Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal vs. the Eagle’s edge defenders

The Philadelphia Eagles have the best pass rush in the NFL. They lead the NFL in sacks with 70 – 15 more than the second-place Kansas City Chiefs — as well as pressure rate at 25.5 percent. They’re lead by Haason Reddick, who has been an terror for the Giants’ offensive tackles and trails only Micah Parsons in Pass Rush Win Rate, while Josh Sweat is tenth in PRWR. All told, the Eagles have three different edge defenders with double-digit sacks, and Robert Quinn could have a larger role two weeks removed from coming off of the injured reserve.

The Giants’ receivers were able to beat the Eagles’ talented defensive backs down the field in the first game, but the pressure from their pass rush prevented Daniel Jones from taking advantage.

Andrew Thomas has developed into one of the top left tackles in the NFL, and the Giants likely won’t have to sweat his side of the field. That doesn’t mean he’ll be perfect, but they should be able to trust him to stalemate most of his match-ups. The concern is on the other side of the line with rookie Evan Neal. Neal struggled this year, flashing the upside that made him the seventh overall pick, but has also given up pressures, sacks, and had false starts.

The Giants will, frankly, need to trust Thomas to hold down the left side of the line so they can roll protection to the right and help out Neal. The Giants will have their work cut out for them, as might Daniel Bellinger, Nick Vannett, Lawrence Cager, and Saquon Barkley.

The Giants’ interior offensive line vs. the Eagles’ defensive tackles

Not only do the Eagles have dangerous edge defenders, but they have disruptive defensive tackles as well. Javon Hargrave has 11.0 sacks on the season while Fletcher Cox has 7.0 sacks.

They also have plenty of depth and massive bodies behind them, with rookie Jordan Davis, second-year tackle Milton Williams, and veterans Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph. The Eagles have struggled against the run over the course of the year, and their decision to add Suh and Joseph while Davis dealt with an ankle injury is in direct response to that.

The Giants’ interior offensive line has been a source of angst for fans for most of the season. The Giants have struggled with penetration from defensive tackles and most of the pressure that’s leaked into the backfield has come through the A and B-gaps. Lately, however, LG Ben Bredeson and C Jon Feliciano have shown improvement and the pocket has been more stable. That said, veteran right guard Mark Glowinski has been something of a problem next to Evan Neal. New York will likely need to try and manipulate the Eagles through personnel, alignment, and play design to help take pressure off of their interior line in general.

The Giants’ roster is not nearly as bereft of talent as many in the national media believed at the beginning of the year. The Giants’ coaches have done a phenomenal job of developing the players on the roster. But even so, they will have their work cut out for them in just about every match-up in this game. The Eagles earned the top seed for a reason, and as both Wink Martindale and Mike Kafka have praised the caliber of their players.

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