1. Can the pass rush stay hot? The Giants have a whopping 22 sacks in their last three games after recording only 19 in their first 11. St. Louis' offensive line had a hard time protecting quarterback Shaun Hill in its Week 15 game against Arizona. The quarterback-challenged Rams will try to keep the Giants' pressure off by leaning on the run game -- something they couldn't do against Arizona's tough run defense. So the Giants' pass-rushers are going to have to find ways to keep the pressure on while still paying attention to Tre Mason and the Rams' running game.
2. Can they protect Eli Manning? On the flip side of that, the Giants' offensive line will have to cope with a fearsome St. Louis front that features Robert Quinn, Chris Long and rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Manning hasn't responded well this year (or last!) when facing pressure, and the Giants haven't faced a defense this tough in quite a while, if all year. St. Louis had back-to-back shutouts before last week's 12-6 loss to Arizona. They haven't given up a touchdown since Week 12.
@DanGrazianoESPN: So many choices from among the 22 Giants players on injured reserve. Wide receiver Victor Cruz is the most obvious answer, as the offense seemed to be clicking and Odell Beckham Jr. had just returned from injury when Cruz blew out his knee in Week 6 against the Eagles. And based on the Giants' preseason plans, they'd likely give a nod to middle linebacker Jon Beason, who never recovered from a minicamp foot injury, but I don't know that we can put the Giants' defensive struggles solely on the absence of Beason. I think the potential impact of Walter Thurmond as the nickel cornerback was a major one, and he went down early. He could have solidified them in the slot, and he could have played on the outside once Prince Amukamara went down with his injury. With a nod toward offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, I'm going to go with Cruz and Thurmond as my answers here. But as I said, lots of strong choices, unfortunately for the Giants.
@DanGrazianoESPN: In spite of this odd disciplinary fracas between wide receiver Rueben Randle and coach Tom Coughlin, I don't see any reason the Giants wouldn't bring back Randle next year. He's only going to be making about $800,000, and he'll only cost about $1 million against the salary cap. He's on pace to finish this season with 67 catches for 741 yards. He caught six touchdown passes last season, when he was the No. 3 wide receiver on the team. None of those numbers are dazzling, I'll grant you, but he's obviously a competent NFL receiver, and no one's roster has 53 superstars on it. The Giants believe Cruz will return to full health, which would make Randle a pretty good-looking No. 3 behind Cruz and Beckham (likely playing outside with Cruz in the slot in their preferred three-wide receiver sets), especially for the price. Again, it's possible that the issues he's having with being late for meetings and whatever else is ticking off Coughlin could pave the way for Randle to head out of town and be replaced by someone from the mid-range receiver market. But I find that unlikely, especially since they just used a second-round pick on him two years ago and the Giants are not inclined to give up on draft picks this soon.
@DanGrazianoESPN: Hey! That's two questions! Pretty good work for 140 characters. In spite of the Justin Pugh pick from 2013, I still think the Giants are disinclined to use a first-round pick on the offensive line. Considering where they'll likely be picking (7-to-9 range), and considering that this draft seems more top-heavy with defensive linemen than it does with offensive linemen, my way-too-early prediction is that they go with a pass-rusher in the first round and maybe hit the offensive line in the second or third. Or, as you said, free agency. As for Larry Donnell, I would not say he's "done enough to trust as a starting tight end next season." But I would say he's shown enough to make the Giants believe he'll continue to develop as that, and that at this point their plan would be to go into 2015 with him as their starter at the position. That'd be the first time since 2010 (Kevin Boss) that they didn't change starting tight ends in the offseason, but they like Donnell and believe he can blossom into a major playmaker for them.
@DanGrazianoESPN: Just rumors and inside whispering, but yeah. At this point, I think the odds are better that Coughlin is back than that he's gone. They're not planning to cut bait with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo after just one year. I think a lot of people would be surprised if defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is back, and if they do make a change there you'd have to think some of the other defensive assistants would be in trouble as well, since a new coordinator would likely want to bring in at least some of his own people. And don't rule out a little bit more tinkering on the offensive side of the ball in McAdoo's second season. Offensive line coach Pat Flaherty is a good coach and well respected, but it was a bit of a surprise that spot didn't turn over last year when they made moves to get younger on the coaching staff. He might not be safe this time around if they do make more changes.
Thanks for the questions, and enjoy the start of bowl season.
Jennings said Friday that his hope is to return to practice next week and play in the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles next week. In the meantime, rookie Andre Williams will make his sixth start of the season. Orleans Darkwa will serve as his backup, and Chris Ogbonnaya is likely to be active for the first time as a Giant.
The only other Giants player on the injury report this week was middle linebacker Jameel McClain, who missed Wednesday's practice with a knee injury but practiced Thursday and Friday. McClain is listed as probable and is expected to play.
The St. Louis Rams are 6-8, which is obviously no great shakes, but they have victories this year against Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, and they’ve allowed a total of 12 points in their last three games. The Rams play a level of defense the Giants have not encountered since the Week 11 game against the 49ers in which Eli Manning threw five interceptions.
Both of these defenses come into the game playing well, so I don’t expect a lot of points either way in this game. But I think the Rams will generate more pressure on Manning than he’s faced in recent games, and this is the week we remember that the Giants are a team with a lot of problems. Rams 16, Giants 10.
This particular Friday being Dec. 19, this week's music selection had a holiday vibe. Here's the playlist that rolled out at the start of the portion of practice open to the media:
"Christmas in Hollis" -- Run DMC
"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" -- Bruce Springsteen
"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" -- The Jackson Five
"Jingle Bell Rock" -- Unknown
"Ludacrismas" -- Ludacris
And then it spun into a non-holiday Nelly tune and a couple of more usual selections.
These are the kinds of thing I figure at least some of you guys would like to know.
Lost in this, on occasion, is the fact that Giants offense coordinator Ben McAdoo is himself a rookie. Prior to this year, the 37-year-old McAdoo had never been a coordinator at any level and had never been an in-game playcaller. He's been both for the Giants this year. On Thursday, I asked him what he's learned this season and how he's different as a coach than he was a year ago.
"You don't fall into the trap where you think the system is everything," McAdoo said. "In tough times, you think about players, not plays. That's the first thing that comes to mind."
McAdoo said expanded exposure to a variety of viewpoints has helped educate him about his new job as he's done it. Having been a position coach (tight ends and quarterbacks) during his time in Green Bay, he's now in a position to hear a variety of opinions and perspectives as a coordinator overseeing several different position coaches. And the on-the-job lessons about in-game play calling have helped as well, as there's no better teacher than experience.
But I found it interesting, especially as we watch the offense run through the red-hot Beckham every week instead of a run game that has faltered, that McAdoo's first answer to the question of what he's learned is that there are times when you have to rely on your personnel rather than your plan or your scheme. Understanding that is the mark of a good coach, I believe.
"Simply, the best play may not be the best play because it doesn't get the person the ball who gives you the best chance to win the game," McAdoo said. "Getting the ball to the right guy at the right time is critical."
McAdoo stands as an interesting figure for the Giants in the coming years as a young, developing offensive coordinator the team views as a potential head coach. It should be fun and interesting to track and analyze his development along with that of the players.
Yet when asked Thursday if that numerical milestone would mean anything to him, Pierre-Paul's response was a tad surprising.
"Nope!" he said. "I'm just playing football, and I think I'm doing a great job of it."
"Way before my sacks went up I was playing good," Pierre-Paul said. "At the end of the day it’s all about numbers, but I was playing great before that."
Stats back up that statement, too. Pro Football Focus has Pierre-Paul rated the second-best 4-3 defensive end in the league, behind only Wake. And against the run, he's No. 1, by a large margin -- not too shabby for a guy known as a pass-rusher.
Suddenly, Pierre-Paul -- who's been a big disappointment the past two years -- looks like a player who will get a big contract this offseason. He has stated that he would like to stay with the Giants, but whether they'll pony up is very much in question.
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell gushed about Pierre-Paul on Friday. "I just think JPP has turned it up a notch this second half of the season," Fewell said.
And the play Fewell was most impressed by last week wasn't even one of Pierre-Paul's sacks -- it was his chase-down of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III on the final play of the first half, which caused Griffin to fumble and negated a Washington touchdown.
"Amazing. Absolutely amazing," Fewell said. "Because RG3 as a 4.4, 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy, JPP was on the right side of the defensive line -- it just showed you his desire to want to make that football play, and I think that’s what he has done over the last three or fours weeks. He's turned it up, his desire to make plays."
"I was in awe, I really was," Fewell added. "It was like, wow. The guy continues to amaze you."
Pierre-Paul isn't the only Giants defensive player to step up of late. The team as a whole has 22 sacks the past three weeks -- in fact, the Giants are the first team since the 1989 Vikings to record seven sacks in three straight games (credit ESPN Stats & Information).
Second-year player Johnathan Hankins is now up to seven sacks -- the fifth-most by a defensive tackle in the NFL. And rookie linebacker Devon Kennard has 4.5 -- all of them coming the past three weeks.
Pierre-Paul credited improved communication across the defensive line, when asked about the sack surge.
"We’ve had to do some different things," Fewell admitted, in regards to the increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But that's all we got -- when asked what has changed, Fewell's answer was short, and not so sweet.
"If I told you that I’d have to kill you," Fewell said, with a smile.
"When I was hurt, I would see a lot of tweets telling me, 'I dropped you from my fantasy team,'" Beckham said Thursday. "That's on them, I guess."
But Beckham is not among those fantasy owners benefiting from his brilliant statistical run, because the Giants' rookie does not play fantasy football.
"It's just not my thing," Beckham said. "I don't have time to do substitutions or things like that. It's too time-consuming."
He said he has been taken aback by just what a huge deal fantasy football is to people, now that he's such a significant figure in the industry.
"I don't really pay much mind to it, but people talk about fantasy all the time," Beckham said. "It's definitely pretty crazy. I didn't expect people to be so into it. But now, being at a point where you can be picked up on a fantasy team, you can see what a big deal it is to people."
He says he still gets tweets from people asking whether they should start him in a given week.
"I'm not your team's coach. You do what you want to do," Beckham said. "I don't play football to play for somebody's fantasy team. This is what I do. This is my job. It's what I love."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has played just 10 games, but his performance in those 10 games has thrust him into the discussion for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
It's a crowded field that includes strong first-year performances by fellow receivers such as Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin and Miami's Jarvis Landry, who's a close friend and former college teammate of Beckham's. Dallas guard Zack Martin also could receive consideration for his strong performance, though it's tough for linemen who don't get individual stats to win such an award.
But Beckham, who has 71 catches for 972 yards and nine touchdowns since missing the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, insists he's trying not to think about such things.
"If they vote for me, I win it, and it would definitely be a tremendous honor," Beckham said. "It's in the back of your mind, but at the same time, we've got two games left and I've got to finish strong."
Beckham said if he had a vote, he'd vote for a pair of his former LSU teammates No. 1 and 2.
"Jarvis Landry," Beckham said. "And [Bengals running back] Jeremy Hill."
The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants have both been eliminated from playoff contention and neither enters Sunday's matchup with much to play for.
But neither team has looked like it is ready to close up shop for the rest of the season, either, which could make this at least a mildly interesting game for the football diehards.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano discuss Sunday's game:
Wagoner: Dan, I'm sure you're getting a lot of questions about Odell Beckham Jr., but let's be real, he's going to be the most exciting player on the field Sunday. What is it about him that's allowed him to have such success, and is he as fun to watch up close as he is from a distance?
Graziano: Nick, I don't want to overstate the case here. But what we're watching with Beckham on a weekly basis (a daily one, in fact, when you take into account his practice antics) is a player gifted with such raw athleticism that he stands out on a field whose other occupants are also world-class athletes. He's impressive in all facets. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He plays bigger than his 5-foot-11 size would indicate, because he has the ability to outjump defenders and locate the ball in the air before they do. He has the blazing speed you've seen. Really, from a raw talent standpoint, he's the total package. What he's doing is even more incredible due to the facts that he missed all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, and that he and Victor Cruz played only two games together. Eli Manning is targeting Beckham pretty much all the time, and it's working. Expect to see a lot of him.
The Rams' defense has allowed a total of 12 points over its past three games. What's behind the surge?
Wagoner: There are plenty of reasons for the surge, up to and including taking advantage of a bit of a break in the schedule in terms of opponents. But make no mistake: The Rams' defensive surge is real. They held the high-powered Broncos to seven points, the fewest since Peyton Manning took over at quarterback. The intangible part of it is the defense has finally gotten comfortable with Gregg Williams as coordinator and vice versa. Williams now knows the best way to deploy his players and they now know what is expected of them. That's manifested into a defense that's doing a bit of everything well. The Rams had a disappointing performance last week in stopping Arizona's run game, but their better efforts start with stopping the run. When the Rams stop the run consistently and force opponents into second- and third-and-long, their vaunted pass rush can be as good as advertised. It doesn't hurt that end Robert Quinn and tackle Aaron Donald form one of the most dynamic inside out duos in the league, either. But really, they're getting better performances across the board with the defense.
While we're on defense, I noticed that since Week 7, the Rams and Giants rank first and third in the league in sacks, respectively. What's been the cause of the uprising from New York's pass rush?
Graziano: The Giants had 19 sacks in their first 11 games of the season and have picked up 22 in their past three games. A lot of that has to do with their opponents -- Jacksonville, Tennessee and Washington. But in terms of what they're doing to take advantage of the matchups, they're getting contributions from all over. Jason Pierre-Paul has six sacks in those three games, but rookie defensive end Kerry Wynn is making a contribution. Rookie linebacker Devon Kennard, who was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 14, has been a factor in the pass rush. Second-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is up to seven sacks for the season. The Giants are getting a variety of help in the pass rush, which is especially important with defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers among the 22 Giants currently on injured reserve. They'll blitz a linebacker or a safety or a cornerback in key times. Basically, since the schedule turned around for them, they've been taking advantage of their matchups at a high level and in a variety of ways.
I know the quarterback situation has been a muddle, but why do the Rams still have so many unanswered questions at the other offensive skill positions? Receiver and running back?
Wagoner: Well, I think they've at least finally settled on Tre Mason as their primary ball carrier for the future, though I suppose we thought the same thing last year at this time with Zac Stacy. Mason's not getting the vast majority of the snaps right now because he's still not up to speed in pass protection, but if and when that happens, his snap count will only increase. In the meantime, he's the first option running the ball and Benny Cunningham is next in line to handle the dirty work. I think Mason will be the main guy going forward, but judging the Rams' recent knack for drafting running backs earlier than expected, maybe that should be considered a year-to-year proposition until they go with the same guy for two consecutive seasons. At receiver, they seem to have finally settled into using Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. If Brian Quick comes back from a devastating shoulder injury and they re-sign Britt, they should be pretty solid. I'd argue they could still use a true No. 1 guy like the Giants have with Beckham, but it's not the pressing need it was coming into the season. They just need to find someone who can more consistently get them the ball.
Sticking to quarterbacks, what do you make of Eli Manning at this point in his career? He's obviously had great success but also some clunkers. With so few decent quarterbacks around, there's no way the Giants would look elsewhere at that position, is there?
Graziano: No way. Other than the horrible five-interception game against the 49ers in Week 11, Manning has operated the new offense smoothly and efficiently in the first year under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. He's protecting the ball well, making good decisions, relying on shorter, higher-percentage stuff than he did earlier in his career. Considering they have four wide receivers and three running backs on injured reserve, and that the offensive line has struggled all year to protect him, I think Manning's doing fine and is among the very least of their problems.
As for quarterback, what do you expect them to do this offseason? Bring back Bradford? Move up in the draft? What?
Wagoner: At this point, the expectation remains that the Rams will try to bring Sam Bradford back at a reduced rate with incentives built in, and spend a high draft pick (first three rounds) on a quarterback. I've been writing that for the past month or so and I stand by the assertion until I hear something different. Of course, that still depends on how big the pay cut would be and whether Bradford's representation wants to explore the market. Even with his injury issues, he could become a hot commodity in such a quarterback-needy market. Moving up sounds good on paper, but I'm not sure they have the ammunition or the desire to make such a move. They could also look to bring Shaun Hill back as a backup option for Bradford and/or the new draft pick. Either way, it's the one thing holding this team back from being a legitimate playoff contender. The only problem is that it's also the most difficult problem to fix.