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3 questions: Defending Darius Slayton, containing the D-line and re-writing free agency

What will the Rams to do win this Sunday?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As I am sure has been mentioned a few times around the internet this week, the last time these two teams played was 2017 and the Rams won 51-17. For a coach who had already led his team to two games 40+ that season prior to improving to 6-2 against the Giants, the “51” was an emphatic announcement that the franchise was back for real this time. After all, not even the ‘99 Rams scored 50 in any of their games.

The Jeff Fisher Rams once beat the Raiders 52-0, but the only thing emphatic about that maybe is how bad Oakland was for most of the last 20 years.

The Giants enter this game at a low point that rivals losing by 34 points to a rookie head coach during a 3-13 campaign. New York is 0-3, they’re 31st in scoring and have lost the most games of any franchise since the start of the 2017 season. There’s a new head coach, again, and it’s not offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The Giants have turned to former Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge and the results are the early stages of a work-in-progress.

New York hopes to make some progress against the Rams in SoFi Stadium on Sunday afternoon and to do that, it may have to include beating LA’s second-best defensive player and containing the Rams top-ranked (by DVOA) offense.

Here are three questions I’m asking ahead of the game.

What happens if Jalen Ramsey takes Darius Slayton out of the game?

The Giants have scored three touchdowns this season, fewest in the NFL. How’d they even get those scores?

Week 1 vs Steelers - Drive begins at end of first quarter at the Giants 25. Daniel Jones goes to Slayton for 11, then Dion Lewis picks up one yard on the ground before moving onto the second quarter. Jones goes to tight end Kaden Smith for 12, Saquon Barkley loses two (because that’s what he was doing prior to his injury thanks to New York’s supporting crowd), then Jones throws two incomplete passes, leading to a fourth down at midfield ... or at least it would have been if not for a defensive pass interference penalty on Steelers cornerback Joe Haden. I can’t speak to the quality of the call, but it was not received well by Pittsburgh fans as you can imagine.

It was described as such:

The touchdown pass was made possible by a pass interference penalty on Joe Haden that allowed the Giants to convert a third-and-12. On the play, Jones’ pass was off target, but Haden was flagged for making contact with Evan Engram’s helmet as he dove to break up the play.

One play later, Jones threw to the end zone and found Slayton for a 41-yard touchdown. That is the only touchdown of the season for New York that is longer than seven yards.

Week 1 vs Steelers - There are now 5 minutes and 23 seconds remaining and the Giants have received a kickoff and are starting at their own 25 again. The score is Steelers 26, Giants 10. They have five minutes to score two touchdowns and two extra points and to not allow any points either. Jones picks up first downs on three consecutive passes to start the drive, but what sort of defense is Pittsburgh playing at this point given the lead?

The Giants convert three third downs on the drive, including a seven-yard pass to Slayton for their second touchdown of the game. But there is only 1:52 left and the two-point try was no good. A failed onside kick essentially ends the game.

Week 2 vs Bears - Facing a good defense on the road, New York falls behind 17-0 by halftime, including two touchdown throws allowed to Mitchell Trubisky. But on Chicago’s first possession of the second half, Trubisky throws to Allen Robinson on 2nd and 10 and is intercepted by Giants cornerback Julian Love.

Jones had a 25-yard field to pay dirt but his first pass was a 3-yard loss to Smith. He next found Golden Tate for seven yards and then had an incomplete pass to Slayton on 3rd and 6, setting up a 39-yard field goal by Graham Gano. In the case, New York couldn’t close out a 25-yard field.

Then on their next possession, which starts at their own 5, Daniel Jones goes 8 of 10 for 69 yards and Lewis scores on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line. There wasn’t a single run called on the drive until Lewis punched it in. The drive was also aided by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty by Bears linebacker Roquan Smith and a 5-yard offside penalty by James Vaughters.

Jones didn’t target Slayton once on that drive actually.

The Giants had a chance to win the game, getting possession with two minutes left and down 17-13, and they even converted two fourth downs on the drive. But with two shots from the Chicago 14 to win the game, Jones was unable to gain the necessary yards. He went to Slayton three times on the drive, completing one pass for three yards.

New York didn’t score any touchdowns against the 49ers in Week 3 and Jones was 17 of 32 for 179 yards, one interception, one lost fumble. Slayton caught three of seven targets for 53 yards and also lost a fumble. Without Barkley for the rest of the year and one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, what will Jones do next if Ramsey takes Slayton out of his playbook?

So far Slayton has caught 12 of 22 targets for 188 yards, while tight end Evan Engram has caught 11 of 20 for 96. Engram’s 4.8 yards per target is the fourth-lowest in the NFL for anyone with at least 20 targets. Ezekiel Elliott is one of the players he’s ahead of, as well as A.J. Green and Logan Thomas.

What if the Rams had signed Blake Martinez instead of Leonard Floyd?

Los Angeles lost inside linebacker Cory Littleton in the offseason, an expected move that came to fruition when he signed a deal with the Raiders that pays him $11.75 million per season and with $22 million guaranteed. Littleton has cap hits of $3.6, $13.7 and $13.7 in his first three seasons with Las Vegas and the guarantees make it likely he’ll stick for that period of time.

The Rams chose not to pay Littleton to stay and instead focused on Floyd, signing him to a one-year, $10 million contract that has a cap hit of $6.66 million in 2020 and then $3.33 in 2021 and $1.6 in 2022 to offset the fact that LA couldn’t afford to pay it all upfront. They’re paying Floyd almost twice as much as Littleton is getting this season but they don’t have those big cap hits in 2021 and 2022, contract years that would have hurt their chances of extending the players they just extended.

Through three games, Floyd had eight tackles, two sacks and four QB hits. He has played in 91-percent of the snaps and blitzed 15 times, putting him on track to match or top the 64 blitzes by Littleton or 61 by Clay Matthews in 2019. At this stage, Floyd may look more like a Matthews than a Littleton and Micah Kiser is filling in for that position up to now.

With mixed results.

Kiser’s nine missed tackles is four more than what Littleton had in all of last season and is one shy of the number that Matthews had in 13 games. And at this point it is not apparent that the coverage is better or equal to that of Littleton. By losing Littleton and Matthews, getting back Kiser from injury and signing Floyd, the Rams may have found a way to keep step with their 2019 defense at those positions without having to pay Littleton what he was going to get in free agency.

But what about Martinez?

Not meant to be a dig at Floyd and Kiser, and potentially a general misunderstanding of what Sean McVay and Brandon Staley want to do at the linebacker position, of which Staley is intimately familiar after his previous stops as a linebackers coach and including the mentorship of Floyd with the Bears, it’s hard to wonder how other scenarios could have played out for the Rams.

Martinez started 57 games in four years with the Green Bay Packers, including all 48 contests in the last three seasons. He led the NFL in tackles with 144 in 2017, then matched that number exactly in 2018 while adding five sacks. Last season, Martinez had 155 tackles, three sacks, one interception and a forced fumble. But he also missed 18 tackles and he’s missed 30 total over the previous two seasons.

Has Martinez cleaned that up now?

New York signed Martinez to a three-year, $30 million contract that pays him $10 million in 2020 and $10.2 million in 2021. If the Giants remain satisfied, they can keep him around for $10.5 million in 2022 or release him and only be left with $2 million in dead money. Essentially, Martinez is getting a salary like Floyd but with one extra year included and one bonus year that serves almost serves as a team option.

This season, Martinez has 30 tackles and only one missed tackle, one of the best rates in the NFL. He has also posted two sacks already and four tackles for a loss as one of the Giants lone bright spots through three games.

Martinez said in August that his former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine didn’t understand him as a player. Pettine replied that Martinez was the one who didn’t understand.

When asked about his lack of turnovers after signing a three-year, $30.75 million contract with the New York Giants this spring, Martinez said Pettine devalued the inside linebacker position in his defense. He called his lack of dynamic plays a “misconception” about his game, saying Pettine limited his role to just “the clean-up crew guy” in the defense.

“In our defense,” Martinez told Giants reporters in March, “no matter what it was, since I was the only linebacker on the field, I was taught and told to be the clean-up crew guy. There wasn’t any gap responsibilities for me. It was just kind of, ‘Hey, play off Kenny (Clark), play off Za’Darius (Smith), play off Preston (Smith), play off Dean (Lowry).’ Play off these guys and basically make them right.

“They were able to do whatever they wanted to do, and then I would go make the plays depending on that. I know there’s been things like you make tackles down the field, you make tackles here, you make tackles there. For the majority of the time there, that’s what I was told to do.”

Naturally, Pettine did not agree with Martinez’s assessment when asked Friday morning. Pettine said Martinez’s description was only “his impression” of his role in the defense.

“That’s certainly not how we taught it last year,” Pettine said. “Or how we’ve ever taught it in the system.”

If the Rams had signed Martinez, it is true that they’d have needed more cap room in 2020 and 2021 to do it. But what’s the best case scenario with Floyd? He’s a one-year deal because he’s a one-year move. If LA can’t afford to pay him for having a good season, then he’s going to walk in free agency no matter what. If he has a poor season, then they’ve paid him $10 million, including dead money in each of the next two years.

Maybe Martinez wasn’t a missed opportunity for the Rams. But if he keeps playing this way, he’s a missed opportunity for somebody. Pettine, for sure.

Is this the offensive line’s toughest test of the season yet?

We know that McVay thinks highly of New York’s defense, even if those watching from home don’t quite get the concern for an 0-3 team that played the part of “0-3” so well against San Francisco that they’ll probably be nominated for a Golden Globe. But the Giants could be in the conversation this season for worst offensive line, worst running back group and even worst quarterback for all we know of Jones up to now.

But like LA’s Week 5 opponent in Washington, D.C., New York seems to be feeling well about their defensive front.

Franchise tag player Leonard Williams is tied with Martinez for the team lead in sacks with two; Dexter Lawrence was the 17th overall pick in 2019 and has seen his playing time increase in each successive game this season; Markus Golden doesn’t have a sack this season but has had limited playing time and had 10 sacks last year; Lorenzo Carter and Kyler Fackrell will come off the edges at outside linebacker and Fackrell had 10.5 sacks under Pettine in 2018; B.J. Hill had 5.5 sacks as a rookie two years ago.

In the secondary, James Bradberry was New York’s other big free agent signing of the year along with Martinez and he leads the NFL in passes defensed with nine already. He’s also given up two touchdowns.

The Rams offensive line has performed above many outsiders’ expectations for them, but with Aaron Kromer coaching up the same players he had last season and many from the year before that, LA’s line has more than held up over three games. The Eagles and Bills have some good players up front but the Giants have an argument for being more talented in that one area than the Rams opponents up until now.

Can they get Darrell Henderson in the positions he needs to be in for valuable runs and keep Jared Goff clean in the pocket against one thing New York seems to do well?