Giants’ starting offense hums in 21-19 preseason win over Panthers

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants fans shouldn’t be making any winter vacation plans until after Feb. 11, which is the date of Super Bowl 58. And they may want to wait a few more days since the championship parade down the Canyon of Heroes likely won’t take place until two days after the game.

Getting carried away? Perhaps a tad. But it was hard not to feel encouraged after watching the Giants’ starting offense’s blistering performance in its first action of the preseason in a 21-19 win over the Panthers on Friday night.

Quarterback Daniel Jones was in total command, completing 8-of-9 passes for 69 yards on the game’s opening drive, which was punctuated by a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Bellinger. That was all head coach Brian Daboll needed to see, as he pulled Jones and a few other top offensive players after the drive. They likely won’t be seen in game action again until the Sept. 10 season opener against the Cowboys.

“Execution was good,” said Daboll, who apparently isn’t ready to make Super Bowl reservations.

All of the hype surrounding tight end Darren Waller was validated on the opening drive, as the matchup nightmare caught three passes for 30 yards. Waller was lined up all over the field, overpowering cornerback Jaycee Horn on a slant and burning linebacker Shaq Thompson on an out route.

The lone blemish on the drive was a drop by Waller on a crossing route when he took a big hit from safety Vonn Bell. Seeing Waller take that hit likely solidified the plan to put the talented tight end in bubble wrap until the opener.

“I thought it was a productive drive,” Waller said. “I feel like a lot of people touched the rock. Offense moved efficiently, got a touchdown. I don’t think you can ask for anything better than that.”

Running back Saquon Barkley was the only starter not to play. It isn’t surprising that he’s not being exposed to extra hits after this offseason’s contentious contract negotiations left him facing another prove-it year.

With Barkley on the sideline, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka didn’t call a single run play on the opening drive. The lone run came on a Jones scramble for six yards.

Though teams don’t game-plan extensively in the preseason, the Giants had play calls that they knew would work against the Panthers’ defense. The starters’ flawless execution reinforced the positive vibes that have been generated by a strong training camp for the offense.

Here are more takeaways from the Giants’ 21-19 win:

• The Giants’ offensive line wasn’t tested as much as it could have been, as the Panthers held out their top pass rushers, including defensive tackle Derrick Brown and outside linebacker Brian Burns. The protection was strong on the opening drive, allowing Jones to pick apart the Panthers’ starting secondary.

Ben Bredeson started at left guard and Mark Glowinski started at right guard. Josh Ezeudu came in at left guard on the second series with Bredeson shifting to right guard. That alignment continued on the Giants’ third possession, but Glowinski came back in at right guard for the final three series of the first half. So, anyone seeking clarity on the guard rotation was left wanting.

Center John Michael Schmitz and right tackle Evan Neal played the entire first half. Neal had a strong showing until allowing a sack on the last play of the first half when he failed to pick up a stunt with Glowinski. Left tackle Andrew Thomas spent the rest of the night on the bench after the first series. He was replaced by Matt Peart, who continued to struggle. Swing tackle looks like a major concern entering the season.

• Rookie receiver Jalin Hyatt showed how his big-play ability can overcome any warts in his game in the blink of an eye. Hyatt, who rotated in with the starters, lost three yards on his first catch, a touch pass that was blown up in the backfield. On his second target, Hyatt dropped a pass from backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor on a crossing route.

Hyatt made amends for his miscue on the next play, torching safety Eric Rowe for a 33-yard touchdown. It was jarring how open Hyatt got, as a subtle fake to the post left Rowe flat-footed. Hyatt then glided to the corner and only had to wait in the end zone for the high-arching pass from a pressured Taylor to arrive.

“They were in a one-high (safety) situation,” Hyatt said. “I saw how the safety’s leverage was in the middle of the field, so I just faked like I was running a post and I came right back out for a deep corner. Great play and great how (Kafka) dialed it up. It was perfect.”

At the very least, Hyatt is going to be a big-play threat as a rookie. He may be more, but just having his speed as a downfield threat is a game-changer for this offense.

Hyatt got “a little banged up” at the end of the first half, but said he’ll be fine. That’s good news for the Giants, who will be relying on their third-round pick.

• Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale challenged outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux to step up his game last week. Thibodeaux has answered the call, recording a sack and a quarterback hit on consecutive plays against Panthers starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu.

Thibodeaux showed great burst off the line on his sack, easily blowing past an indecisive Ekwonu, who seemed momentarily distracted by a blitz from inside linebacker Bobby Okereke. Thibodeaux beat Ekwonu clean around the edge on the next snap, hitting quarterback Bryce Young as he threw.

Thibodeaux and the rest of the starting defense played the first two series. The Giants forced a three-and-out on Carolina’s first possession, which was particularly impressive considering an offside penalty gave the Panthers a first-and-5 to start the drive.

There was some sloppiness on Carolina’s second drive — a 15-yard roughing the passer on defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence on a third-down incompletion, two offside penalties for lining up in the neutral zone by outside linebacker Jihad Ward and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, and a missed tackle by safety Jason Pinnock. But Thibodeaux’s sack forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal at the end of the 15-play, 62-yard drive.

Quick hits

• As has been the case in practice, Jackson played in the slot in the nickel defense with rookies cornerbacks Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins on the outside. On a rare occasion when the Giants played their base defense, Jackson shifted outside and Hawkins came off the field.

It was a pleasantly quiet evening for the rookie corners, who played one more series than the rest of the starters. Jackson gave up a seven-yard completion to wide receiver Adam Thielen on third-and-6 to extend the Panthers’ second drive but otherwise had an uneventful showing.

• With veteran defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches not playing, rookie Jordon Riley was the third D-lineman alongside Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. The Giants opened the game in a nickel package with Lawrence, Williams and Riley on the line. Riley continued his impressive preseason by stuffing a fourth-and-1 run to force a turnover on downs in the second quarter. He added a tackle for a loss in the third quarter.

Robinson is still ramping up as he recovers from a torn meniscus and Nunez-Roches missed practice time recently with a groin injury, so the team is surely being cautious with the veterans. It’s hard to see a path to playing time for Riley with four established players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he could force his way into the lineup if he continues to make plays.

• Okereke was all over the field, making seven tackles on 18 snaps. He was wearing the helmet with the green dot that signifies he was getting the play calls from Martindale.

• Bellinger has been overshadowed by the arrival of Waller, but the 2022 fourth-round pick is still a valuable piece of the offense. On the touchdown, Bellinger first blocked an outside linebacker before releasing into the left flat. With a deeper route by Waller attracting the attention of two defenders, Bellinger was wide-open for an easy pitch and catch.

Bellinger lined up at fullback on a handful of snaps, which figures to be a bigger part of his role this season. He had a crushing wham block to clear the way for running back Eric Gray’s nine-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

• Gray showed his strength on the touchdown run, powering through tacklers for the last five yards, with Schmitz and Neal finishing their blocks to the goal line. Gray struggled in pass protection, whiffing on a block that led to Taylor taking a big hit on the touchdown pass to Hyatt.

Gray made a heads-up play on a kickoff return in the second quarter when he let the ball bounce out of bounds for a penalty that gave the Giants the ball at their 40-yard line.

• The Giants had to burn a timeout late in the second quarter because they had 12 men on the field. Linebacker Darrian Beavers exited the field after the timeout. Daboll did not look pleased with the miscue.

(Photo: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

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