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Giants’ Improvement Plan Hits a Snag

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Daniel Jones was in high school, his mother, Becca, would ask him what he was going to do that day.

“Get better,” he would tell her every time she’d ask.

It became a running joke in the family, but Jones likes speaking things into existence.

At minicamp in the N.F.L. after his college career at Duke, he started grasping the Giants’ offense so quickly that his fellow rookies wondered whether he had received the playbook before they did. He had not.

But on Sunday, in his third start since replacing Eli Manning as the starting quarterback, Jones absorbed his first defeat, 28-10. When the Minnesota Vikings (3-2) weren’t cleaving the Giants’ facade of defensive proficiency on Sunday, they were tormenting Jones in ways, and to degrees, that he had not yet encountered.

He will review film from the game and relive the pressure that swarmed him, the blitzes that dropped him. He will not marvel at the beautiful touchdown he threw, a 35-yarder in the second quarter to Darius Slayton, but bemoan the two he could have had, both thrown to Sterling Shepard, who dived in vain for one and could not come down inbounds with the other. Those will hurt most.

But if Jones’s promotion almost three weeks ago restored a sense of excitement and promise around these parts, then it is his capacity for improvement that will prolong it. Jones cannot remedy the woes of a defense that allowed 490 yards or heal the high-ankle sprain of Saquon Barkley, who is convalescing at an inhuman rate. But he can navigate the pocket finer, release the ball faster, move safeties with his eyes quicker, and he will have to make at least some progress this week for the Giants (2-3) to perform capably Thursday night at New England against the unbeaten Patriots.

“As long as you’re creating opportunities, you need to be able to convert those,” said Jones, who completed 21 of 38 passes for 182 yards. “We didn’t do that. I didn’t do that.”

Behind Jones the last two weeks, the Giants teased and tempted and enticed, recalibrating expectations. Instead of jockeying for a high draft pick, mediocrity in the rugged N.F.C. had become a more realistic possibility for the season. But whether the Giants admit it or not — and they will not — their defensive talent is overmatched, and that was so even before they played Sunday without their top two inside linebackers, Ryan Connelly and Alec Ogletree, both out with injuries.

Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook accounted for 218 yards from scrimmage — 132 rushing, on 6.3 per carry — and quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns, both to Adam Thielen, with five incompletions all afternoon.

By allowing only 6 points in their last six quarters entering Sunday, an incredible display of competence for a defense that had looked neither credible nor competent in losses to Dallas and Buffalo, the Giants had proffered hope of an upturn. That four of those quarters were contested in a 24-3 pasting of Washington, whose players abide a perpetual state of dysfunction, did not sway them.

From afar, the Giants monitored Minnesota’s offensive unrest — Thielen expressed frustration, Stefon Diggs was fined $200,000 for unexcused absences from practices and meetings and Cousins apologized for not involving Thielen more. The Giants expected Cousins to throw to them often. They said they were ready. They were not.

Excluding their failed desperation pass at the end of the first half, the Vikings scored on five of their first six possessions. The exception: a 75-yard drive that capsized when Cook was stripped at the Giants’ 5-yard line. Instead of seizing on that fortune, the Giants were stopped for a safety on the next play — running back Jon Hilliman, playing in place of the injured Wayne Gallman (concussion), was clobbered in the end zone — and then allowed a field goal to trail at halftime by 18-7.

“When we play well, we’re good, too,” Coach Pat Shurmur said when asked how the Giants’ defense could compete against stronger teams.

That may be true. But the Giants have not shown it much. They must get better. They know their quarterback will.

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