EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Giants' 2020 season opener is both dejà vu all over again and a bold first step into unexplored territory for Joe Judge.
For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be his opponents in a prime-time Kickoff Weekend game. In 2019, Judge was the New England Patriots' special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach when they rolled to a 33-3 Sunday night victory in Foxborough.
This time, Judge is in a position that will be significantly more analyzed and pressurized. When the Steelers visit MetLife Stadium for a Monday Night Football showdown tomorrow, Judge will debut as the Giants' head coach, an imposing position for a 38-year-old first-timer.
But in a busy week of game-planning, practices and fulfilling the myriad obligations of a head coach, Judge insists he has given scant thought to the personal implications of coaching his first game.
"To be completely honest with you, no, I haven't really spent much time thinking about individual things, especially personally," he said. "At some point maybe later down the road, I'll stop and look back on a lot of things. But my mindset is always kind of looking ahead at what's coming up, and right now, we have the Steelers rolling into town. Any kind of personal or individual things that may be special to anyone directly in my family individually, that's for down the road for me."
Judge is certainly familiar with the Steelers. In his eight seasons in New England, the teams met seven times, including six matchups in the previous five years, one of them the 2016 AFC Championship Game. That the Patriots won six of those games did nothing to diminish Judge's respect for the Steel City franchise.
"To play the Steelers, it's important for our players and coaches to understand the tradition and the culture that's in their DNA," Judge said. "They're a tough team from a tough city. They have a blue-collar mentality."
Pittsburgh's quarterback in six of the seven games was Ben Roethlisberger (he missed the regular-season game in 2016), who Judge said last week is, "one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game." In the games Judge faced him, Roethlisberger completed 156 of 244 passes (63.9%) for 1,857 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Judge witnessed the last full game Roethlisberger played. In that Sunday night opener a year ago, Big Ben hit 27 of 47 passes for 276 yards. The following week against Seattle, he threw 15 passes before suffering an elbow injury that cost him the remainder of the season. It was the first time he played fewer than 12 games in a storied career entering its 17th season.
Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers struggled with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. The Giants have studied Pittsburgh tape with their longtime quarterback and what the Steelers did last year without Roethlisberger.
What do they expect from a 38 year-old quarterback coming off a major injury?
"We just need to approach him based off his history, his track record," cornerback James Bradberry said. "Big Ben has a strong arm. He's been in the game for 17 years, and I'm sure he's had a few injuries that people don't know about. He's able to take care of his body. He's going to make the checks at the line, he's smart, he's been around for a long time. Of course, he has that strong arm."
"I think there are a lot of things you need to consider," Judge said. "First off, Ben is a tremendous player. He's been great in this league for a long time, well over a decade. Obviously, there are going to be some things that carry from his past, whether it's directly early in last year, whether you go back to 2018, you have years and years of tape to watch on Ben and what he's done well, and you have to factor in for all of it. Look, (offensive coordinator) Randy (Fichtner) has been there a long time with Ben. Obviously, they have a very strong relationship. Ben's been there with Mike (Tomlin, the head coach) for a long time (it's their 14th season together). There's a lot of communication between those guys and what they do. We'll see what (new quarterbacks coach) Matt Canada's influence on the offense is.
"We'll have to see as the game unfolds what it ends up being. I wouldn't be surprised to see new wrinkles. We're going to prepare for whatever comes our way and adjust within the game. But at the same time, what's made them good over time is their ability to do what they want to do, and that's to play a physical brand of football, to run the ball effectively, then throw the ball when they have to throw the ball and create explosive plays."
While the big story in Pittsburgh might be Roethlisberger's return, the Steelers have a talent-laden team that is expected to contend for the AFC North title. The offensive includes running backs James Conner and Benny Snell, Jr. and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionte Johnson, plus tight end Eric Ebron, an offseason acquisition expected to be a red zone threat.
Defensively, the Steelers led the NFL last year with 54 sacks and 38 takeaways and ranked in the top five in several major categories, including points allowed (18.9 a game). The standouts there include linebackers Devin Bush (team-high 109 tackles), T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree (26.0 combined sacks) and defensive backs Joe Hayden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (five interceptions each).
"This defense is very talented, they're experienced, they play together, they're tough, they're opportunistic, they make plays up front and take advantage in the back end on the mistakes you make," Judge said. "This offense is heavily explosive. ... They have a tremendous collection of receivers, tight ends and running backs, all of which can change the game on any play. They're only a few plays away from the end zone at any point in time. We have to respect everything they do. They run the ball very effectively, they throw the ball at will, and they can extend plays. Ben is obviously one of the best in getting the ball out of his hand fast. They give you enough to work on both sides of the ball."
After so many battles with the Steelers, Judge knows of what he speaks.
*The Giants lead the all-time series with Pittsburgh, 44-30-3. The Steelers won the last two and three of the last four games in the series, which began in 1933. The teams will meet for the first time since Dec. 4, 2016, when the Steelers raced out to a 14-0 halftime lead on their way to a 24-14 victory. They last faced each other in MetLife on Nov. 4, 2012, when Pittsburgh scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a come-from-behind 24-20 triumph.
The teams met every season from 1933 through 1969, except when the series was interrupted by World War II in 1943 and 44. Since the Steelers moved to the AFC in the 1970 merger they have played only 10 times, six in New Jersey and four in Pittsburgh. The Steelers lead in those games, 6-4.
*This will be the Giants' first season opener vs. the Steelers since 1968 (a 34-20 victory). From 1933-68, the Giants and Steelers played each other in 10 openers - all in Pittsburgh. The Giants were 6-1-3 in those games.
*Judge is the 19th head coach in Giants history. The record for head coaches and interim head coaches in their debut games is 9-8-1.