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Rookie safety Darian Thompson set to play huge role vs. Saints

Rookie Darian Thompson's strength in pass coverage will be a key Sunday as the Giants try to contain the Saints' air attack. Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The most important player on the New York Giants defense Sunday against the New Orleans Saints might be making his first career start.

Rookie Darian Thompson is expected to start at free safety. The third-round pick will be integral in protecting the middle of the field for the Giants. That’s an area where they were ravaged the last time these two teams met and Saints quarterback Drew Brees tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in Week 8 of last season.

New Orleans running backs and tight ends caught 18 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns during that wild 52-49 victory. They could not be stopped, in part because of safety Brandon Meriweather's struggles in coverage.

This is why Thompson was targeted in the draft. He’s known for his coverage -- even though he looked equally adept in run support during his NFL debut against the Cowboys -- after setting a Mountain West Conference record with 19 career interceptions at Boise State.

The Giants are hoping it pays immediate dividends in Week 2. Tight Ben Watson (nine catches, 147 yards, 1 TD last year vs. Giants) is no longer with the Saints. He’s been replaced by Coby Fleener.

Thompson will play a key role in trying to limit Fleener. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten caught nine passes for 66 yards last week. They would like to decrease that damage even more this week with Thompson in the starting lineup. He split snaps with Nat Berhe against the Cowboys.

Thompson is expected to take a majority of the snaps Sunday against the pass-heavy Saints.

The Week 2 cheat sheet

What I’ll be watching:

Stopping the slot

It wasn’t just the tight end that dominated the Giants last season. It was also slot receivers. The Saints have Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead playing out of the slot on most snaps. Can the Giants stop them? Domninique Rodgers-Cromartie will be pushed inside again trying to deal with the talented duo when the Giants are in their nickel defense. It will be quite the test in a position he has rarely played throughout his career.

Explosive wide receivers

The Saints might not just struggle covering the slot receiver. They might not be able to stick with any of the Giants wide receivers. New Orleans’ cornerbacks lack experience with their top cover guy Delvin Breaux out with a broken leg. They could start three players (P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris) who all played in their first career game last week. It should open the door for Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and rookie Sterling Shepard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beckham and Shepard both top 100 yards receiving as the Giants try to attack the inexperienced cornerbacks vertically. Oakland’s Amari Cooper (137 yards) and Michael Crabtree (87 yards) almost did it last week against this New Orleans defense.

Eyes on OV

Defensive end Olivier Vernon had a strong opener. The Giants will need more of the same (likely with even more pressure on the opposing quarterback) against the Saints. The Giants couldn’t get near Brees last year, but they also didn’t have Vernon or Jason Pierre-Paul. This will be a good indicator of how much difference their presence will make.

Guessing the inactives: QB Josh Johnson, OT Will Beatty, RB Paul Perkins, WR Roger Lewis, S Mykkele Thompson, DT Montori Hughes, DT Robert Thomas

Prediction: Giants 31, Saints 28

It’s not going to be quite the shootout it was last year, but there will still be some points put on the board. The difference is that the Giants defense has improved. Not sure I can say the same for the Saints.