The New York Giants’ offense and new head coach Pat Shurmur face a stiff test versus the highly-touted Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense this week. In 2017, the Jaguars ranked first in total DVOA at Football Outsiders, with a ridiculous -27.6% DVOA (ranked first) vs the pass, with the next best defense -11.8% (the more negative the number, the better it is for the defense). Even more, the Jaguars are an excellent 3rd-and-long defense, again confirmed by Football Outsiders, with a top-ranked -85.1% DVOA on third down (shout out to Brett Kollman for pointing it out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSSc70fWMz4). How could there possibly be any dents in this armor for quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense to attack?
On Cut Day this past Saturday, the Giants chose to keep only three tight ends, and in addition (rather rare in the NFL), fullback Shane Smith. The Giants are working out some additional players this week and none is a tight end, signaling they are content with their depth. In some ways, Smith making the 53-man roster over a fourth TE could signify an uptick in Shurmur’s use of 21 personnel (2 RBs and 1 TE). Last year, the Vikings only ran that grouping 5% of the time. This author even wrote about the use of heavier 22 and 13 personnel by Pat Shurmur here: (http://bit.ly/ShurmurHeavy). So why 21 personnel vs. the Jaguars?
Looking back at recent tape of the Jags’ defense, two games stand out: week 16 vs. the 49ers, and the AFC Championship game vs. the New England Patriots. In these two losses, the Jags faced the top users of 21 personnel (28% for SF and 24% for NE) in the league. This grouping leads the defense to match up with its base defensive personnel, in Jacksonville’s case a 4-3 mixed front. Charting the games showed SF using 21 a whopping 44% of the time, with quarterback Jimmy Garopollo completing 10 of 11 for 126 yards, or 12.6 yards per reception, out of this grouping (compare that to Brett Kollman’s statistic of Garopollo’s 7.7 yards per attempt for the entire game). The Patriots started off scripting 21 personnel on the first four plays and finished roughly in line with their tendencies at 22% for the entire game, with Brady going six of nine with 11.66 yards per reception. One would expect a heavy dose of 21 in the second half and for one of head coach Belichick’s famous halftime adjustments. Interestingly, this did not happen, as Jacksonville matched up with nickel when the Patriots featured 21 in the second half. This is probably because NE was curbing the usage in their 4th quarter comeback, as well as TE Rob Gronkowski’s injury earlier in the game.
The 49ers, Patriots, or any team does not simply break the huddle with a befuddling personnel group and win the battle. The Jaguars’ secondary foundation is Cover 3, with Seattle Seahawks influence from past coach Gus Bradley. One way to attack this coverage is with the ever popular Hank Concept, a combination of routes stretching the defense horizontally. Many offenses in the NFL borrow and tweak this concept slightly, but see the below two examples of the 49ers running it vs. Jaguars Cover 3, and the Giants running it from 12 personnel vs. the same coverage this preseason:
The 49ers’ play went for a solid gain of eight. The Giants’ play, on the other hand, went incomplete, and TE Engram had to leave the game with a concussion. The two plays highlight the dangers of a QB (Manning) not using his eyes to manipulate a fast second tier group of linebackers and safeties to create throwing lanes. Manning was hurried due to front side pressure, but this is a concept that, when executed properly, can give an offense moderate chunks of yardage relatively easily.
The above example had the 49ers using 21 personnel and the Giants using 12 personnel, with effectively the difference being 49ers using their starting fullback Kyle Juszczyk and Giants using TE Rhett Ellison. Another reason for the preference of 21 is that, although Giants FB Shane Smith is not nearly as experienced or refined as Ellison is in his 7th season in the league, he is a bonafide blocker. The Giants have put on tape Smith blocking, for example, running play side in inside zone force in front of Saquon Barkley or Wayne Gallman. Perhaps the expectations that Smith actually runs out of the backfield on a route are a little like Greg Focker actually contributing offense to his water volleyball team:
In all seriousness, the Giants will want to borrow a page from 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is a master of showing slight wrinkles to a defense. Head coach Shurmur wants his offense to be multiple from many different formations, and an offense becomes dangerous when their tendencies are not given away by individuals on the field. See the below video where Smith blocks backside to a split zone run, and Kyle Juszczyk comes out of the backfield play side in split-zone look play action vs. the Jaguars last year for a big gain:
This video shows now retired Jaguars LB Paul Posluszny trying to get back into coverage, and yes, current linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are much faster, especially in space. The play action, however, creates levels of indecision as the second tier cannot just move out to coverage, whether it be man or zone. This gives the edge to the offense in either short out route or deeper routes like the above. The bottom line is the Giants have to incorporate misdirection in the form of play action or even RPO to not allow the lateral speed of Smith and Jack to take over the game.
Deep Over Routes
The above two aspects can attack the Jaguars’ secondary defenders and help keep the Giants out of the feared 3rd-and-long, with simple vanilla plays not involving the offensive weapons like Saquon Barkley. Critics may point out that Shurmur or offensive coordinator Mike Shula will want to test the Jaguars’ secondary deep, and 21 personnel will certainly allow that. Many astute film students will point to the preseason week three, where Manning threw the go route of a Yankee Concept to Cody Latimer (out of 21 personnel, video reminder below):
This was a great catch, but most of the league runs Yankee concepts, and although the Giants’ position groups boast a ridiculous amount of talent, we again will target specific ways to attack the predominant Cover 3. Jacksonville has talented cover cornerbacks in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, who, when they are close to the boundary or facing a lone wide receiver, employ what is known as boundary lock, where that corner is essentially in man. This designation is widely used throughout the league and across multiple coverage types (in Quarters coverage, it would be a MEG designation, or Man Everywhere he Goes). Specifically for Cover 3, a conflict can arise in deep routes for the middle of field safety when facing deep over route from the field side to the side of the boundary locked corner. See image below:
Let’s see how the Jaguars deal with this conflict on two plays run by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the first was completed for a small gain and the second fell incomplete. Both are very dangerous to the defense:
Tom Brady was just a little off on the second clip, but the bottom line is that is linebacker Telvin Smith was responsible for carrying a deep over route versus a slot receiver. The Giants could attack this predicament in many different ways, with Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham over-matching the speedy but not THAT speedy Smith. This route is probably best for Shepard, as Beckham driving the other route particularly from the outside slot of a 3×1 receiver set just puts a ton of pressure on the secondary. The beauty of this route, too, is that versus Cover 1 man free it works just as well, as any defender will have difficulty covering that space, especially without a jam or collision (as will the slot allows the WR). This means a simple pre-snap read for Eli Manning of finding a single-high safety deep. The Jaguars obviously run other coverages, but 21 personnel offers many ways to use the speed of the Jaguars’ second tier against them.