The Giants won a shootout at MetLife Stadium (the first home win of the year) against a somewhat downtrodden Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive unit. Their defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, was let go in October after efforts to upgrade the unit failed. As such, many discount the Giants’ performance because of the level of competition. Although the context is important, and it was just a single game, two elements of their success should be commended. Both aspects, if continued in coming weeks, will alleviate pressure on the offensive line.
The Running Game
Running back Saquon Barkley had one of his better outings of his rookie season, racking up 142 yards on 27 rushes with 2 TDs. Some may wish to see a wider variety of run schemes, but this week it was simply better execution across the board. Again, the most common run was Inside Zone, and there was solid improvement. This play is often run to the weak or open side of the formation, but the backside tight end blocks are crucial to giving Barkley the space he needs to cut back against the grain. One run, though, was a good example of improvement from Barkley himself. After the game, ESPN reporter Jordan Raanan quoted Barkley as saying:
“I hadn’t really changed anything [Sunday] besides my pace. I just got a feel for the running game and the offensive line, and I think I found a pace that I liked. They challenged me to do that and I did that [Sunday].”
This pace to the line of scrimmage is key for schemes like inside zone, where single steps and subtle direction shifts can be great aids to the linemen getting to their blocks and opening creases. See the below run from Barkley in the 3rd quarter:
Barkley read his keys play-side, only cutting when the read told him to. Staying within the structure of the play creates the diagonal seam for him to exploit. Coaches are tasked with striking a balance with a back like Barkley who, quite frankly, can abandon play structure and make defenders miss on his own. Barkley’s traits like his rare elusiveness, coupled with burst and athletic ability, will be best when play structure is preserved. This is not a zero-sum game; when this is executed he can gobble up consistent yardage and give himself a great shot at explosive plays like the above.
One area that the run game has struggled in is its diversity in scheme. Dan Schneier and I on the Big Blue Banter podcasts have discussed this at length. For this publication, I wrote a piece on how Zone Read (with a mobile QB) could be one of the wrinkles they could add to their base running attack (http://bit.ly/GiantsOZoneRead). The Giants like to feature formations with the tight end into the boundary and then run to the closed side of the field. See the below Boundary Sweep run late in the 1st quarter:
Defenses often respond with putting their 3-tech defensive tackle into the boundary. Since the Giants run a smaller number of run variations, particularly out of this setting, the 3-tech has the green light to shoot his gap. In this play, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy blows up center Spencer Pulley, which stuffs play. Later in the game, the same play was run to the opposite side of the field with the same result. Ultimately, teams need to employ counter strategies that take advantage of the depth gained by the 3-tech, with one example being a Wham Scheme, which traps this defensive tackle. The Giants need an arrow like this in their quiver.
The Passing Attack
The Giants’ offense put 31 points on the board, and a big part of that was quarterback Eli Manning going 17-for-18 for 231 yards and 2 TDs. Many want to call it a good day against a weakened defensive secondary and move on, but one key aspect stuck out. The Giants had five plays of 15 yards or more, and all were against two-deep safety looks before the snap which the Buccaneers featured heavily during the game. During the Giants’ struggles, Cover 2 and other two-deep shell coverages were cited as causing Manning to “check down” to his underneath receivers. These types of coverages, like all coverages, have their weaknesses, and the Giants most often have an answer for it in their half-field reads. Such was the case on the below Sail Concept thrown against a Cover 3 Buzz originating from a two-deep shell:
On this play, the boundary safety spins to the weak side of the offensive formation with some deception, as he initially retreats at the snap. Manning spots this as he takes the snap and seamlessly moves to throw away from this rotation on the opposite side of the field. The deep out route puts the deep third defender in conflict, as he has to take the skinny post as the deepest threat. Manning throws the ball as if the receiver saw the coverage as Cover 3, and he makes a slight adjustment for a nice reception. Complex simplicity is when head coach Pat Shurmur is at his best, and with Manning delivering the right read.
The Tampa Bay secondary, quite frankly, had some lapses in coverage, whether in assignment or technique. This should not take away from anything the Giants did offensively; they attacked aggressively. One weapon that was held in check was tight end Evan Engram, who only had two receptions, but more significantly only 32% of offensive snaps. Leaving his blocking ability for another piece, Engram did have a big impact on a Four Verticals concept called late in the 4th quarter at a key point in the game. The Giants came out in a 2×2 receiver set with Engram as in-line tight end and with a good angle to get north. See below:
Manning’s play-action fake made the collision from the linebacker almost impossible, and then Engram exploits the boundary safety’s depth, taking the pass for 54 yards. The Bucs had their safeties play off as much on more than one occasion, making an easy adjustment by Pat Shurmur. Engram’s get-off at the snap is merely middle of the road for tight ends, but he showed when given enough daylight that his third and fourth gears produce a lot of speed. He has not hit his stride with the Giants this season, but he remains a threat with these types of gifts, as well as double moves and deeper vertical concepts. Fans will see in the coming weeks if he can gain more snaps.
The Giants also found ways to capitalize in the red zone, an area of weakness documented by myself and others. Coming into the game, the Giants were ranked 30th in TD scoring percentage in the red zone (41.38%, according to teamrankings.com). Here, they preyed on the Bucs and some questionable coverage. Early in the 4th quarter, the Giants dialed up a Corner-Out combination out of 12 personnel with Odell Beckham in the slot:
This is a great example of the leverage from the defense leading the coverage to be irrelevant. Against a 2×2 set, the combination was an easy read against a safety playing with inside leverage. Manning reads the defensive back and throws a good ball to a place where only Beckham can catch it.
Overall, the offense performed well in key areas it had struggled with in the past. The Giants took advantage as they should and scored at key points in the fourth quarter. They answered against a revived Bucs’ passing attack that got them back in it. This game highlights why the criticism against certain members of the Giants’ offense has been rampant during their losing streak. The offense has the potential to be explosive against really any coverage. They need to extend the momentum against a wounded Eagles secondary this Sunday.