Giant Tidbits: Winning on Empty vs. Texans


Giants fans are enjoying the early part of the work week after the season’s first win, a critical matchup against the Houston Texans. The offensive side of the ball pitted head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula against the Texans’ Romeo Crennel and his base 3-4 defensive unit. Quarterback Eli Manning was coming off of one of his poorer performances ( ), looking to rebound and bring some movement to a stagnant offense. Manning rebounded strongly, showing decisiveness and strong ball placement, really from the first drive of the game. The offensive line, with two new starters in center John Greco and right tackle Chad Wheeler, also performed well under the magnifying glass. Let’s get behind that glass and see what Giant Tidbits are out there.


Saquon Barkley Touchdown


Saquon Barkley had 17 rushes for 82 yards in the wake of the rushing attack receiving low grades for the first two weeks of play. This author has mentioned on the Interwebs various schematic dead ends, such as running outside zone against the speedy defenses of Jacksonville and Dallas in Weeks 1 and 2. The Giants certainly did not run wild through the Texans’ front seven, but they saw production at key moments in the game. None was more significant than an Inside Zone run play on the first drive from the 15 yard line in the red zone:

This Inside Zone run for Barkley has proven to be successful a few times now early in his career. On this play, the ever-critical backside blocks were executed at a high level, as tight end Evan Engram remained engaged despite losing some ground to his opponent. In inside zone, the back side edges often collapse and tight ends are tasked with either washing the crashing defender down or trying to hold ground; Engram held steady. Ultimately, Barkley cut to daylight off of Patrick Omameh’s butt as he climbed to the second tier and won his battle with the LB. Running out of 11 personnel is something the Giants do well, as Barkley often finds himself with more available space at the second level. Joe Moorhead’s spread offense at Penn State with Barkley was notorious for running 11 personnel, and in the red zone in particular, this should continue.


Mesh Concept


Third down is a money down in the NFL for obvious reasons. Pat Shurmur dialed up a staple of his in a key drive in the 2nd quarter on 3rd-and-4. Out of an 11 personnel 2×2 set, Mesh Concept was called with Beckham being the primary receiver. Please see below:

Manning and the Giants are tipped off early to probable Man Coverage in the secondary with the early motion by Beckham. Manning, however, must eliminate this possibility by reading the opposite side defenders of the crossing route for a possible split field coverage or even some sort of Rat/Robber defender. Manning confirms no threats and his eyes come back to the primary receiver, Beckham, for a big but somewhat easy throw. Beckham runs for a gain of 30 on this play after the catch for a big first down and momentum for the Giants now in the red zone.


Ellison Touchdown

On the very next play, Manning goes back to work, this time out of an empty backfield. On this play, Beckham is in the inside slot to the left, while TE Rhett Ellison is the slot receiver to the right with outside receiver Saquon Barkley. Houston sends out a defensive back, Shareece Wright, to match up with Barkley, potentially a tip to zone coverage in the secondary. Please see below:

Going to empty forces the defense not only to tip off coverage, but also to defend players in space. To be honest, from a single-high look like above, the coverage really did not matter. What mattered was the defender’s leverage, the matchup, and what space the receiver needs to win. Manning’s head work does a great job of occupying the deep safety, and he seamlessly comes back to the backside, where he has two receivers running verticals. This play is a great example of the influence of Spread concepts in the NFL, where the slot receiver is the most dangerous man. Here, Beckham takes the attention of many, while the QB takes the highest percentage throw to the opposite side slot receiver.


Manning Delivering On Schedule


Let’s rewind a second. The above TD to Ellison was not the first time Pat Shurmur featured an empty set in this game. The first time they featured empty was a play that starkly contrasted Manning’s rather poor play in the previous game. For whatever reason, Manning’s mental processing of coverages pre- and post-snap was not where it needed to be last game. Let’s see what it looks like when it is right:

This Slide Corner-Flat combination is a perfect call against 2-deep high safety look before the snap that becomes Cover 2. Manning identified it early by confirming safety action and a squatting boundary corner. The timing of the route is very specific; it’s almost a double move and requires an extra hitch from a three-step drop from the shotgun. Manning’s placement was very good, and Beckham high-pointed it for a nice gain.


Barkley 3rd Down


Fast forward now back to the 4th quarter, on a critical drive with the Giants trying to go out and win the game. They faced a 3rd-and-2 in the “Green Zone,” and again came out in an empty set, and again Barkley lines up on the far right of the formation, this time against LB Zach Cunningham. Please see below:

Barkley uses a Power-Skip release in anticipation of collision from Cunningham, which comes relatively early in the route. His stellar body control allows him to slip past the defender and win vertical space very quickly. Manning delivered a ball that only Barkley could high point for a critical conversion.


Empty sets are RPO-like hot right now in the NFL, especially in the red zone. The Giants have joined the crowd, as this formation puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. The counterpoint, of course, is it leaves you with a five-man protection scheme that has few ways to disguise its own weaknesses. Staying on schedule was the Giants’ best friend when running empty sets on Sunday, and this needs to continue in future games with Manning at the helm.