Got a great question on Twitter recently from a listener to the podcast I co-host (Big Blue Banter with Dan Schneier) relating to new Giants Coach Pat Shurmur’s play calling tendencies on early downs. The listener astutely mentioned the fact that lining up in heavier personnel (12, 22, 13 personnel, etc) in early downs and then throwing the football often leads to completions as the defense is often 1) expecting run 2) in base personnel. Knowing that Shurmur likes to set his quarterbacks in a position to succeed one would expect there would be a plethora of examples much akin to coaches like Kyle Shanahan out in San Francisco. It is also well known, (and brought up by the listener) that Shurmur and the Vikings ran play action the most in the league (30% in 2017 according to for Football Outsiders). The question led me to take a look for myself and I was able to draw some interesting conclusions about Shurmur’s play calling tendencies, where it may actually be an area where he can improve this season with the Giants.
Pat Shurmur play-calling statistics
As usual, the statistics provide a good starting point and there are few better places to turn than Warren Sharp’s Sharp Football Stats website. Their personnel grouping frequency page is a must (https://www.sharpfootballstats.com/personnel-grouping-frequency.html) for any student of the game. According to this page, on 1st and 2nd down the Vikings ran 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) 27% of the time (6th most frequent in the league), but with only passed out of that formation 34% of the time (18th in the league). When they passed, their QB passer rating was 101.8 with a “success rate” of 57% of plays. When the Vikings ran 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) they ran it frequently (10% of the time 3rd most frequent), and passed the most frequently in the league (20% of the time). It should be made clear though that for 22 personnel passing, we are only talking about 19 plays for the entire regular season. During these 19 they enjoyed a high success rate of 65% and their QB having a passer rating of 139.0.
What It Looks Like
So what were the Vikings running out of these groupings? Starting off with 22 personnel plays that helped Vikings QB Case Keenum, a few repeated plays stick out. The below is a first down play from counter run play action where the QB boots to his right and finds a TE after a chip flat route (as SIS refers to it, and seen often across many personnel groupings for the Vikings). Please see the below 1st-and-10 play:
The tight end Kyle Rudolph engages in blocking for a short period of time, selling most of the defenders on that side of the field before releasing to the flat. Keenum has a simple bootleg where he has a fair amount of time to locate Rudolph (or not shown but Thielen on the backside was running a crossing route as well). This play is a very vanilla, but high percentage throw where the QB has a simple read and an easy exit to pressure to throw the ball the away.
Shurmur loves to move guys around in the formation, as the commentary from Giants camp overwhelmingly supports. On this 1st down out of 22 personnel, there are multiple shifts before the snap to keep the base defense off balance. Please see below:
Green Bay had three safeties in with one cornerback which initially looked to be some sort of two-deep shell, but after the rotation to a two tight end set with a FB on the the same side they moved to a single high safety look as well as move a defensive down towards the line of scrimmage to maintain positive gap discipline. Shurmur, as he often does, preyed on this outside defensive back who was now in conflict – having to defend the flat in pass as well as contain in the run fit. More offensive players on the line of scrimmage in heavier sets equates to more defenders needed to account for the gaps.
One other example must be brought up when describing heavier sets, play action, and Pat Shurmur and that is split-flow zone play action. In this play, a front side TE or slot receiver (as Shurmur often does) comes across (or sifts) to block the backside edge defender in a run or in the play action version he can continue on to the flat. I think it is most effective out 12 personnel with twins to one side with the slot receiver as sifter (versus 22 personnel where a TE or RB would have to sift). Please see the below play:
The Falcons in this example clearly had studied tape and picked up on the sifting Diggs with a strong side rotation of the secondary as well as an under defender picking up in coverage. This left the tight end Rudolph one on one running a corner route but Keenum could not connect (both route and throw could have been better). Although not a successful example, one that shows even when the defense is properly prepared Shurmur’s offense still gives its players a chance match up wise. Also please note in all of these play action bootlegs, Shurmur ran 3 Level Flood Concepts where basically 3 receivers run crossing routes to low, mid and deep levels of the field. See the below diagram:
Now with new personnel in New York and under General Manager Dave Gettleman, Shurmur has new players to fit into his schematically flexible offense. Some of the above concepts from 12 and 22 personnel will certainly be seen, but obviously, it will not be a carbon copy of his previous team. As much as one will see tight formations and bootleg play action, Giants starter Eli Manning is 37-years old and perhaps the mobility will not be as much of a factor. Shurmur can flex the defense out and go into various shotgun looks from 12 personnel without play action. As stated above, in Giants camp so far the players have talked about being moved around a lot within the offense. With players like TE Evan Engram to TE Rhett Ellison, to RB Saquon Barkley, these players can be in the backfield as well as in the slot or spread out wide as X. As noted in the preseason action so far, Engram and even Ellison look much improved in their blocking, which makes them bona fide blockers as they move around the formation. All of this leads to a multiple offense where they will not be subject to strict roles. Shurmur can also, and this deserves almost an entire piece of its own, integrate more 21 personnel (2 RBs 1 TE), a grouping that now offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran a lot in Carolina last season. Shurmur ran this grouping less frequently in early downs last year (1% of only 11 plays according to Sharp Football Statistics), but probably none was more remembered than in the NFC Championship game vs. the Eagles. See below:
This play with backside corner route from Rudolph and front side Levels Concept was run often by the Vikings in 11 personnel, but Shurmur shifted to 12 to get the Eagles in their base 4-3 and attack their LB group which was a weakness. To be frank the only question from the Championship game is why Shurmur did not run more 12 personnel, even after the Vikings fell behind in the game. The offense ran the usual 11 personnel with 3 receivers trying to spread the defense vertically and horizontally, but this ignored making defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz decide whether or not to put that third LB out there.
So going back to the Vikings days, the question comes to mind why Shurmur did not pass more out of these heavier personnel sets? Without being in the team meetings of the Vikings (or Shurmur’s head for that matter) one can only guess the possible reasons. Their most frequent play on 1st and long, according to Sharp, was a run to Latavius Murray. Overall on 1st down last year, according to NFLGSIS.com, the Vikings ran it 250 times (the most in the league) and ranked 6th in total yards. Qualitatively studying each game, one could see that Shurmur liked to ease his quarterback into the game with many runs and easier throws out of play action. Perhaps this was not his intention, and yes it does sound like a cliched narrative that broadcasters mention in game. Please see the below first drive from week 17 against the Chicago Bears, where the Vikings needed a win for their seeding and a potential bye in the playoffs and used a multiple running game to do it:
Shurmur came out as he often had last season; a mix of runs (not just outside zone like many think) sprinkled with simple passes (one of them being a three-level Flood Concept from play action like in the above example). The Vikings seemed to have their identity wrapped up in this mixed style of offense, and Shurmur has preached identity and culture since his first press conference as Giants head coach. Shurmur will have to balance this with the analytical realities (cringing now at Dave Gettleman’s impersonation of “analytics” at a Giants presser from the spring) of running the ball in early downs. He does not have to look farther than the 2017 Vikings team. According to Football Outsiders, their DVOA on 1st down rushes was -16.7% (or 20th in the league) and on 2nd down a bit of an uptick to -3.1% DVOA (11th in the league). This contrasts, however, with 1st down passing (34.4% DVOA 10th in the league) and 2nd down passing (53.5% DVOA 2nd in the league). These numbers do not drill down into personnel type, but they do hint that the higher frequency of first down runs were not providing the returns that the aggregate numbers would have you believe.
The thrust of this piece was not to second guess or criticize an offensive coordinator who took his team to the NFC Championship with a backup quarterback. Nor was it to debate the perfect run/pass ratio or what the expected return values are for each on different downs. That conversation is best left to analysts/quants. Football does not occur in a vacuum. The effort here is to project what Shurmur/Shula will probably do with the personnel they have to set up easy throws for Eli Manning. The only recommendation we have, is to do it as often as possible.