Giant Tidbits: Gritty play-calling for Big Blue


The Giants won a hard fought battle on Sunday against the playoff-bound Chicago Bears. The offensive efforts for large portions of the game were not pretty. The offense saw little spark in the first half, outside of running back Saquon Barkley’s remarkable 3rd down effort to get the team into field goal range. Momentum was salvaged and then converted via a huge 49-yard touchdown pass by Odell Beckham to Russell Shepard, then the offensive juices started to flow. This piece will look at three individual plays in this second half and how the play-calling and design by head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula are aiding this team on an active, but perhaps subtle, basis.

Beckham Red Zone Touchdown

The Giants made it to the red zone after a long drive in the 3rd quarter that leaned heavily on Saquon Barkley. After two unsuccessful rush attempts and a pass to TE Simonsen from the 1-yard line, Giants fans grew restless that this would result in another failed red zone attempt. Head coach Shurmur decides to go for it on 4th down, running a 3×1 bunch set with a modified Snag concept, combined with a shallow crosser from the lone X-wide receiver:

Astute observers may recognize the concept from other red zone trips by the Giants in the recent past. All teams run the Snag concept, but a look back to Week 8 against the Redskins shows a play actually broken down for this column:

The differences between the two plays lie in what the Z receiver’s route is, run by Odell Beckham. In a traditional Snag concept, the Z runs a sit route (or snag route, vernacular varies). One of the advantages of a “West Coast” offensive system is the ability to tag individual routes very easily. This frees up coaches to add wrinkles at will, and a great mark of a play-caller is the ability to build on one’s own previous calls in game. The Z is tagged with a crosser with the rest of the trips set running traditional Snag routes. On the Beckham TD against the Bears, Manning faces pressure, and after going to his first choice (Barkley in the flat), he knows that Beckham will be in space. The Bears’ busted coverage was just icing on the cake.

TE Backside Routes

On that theme of building on plays called, both successful and unsuccessful, the 15-yard completion to Rhett Ellison in the 4th quarter comes to mind. Saquon Barkley was recently banged up, and the Bears were responding to base personnel packages with a 6-1 type front (four down linemen, three linebackers, with only one at the 2nd level). Pat Shurmur responds by calling a backside TE route out of a heavier 22 personnel set:

The play action gives Ellison enough time to wade through and get to the backside, where the flat is occupied by defensive end Khalil Mack (an advantage running the play against base defensive personnel). Chunkier gains like this keep the juices flowing, especially against a unit like the Bears, who looked confident in their base defense. In the NFL, opponents aggressively dive through tape, picking up on virtually all tendencies. This makes adding wrinkles to existing plays the difference between winning and losing in some cases. With so few true “original” play designs, that is simply what is needed. The next level for the Giants to build on this play could look like a play the Eagles ran against the Jaguars in Week 8 for TE Dallas Goedert from the exact same concept and similar personnel:

Rookie tight end Dallas Goedert takes this backside route to the house for a touchdown, as the vertical element is difficult for the zone coverage to handle. The overlap in playbooks is not surprising, given the background of Pat Shurmur with the Eagles organization, but also as so many of the same concepts are run at all levels of football. The setup, the wrinkles added or taken away, and ultimately the execution by the players, sets a successful play apart from an unsuccessful one.

Levels Concept for Huge Completion

Back at the end of October, I wrote a piece for Inside the Pylon dealing with the Levels concept and the NFC East ( A poor throw by Eli Manning in the Week 8 Redskins game was criticized, as Manning misinterpreted man for pattern match, resulting in a critical red zone turnover. From the article: “The bottom line is that if he (Manning) wanted to throw the slot route, he would need to confirm man coverage after(or before) the snap.” Great play-calling is setting your players up in positions where they can succeed. Let’s look at a critical 3rd down and 2 in overtime, with the Giants just out of field goal range at the Bears’ 38 yard line:

In a pivotal moment, Shurmur goes to an empty set (some see as risky) with Barkley out on the perimeter. If a CB lines up opposite him, its zone coverage, and really anything else is man coverage. Spreading a defense out like this unveils what it can hide or the tricks it can play. With a simple man indicator that does not require motion, Manning can now fire away with confidence on the Levels concept on the other side of the field. The battle is by no means over, because the timing of the route is critical with Rat defender help underneath. Shepard easily gains and then holds leverage for the big completion and the ultimate game-winning field goal. Manning likes to run this concept (as his brother did); Shurmur puts him in the best position to do that.

Many fans want to see a lot of fireworks from this offense, but they have to realize that most of the differences that coaches, coordinators, and their staff makes are in the subtle nuances of the game. They give Manning the confidence to throw the touchdown in the red zone while under pressure. That was not just a lucky throw, but probably a play they have gone over enough times for wrinkles to take effect. The staff puts Ellison in position to be an answer to a tough Chicago front and helps Manning throw a concept that had given him trouble by removing the troubling elements. Such is the way a season unravels, and although fans are disappointed by the overall results, there are green shoots poking through the withered brown on both sides of the ball