One of the more tackled topics over the NFL offseason is typically play-calling: guessing new plays, second-guessing old plays, it’s all out there on Twitter. There is a natural suspense about what plays new NFL coaches will bring to their teams in their first year, and in some cases, organizations really need a change. Naturally, this has been the case with first-year head coach Pat Shumur and the potential turn around of the struggling New York Giants offense. Some have gone even further, investigating plays from other teams and examining their potential fit.
These pieces are fun mental exercises, but often not grounded in reality. Coaches can borrow plays from literally anywhere but are more likely to borrow from similar systems, or players or coaches they have relationships with (to just name a few). There is very little we as content creators can tell a coaching staff in terms of what they “should do.” Apologies for the finance connection, but it is similar to guessing what stocks an equity portfolio manager would invest in before they execute an order. You could study the manager, know his or her style, not be surprised at the existing holdings, but if you are not in the room, it is simply impossible to tell the future. Getting back to a more interesting subject, one play from the 2016 Penn State playbook stood out during film study, not only because Giants first rounder (and Bronx native) Saquon Barkley is featured in it. More importantly, for the sake of this exercise, the play exemplifies Shurmur’s philosophy, as well as encapsulates both the strengths of the Giants’ position players and the critical question marks for a potential turnaround.
The play above is run to the far side of the field, and credit for the image goes to Bill Connelly of SB Nation (Twitter). Trailing 13-3 in a significant game against Big 10 rival Minnesota, QB Trace McSorley hit Irvin Charleson on a skinny post for an 80-yard touchdown. This play often went to tight end Mike Gesicki harnessing a double move downfield, but on this one, McSorley bought time in the pocket with his eyes downfield and found a target. This play sparked a pivotal comeback that many writers in State College called the most influential play of the season.
Before diving into positional breakdowns, the context for both offenses in question must be discussed. Labeling Pat Shurmur’s offense is not an easy task, from the traditional West Coast offense he saw under Andy Reid in Philadelphia to Chip Kelly’s influence of tempo and spread. Shurmur was directly exposed to both in two different stints in Philadelphia. For a deep dive into these disparate elements, which includes more than just Reid and Kelly, check out my two-part series at Inside the Pylon (Part 1: https://insidethepylon.com/nfl/teams-nfl/nfc-east/new-york-giants/2018/03/06/pat-shurmur-giants-simple-complexity-changing-conversation/, Part 2: https://insidethepylon.com/nfl/teams-nfl/nfc-east/new-york-giants/2018/04/09/giants-offensive-breakdown-part-2-in-defense-of-beckham/). To crudely summarize, the passing game features simplified defined reads for a QB to distribute the ball to play-makers in space.
Many would classify this as “West Coast”, but the truth is the strict guidelines that once defined NFL offenses truly do not exist. The designer of the successful Penn State play above, Joe Moorhead, was made head coach at Mississippi State this offseason. He comes from a very different collegiate background highlighted by a breakthrough stint at Fordham, where his offensive fusion of Spread and West Coast elements turned around the small Bronx program (and created plays like the one above). Running a more modern and successful air attack at the small yet storied school drew the attention of Penn State head coach James Franklin, who brought him in in 2016 to run the stale Nittany Lion offense. Moorhead helped unlock certain offensive talents such as young RB Saquon Barkley, among others. Said Franklin of Moorhead’s passing concepts, “It’s really West Coast in terms of spacing, timing, and rhythm.” Thus, we see an overlap in ideology specifically in the sense of timing and rhythm in the passing game. So whether or not Shurmur actually has studied Moorhead is moot; the bottom line is both would probably be open to swapping ideas, at the very least.
Starting with the backside, or closed side, of the formation, the WR1 in this case is the tight end, 2nd year starter Evan Engram. His route is basically an out and up double move from the line of scrimmage. Many NFL coordinators like to flex out their tight end from the line of scrimmage as the lone X-wide receiver. This makes the defense indicate man or zone coverage and tip its hand to match ups. In this case, however, Engram, would be better from the line to help ensure a clean release (even if he has to avoid a defensive end), as well as improve his angle to sell the corner portion of the out and up. Straight line speed is not one of Engram’s strengths, as the below video shows he struggled gaining separation at times from the lone X against defensive backs:
The chatter throughout the spring has been Engram running more vertical routes downfield. Recently, with my co-host of Big Blue Banter, Dan Schneier of 247 Sports, Engram said, “Yeah — we’re definitely getting downfield and I’m really excited to do that now. I’m excited to be using my speed to get open.” This play would specifically use his speed and fluidity getting in and out of breaks to get open. Last season, only 19.2% of Engram’s targets were to the deep left, middle, or right of the field, and very few of those included some sort of a double move or even just a single break (in fact, it is near impossible to find any on film). This play would change that.
Assuming this play would be run with the formation to the field, the backside running back near the boundary would be 1st round draft pick Saquon Barkley. Barkley would view the line of scrimmage first, then run a check-down swing route, garnering attention either from his defender in man or multiple zone defenders (as in the video). Many would suggest Barkley run a full-fledged wheel route (with a similar stem as the swing) and attack the defense vertically. That adjustment certainly could be made, but Barkley’s pass blocking ability should be harnessed if need be, so he only releases to the swing if his read deems it. Barkley put in a lot of work on his pass protection at Penn State, and perhaps one of the challenges adjusting to the NFL will be recognition and processing of the different protection sets at NFL game speed. It will take him time to become consistent, like any other rookie. Allowing the option for six blockers in protection opens the door to a wider range of protection calls. Giants fans are not as familiar with using six blockers, as ex-head coach and play-caller Ben McAdoo frequently left only five in protection and relied on the quick game to stymie opponents’ pass rush. Barkley’s continued development in this area will be critical to not only his success as a rookie, but also the offense’s success if they’re going to remaining versatile within their personnel packages.
The X wide receiver, in this case the farthest one on the field side to the right, would be either Pro-Bowler Odell Beckham or speedy Sterling Shepard. Shepard was taking many snaps as outside receiver in the spring, and it is clear within Shurmur’s offense the players will move around in the formation. For this example, Beckham will take the X-wide receiver position and run a quick hitch route. This route effectively is both a check down, decoy, and effective quick game option to the formation side. With the other two receivers on that side running vertical routes, this hitch makes the formation side a clear out concept, one in which Beckham’s yards after catch potential is potentially devastating to defenses. But, like anyone else, Beckham needs to be set up correctly for YAC. Since we are in the land of hypotheticals with this piece, we suggest adding a read to this route (highlighted above): if it is estimated to be man coverage, run a 5-yard dig, if zone, run the short hitch. See the below from last year, two plays where OBJ runs the shallow dig we suggest against a type of Cover 3 zone that converts to man coverage (for simplicity’s sake):
This gets into a bigger conversation about isolation routes versus combination routes. There is a time and a place for both, but as the examples above show, a simple route where Beckham is required to create space for himself after the catch is is difficult. This becomes even more so against defenders playing downhill in zone and with reduced space (both plays were executed to the short side of the field).
The two slot receivers are Sterling Shepard and Cody Latimer, respectively, who run a skinny post/switch go combination. Starting with Latimer in the inner slot, his signing has gone under the radar a bit this spring/summer. A former 2nd-round draft pick in 2014 by Denver, he never truly established himself in the mix under Peyton Manning’s offensive regime and only came on towards the latter half of last season. There’s more to this story, but just sticking to what he can do for this article, he has very good body control, and his large frame (6-2, 215lbs) makes him difficult to match up against. He can play anywhere in the formation, and they featured him in the slot often and he made catches like the below with good cuts. The route below is not a double move downfield as featured in the play, but it illustrates his good body control and ball skills for a touchdown:
Last but not least, Sterling Shepard would be running the skinny post from the outside slot position after the switch downfield with Latimer (receivers exchange positions running vertically). This route has an adjustment: if the middle of the field is open (as is the case in the PSU play), the receiver continues on the skinny post. If the middle of the field is closed, the receiver breaks the route into an almost deep drag, cutting across the field horizontally. Shepard has been working very hard on his ability after the catch, and this off season even running routes from the outside Z and X. Again, the roles in Shurmur’s formations will change, and he values the multiplicity. However, it is hard to deny Shepard’s nose for the ball in a dangerous middle of the field. Check out an example of a skinny post versus the Eagles in Week 3, run in a much tighter space for a shorter distance:
Shepard ran a similar route later in the game for a 77 yard touchdown, but this one shows his ability to have solid presence versus a zone to avoid contact and protect himself. He would do even better with more space a bit farther downfield, as did Moorhead’s Penn State.
This play represents many different elements that the Giants lacked over the years during the McAdoo regime. From potentially using more than five in pass protection to vertical routes down the field, and much in between, this play stands as a stark contrast to the quick game isolation routes. When studying Engram’s tape, a mere handful of double moves were found at all, and the farthest one downfield was around 10 yards. Eli Manning spent only 206 dropbacks last season, or 33.9% of his snaps in the pocket, for 2.6 seconds or more (according to Pro Football Focus). This play stretches the field adequately within the timing and rhythm exemplified in Shumur’s offense, as well as gives Manning two effective check down type options on both sides of the formation. Will this play be used? The odds are close to zero. Will something like this be used on select third downs or moments when Shurmur wants to take a shot downfield? Absolutely.