The Giants came into Week 12 against their divisional foe, the Eagles, with slivers of playoff hopes on the line. The offense started strong, with quarterback Eli Manning going 19-for-25 for 236 yards and a TD in the first half. A combination of deep rhythmic throws and well-timed intermediate patterns gave New York’s receivers time and space. The rushing attack also flourished early, with Saquon Barkley rushing for 94 yards on 9 attempts and a TD in the first half. Even backup running back Wayne Gallman had 2 rushes for 8 yards against a stout Eagles front. Let’s start off with the good stuff.
The rushing attack came out firing, culminating on a 2nd-and-7 around the 5-minute mark in the 2nd quarter. Barkley ran the usual Inside Zone run out of 11 personnel ( 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). Please see below:
The Giants have been reducing their splits (initially h/t Greg Cosell of NFL Films/ESPN, @gregcosell ), and that affects the running game. With the trips bunch formation in this example, the defensive backs covering down to that side must retreat from the line of scrimmage and coordinate or stagger their depth. The Giants run the play away from the bunch, which allows more space on the backside for one of the best cutback runners in the game in Barkley. As he explodes with great burst, the angles for the defensive backs are suboptimal for stopping a back with a full head of steam. So much of football X’s and O’s is setting up these kinds of incremental advantages that often go overlooked by the media and those on the interwebs.
Back in mid-October, I wrote an article on the Giants’ red zone woes for Inside the Pylon, recommending the Giants use more screens in the “far” red zone (area from the +11 to +20 yard line, link to article: http://bit.ly/nygRedZone). On Sunday on their first trip to the red zone, Pat Shurmur dialed up a nuanced screen for Saquon Barkley. Please see below:
It is rare to see a RB go untouched into the red zone on a screen pass. Head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula use 22 personnel ( 2 RB’s, 2 TE’s, 1 WR) and use the overloaded left side of the formation to clear out the zone defenders to that side. Remember, there is no window dressing in play design. Every piece has a purpose. The “candy” of the three takes enough defenders’ eyes that way that it only takes two linemen getting downfield (left tackle Nate Solder and center Spencer Pulley) to secure a lane for the touchdown.
Part of the art of play-calling is showing wrinkles off of certain looks as the game goes along. Coaches like Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco are best known for it, but many coaches follow suit. Such was the case on a key drive in the 4th quarter when the Giants needed a score to tie the game. On a 1st down just in Eagles territory, head coach Shurmur dialed up a familiar formation out of 22 personnel. Please see below:
This time around, the Barkley does not bluff block the defensive end, and the two vertical routes are not to clear out the zone defenders. One of them, LB Nigel Bradham, hangs on the RB’s as TE Ellison gains separation up the field. Fox Sports broadcast commentator Chris Spielman immediately declared that Bradham was caught looking at play action (there was none) and that he must understand that with the RB pre-snap depth that there was no way it could be a run. Instant analysis is simply that: instant. There was more to Bradham watching Barkley, and it came from good play design.
The Not So Great
Many fans may be wondering: how could this piece laud the offensive play-calling from a devastating loss to a rival after blowing a 19-3 lead? How could Shurmur only get Saquon Barkley five touches in the second half? The outrage about not seeing more of the most dynamic rookie running back is understandable; he can break a big play at any given time. But understanding the context of the second half, and also the fact that in a football loss like this, the search for heroes and villains falls woefully short of reality. Take just one example from the first play of the 4th quarter, where the Giants dial up a box read pre-snap RPO:
Some playbooks adhere to the following simplistic RPO rules: if five in the box, run it; if six in the box, read it (meaning post-snap); if 7 in the box, pass it. The resulting power play-action creates a clear lane for Manning to place a perfect ball to WR Sterling Shepard, who does not pull it in with the solid coverage from DB Cre’von LeBlanc. This was the right read, a good throw, and a tough one-on-one battle that did not succeed. This set up 3rd-and-long, and Manning was sacked by Chris Long. Such are the woes of 3-8 teams.
This is not to absolve the play-calling from the “blame game” that exists from arm-chair coordinators around the Tristate area. Part of the reason the Giants need to use box read RPOs more is that defensive fronts are still taking advantage of the offensive line at times. New right guard Jamon Brown has been a big step up for the right side, but this unit is still not one to take on a clear eight-man box from heavier personnel sets like 12 (1 RB, 2 TE’s 2 WR’s). The 2nd-and-15 run from this 3rd quarter series where Wayne Gallman is featured is a great example. Please see below:
The Giants run game coordination continually likes the 12 personnel ace back formation where the defense responds to the eight gaps created (by seven linemen) by putting eight men near the line of scrimmage. Often, defenses don’t stack boxes, offenses do. On 2nd-and-15 a play like this is painful to watch. This was by far the worst run of Gallman’s night, and he had little chance due to DT Michael Bennett’ s elite get off. Some would say that Barkley needs as many touches as possible, but it is not as simple as “run the ball to victory.” What is much more compelling is a statistic regarding play-action, as compiled by astute Bleeding Green Nation X’s and O’s writer, Michael Kist:
The Giants and Pat Shurmur got off script here regarding play-action. Even novice tape study shows the Eagles’ 2nd-tier line-backing was quick to trigger downhill to a mesh point. They are an aggressive unit that takes chances, and in this game at times was undisciplined in its run fits. The point should also be reemphasized that the success of this play-action is independent of the success of the running game. Barkley’s long runs from the first half do not change the priority in run keys for defenders. If anything, the play-action can enhance times when the running back actually takes the ball. The Giants need sustained improvement here.
One of the criticisms that Shurmur immediately took responsibility for was the interception right before the end of the first half as the Giants were driving. Shurmur dials up a Scissors concept into the boundary, a favorite two-deep beater of the Eagles, ironically (and many teams across all of football). Although Shurmur taking one for his QB is commendable, see the below play:
This version of Scissors has the corner breaking before the post; against Cover 2 Green with very deep half safeties, it is a difficult order. Manning’s only window is a small one to the corner that requires an excellent and aggressive anticipation throw. The result is poor, but the identification process pre- and post-snap is worse. Manning had a good game and perhaps his best half. This throw is an outlier, but one that, frankly, mirrors a rookie mistake. The Jekyll and Hyde-ness exists in his play where a very wide range of good throws and devastating throws exist in a single game, with the errors centered around the mental side. They need to stop.
Despite the above poor examples and more, the Giants managed a drive in the fourth quarter that showed resilience to tie the game and try to take the game to overtime. If not for a tough 3rd down no call on a Beckham slant, the Giants may have scored a touchdown to go up by four on that drive. This game highlights the many levels of grey that make up a win for one team and a loss for another. The mob wants clear villains and heroes, but they simply do not exist in this game. Clarity makes for easy narratives, and nothing this season comes easy for Big Blue. Outside of Saquon Barkley, all jobs remain on the line.