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Cover 3: Giants' takeaways from playoffs

In this edition of “Cover 3” on Giants.com, we look at the remaining playoff field in relation to the Giants and what it takes to make a deep postseason run: 

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’m going to pass on the low-hanging fruit here and go with something very obscure. Offensively, the Giants need to be better on first down. Their average yards to go on second down this year was 8.51, the second highest in the league; only Buffalo had further to travel on second down. The Saints were number one in this category, the Patriots were second, the Rams were third, and the Chiefs were 13th.

The Giants gained four or more yards on just 41.4% of their first down plays, the lowest percentage in the league. The Saints were the best in this category (56.9%), the Rams were second, the Patriots 11th and the Chiefs 16th. This goes back to the negative plays and runs for two or fewer yards that plagued the Giants for much of the first half of the year.

The Giants were tied for the sixth-most negative plays (on any down) in the NFL with 110, which lost a total of 518 yards, fourth highest in the league. Those are the types of plays and numbers that consistently kill drives.

The play selection on first down was not to blame. They ran the ball 48.4% of the time, which made them one of the most unpredictable teams in the league on first down.

If the Giants can improve their first down production, their 22nd-ranked third down percentage (36.9%) will most certainly improve. It might also help early conversions. The best way to consistently move the football is to get first downs on first and second downs, without ever getting to third down. It’s something all four teams in the playoffs do extremely well.

DAN SALOMONE: Even with all the bells and whistles in today’s NFL, it’s about controlling the line of scrimmage. Each team that did that over the weekend is now a win away from playing in Super Bowl LIII. The best example was what the Rams did to the Cowboys. You think of Sean McVay’s offense as this glamorous system from Los Angeles, but it does the dirty work. John Sullivan and that offensive line imposed their will against a stout Cowboys front with one of the best linebacker tandems in the league. Led by C.J. Anderson — you also need those unlikely heroes in deep playoff runs — the Rams ran it 48 times (to 28 passes) for 273 yards and all three of their touchdowns. Just as importantly, they held rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott to under 50 yards. So while some think Giants general manager Dave Gettleman sounds like an “alte kaker” when he repeatedly says you need to run the ball, stop the run and rush the passer, remember January and not September. The teams that play into their first part of the new year don’t get caught up in quick fixes. Cohesive play in the trenches is the sustainable formula to winning in football.

LANCE MEDOW: The NFL’s top four teams in scoring offense (Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Patriots) all reached the conference championship games and it’s the first time that’s happened since the merger in 1970. All four averaged over 27 points per game. The Giants accomplished that feat in the second half of the season but finished 16th in the league in scoring overall with 23 points per contest. It goes without saying you need to score consistently in the NFL, but if you take that a step further, a big reason why all four of the remaining teams in the playoffs made that look easy is because of their ability to run the ball, specifically in the Divisional round. The Chiefs ran for 180 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry against the Colts, the Rams piled up 273 yards on the ground and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against the Cowboys, the Patriots ran for 155 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry against the Chargers, and the Saints collected 137 rushing yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Those numbers didn’t come out of the blue. With the exception of the Chiefs, the other three teams ranked in the top six in the NFL in rushing yards per game. In comparison, the Giants finished 24th (103 yards per game). Thanks to the addition of Saquon Barkley, the Giants rushing attack made strides in 2019, but there were a number of games where they struggled to establish the run, so it’s fair to say there were flashes but not necessarily consistency.

The other common trait shared by the four playoff finalists is the ability to stop the run. All four held their opponents to under 90 rushing yards and under 30 points this past weekend. That’s no coincidence because if you can limit the run, you force the opposition to be one-dimensional, which makes a team more predictable and limits its scoring opportunities. It’s no surprise that the four teams still alive won the battle in the trenches on both sides. A strong run game is a reflection of a solid offensive line as well as good blocking tight ends, especially New England’s Rob Gronkowski, who put on a clinic against the Chargers, and the ability to stop the run indicates the presence of a solid front seven. The Giants defense ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (119) and tied for 30th in the league in sacks with 30. The sack numbers from the weekend don’t necessarily jump off the page, but all four winners found ways to create pressure and fluster the opposing quarterback. That’s something the Giants will definitely look to improve upon in 2019.

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