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Film Review: Giants hit wall in run game, red zone

RB Saquon Barkley
RB Saquon Barkley

The Giants opened up the 2020 season with a 26-16 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night at MetLife Stadium. Here are a few things I saw while watching the film from the tough Week 1 game.

* The Steelers only outgained the Giants by 58 yards on Monday night. The two teams were an identical 8-15 on third downs and 1-1 on fourth down. So why were the Giants trailing by 16 points with just over five minutes to play in the game? The Giants scored 10 points on three red zone trips (all of which got inside the 10-yard line), while the Steelers scored 24 points on their four red zone trips.

* Diontae Johnson muffed Riley Dixon's punt at the conclusion of the Giants' first drive. Devante Downs recovered the muff, giving the Giants the ball on the Steelers 3. On first down, Saquon Barkley gained a yard on a run up the middle. On second down, T.J. Watt got a great jump at the snap, and beat Evan Engram around the edge to hit Daniel Jones' arm just as it was moving forward to force an incompletion. If Jones had an extra moment, there was room to fit the pass into Darius Slayton, who ran an in-cut near the back of the end zone. On 3rd-and-goal from the 2, safety Mike Hilton blitzed and had a free run at Jones. Evan Engram chipped Watt on the play, and then released into a route. The timing between the two was off, and Jones put the ball a bit too high and out in front of Engram and the pass fell incomplete. The Giants settled for a field goal.

* The Giants' second crucial red zone opportunity came at the end of their lone third quarter drive. Daniel Jones got the team out of a 3rd-and-14 hole from their own 5, completing an 18-yard pass to Slayton for a first down. He held safety Terrell Edmunds in the middle of the field with his eyes before zipping it into Slayton between zone defenders near the numbers. The Giants converted third downs of 1, 6 and 3 yards on the drive, along with a 4th-and-1, to give the Giants a 1st-and-10 on the Steelers 11. A 7-yard Barkley run gave the Giants a 2nd-and-3 from the 4. The Giants ran a play-action rollout to the left. With Bud Dupree in hot pursuit, Jones waited for someone to get open in the end zone. Slayton was running a crossing route along the back line and had a step on the defender, but by the time Jones saw him and tried to square his body and unleash a pass, it was too late. Dupree had closed in on the quarterback and hit Jones' arm as he threw, popping the ball in the air and into Cameron Heyward's arms. A 19-play drive that traveled 87 yards and took 8:50 off the clock yielded zero points.

* On their next drive, the Steelers scored three points to make it a two-score game, 19-10. The key play was a 21-yard run by Benny Snell. James Bradberry stripped the ball at the end of the run, but Juju Smith-Schuster recovered the fumble despite being the only Steelers player among six Giants. Two passes to Diontae Johnson for 28 yards helped set up Chris Boswell's 36-yard field goal. After a Giants three-and-out, the Steelers marched 75 yards on 11 plays for the touchdown to give them a 26-10 lead and effectively end the game.

* The Giants had a -1 turnover ratio. The Steelers' lone turnover on their muffed punt led to three points for the Giants. The Giants' two turnovers prevented them from putting points on the board and led to 10 Steelers points.

* The Giants used a lot of three tight-end formations early in the game, but instead of lining them up in a power formation, Jason Garrett spread the formation and emptied the backfield. The heavy personnel forced the Steelers to answer with their own bigger personnel, but the spread formation forced the defense out into space, where they are not accustomed to playing. It led to some early success in the passing game. The Giants used "13" personnel on 21 of their 68 offensive snaps.

* Saquon Barkley finished with 15 rushes for only six yards. Six of his first eight rushes went for negative yards. After 10 attempts, he had -7 yards. According to PFF, Barkley had 16 rushing yards after contact, which means he lost 10 yards before contact on his 15 rushes. He faced multiple defenders in the backfield on far too many of his runs. The Giants ran it with Barkley 11 times with three tight ends in the game. The Steelers had eight men in the box on every one of those runs, which gained only four yards. Six of those 11 rushes went for negative yards. The Giants could not get their ground game going overall.

* The runs out of big personnel helped set up the Giants' biggest pass play of the game. With three tight ends in the formation, the Giants ran a play-action pass on 1st-and-10 on the Steelers 41. With eight defenders in the box committing to the run, the Giants ran only three men out into pass routes. Minkah Fitzpatrick, the center fielder on the play, came down to cover Evan Engram on an intermediate crossing pattern, which left Darius Slayton alone with cornerback Steven Nelson outside. Nelson played off-coverage on Slayton, but it didn't matter. Slayton used his speed to run straight past Nelson on a deep post for a touchdown. Joe Haden sprinted over from the opposite side of the field to try to contest the deep pass at the last moment, but he was too late. Slayton found holes in the Steelers' zone and gained separation against man-to-man. He finished with six catches for 102 yards.

* Jones' other turnover was the result of a classic Steelers' zone blitz. Pittsburgh sent Bud Dupree and Devin Bush along with their three down linemen after the quarterback. Jones read the blitz and tried to get rid of the ball quickly to Evan Engram to his right, but T.J. Watt had dropped off the line into coverage and into the passing lane for the interception.

* Give Jason Garrett credit for an ingenious play call on a 2nd-and-17 at the Giants 18 in the second quarter. With the Steelers aggressively penetrating on run plays, Garrett called for a screen pass to Saquon Barkley after dual play-action fakes, the first to Barkley and then to Sterling Shepard on an end-around. The Steelers took the bait on the fakes, giving Barkley room to gain 38 yards on the screen pass. On the next play, Jones hit Engram down the seam for a 24-yard gain, but Engram was called for offensive pass interference on the play, which short-circuited the drive.

* The Giants were aggressive on first down. They passed the ball on 61.5% of their 1st-and-10 plays, which was the eighth-highest rate in the league. Jones was 13-of-16 on first down for 155 yards. 

* Jones showed moments of improved pocket awareness with two scrambles to avoid pressure for positive yardage. According to PFF, Jones also finished in the middle third of the league (19th– 2.68 seconds) in average time to throw, getting rid of the ball quickly on most of his dropbacks. It is one of the reasons the Steelers only had three sacks, four quarterback hits and 22 hurries, according to PFF. According to PFF's tracking, rookie Andrew Thomas allowed only three hurries in 52 pass blocking snaps. He played well against Bud Dupree in his NFL debut. 

* The Giants' defense used a variety of formations, blitzes and pass rush stunts. They blitzed 27.1% of the time, which according to PFF ranked 16th-most frequent in the league. On a couple of occasions, Patrick Graham had the entire defensive front standing at the line of scrimmage to hinder the quarterback and the offensive line from setting their protections properly. 

* The Steelers scored their first touchdown on a blitz. The Giants had eight players on the line of scrimmage with no safety to help Isaac Yiadom, who couldn't stay with Juju Smith-Schuster on a crossing route. Ben Roethlisberger put a lot of air under the ball and let his receiver run under it for a touchdown.

* On the final drive of the first half, and then in the second half, the Steelers began to use different concepts to attack the Giants' defense. They used bunch formations and natural rub routes to create separation on a variety of crossing patterns, whip routes, and other short passes over the middle. They also utilized a couple of back-shoulder throws toward the sideline. Graham mixed a variety of coverages throughout the game. According to PFF, "Cover 2" was their most frequent scheme, accounting for 37.5% of their defensive snaps.

* The Giants used a three-safety package with Jabrill Peppers, Logan Ryan and Julian Love on the field at the same time. Devante Downs, the second inside linebacker, was only on the field for 14 defensive snaps. Logan Ryan, Darnay Holmes, Julian Love and Jabrill Peppers all played at least 38 snaps and were all in the top nine in defensive snaps. Of the group, Peppers seemed to be near the line of scrimmage most frequently and was assigned to covering the tight end most often. 

* The inside of the Giants' defense was stout. Dalvin Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams were all difficult to move in the run game. Lawrence had a sack and disrupted a screen pass by reading it and tackling Jaylen Samuels from behind immediately after the catch. Williams had a sack, a pair of tackles for losses and two quarterback hits. Blake Martinez was all over the field and led the team in tackles with 12 (seven stops worth two yards or less). Lorenzo Carter set the edge well and had a quarterback hit. It was his outside pressure that forced Roethlisberger to step up in Dexter Lawrence for his sack. 

* Jabrill Peppers finished the game with three punt returns for 39 yards and broke multiple tackles during the night.


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