*The Giants are placing their first half performance on the back burner after a productive bye week: *
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –The Giants spent their bye week studying…the Giants.
As they do every year, the coaches did an extensive breakdown of their personnel and schemes on offense, defense and special teams. But offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan probably didn't need to study charts or watch tape to know where his unit must improve in the second half of the season. When the Giants return to the field Sunday at home against the Los Angeles Rams, it is a virtual imperative that they improve their third down and red zone proficiency and production.
"Third down, definitely," Sullivan said today. "...Red zone. We got to get down there more often."
The Giants rank 29th in the NFL in third-down efficiency, converting 32.6% of their opportunities (30 of 92). They posted season-highs of eight successes and a 47% success rate at Tampa Bay on Oct. 1. But they converted no more than five third downs nor had a greater percentage than 33 in any of their other six games. In the two games prior to the bye, the Giants were a combined six-for-26, just 23%. That includes two-for-12 in their loss to Seattle on Oct. 22.
"You look at this last game, two-for-12, it's hard to (sustain) any type of drives," Sullivan said. "It's hard to have that run game be what we want it to be, that can wear down some defenses and set up some of the play action passes. So that is a major emphasis as we looked at where we're at and we're not doing well overall. And certainly our most recent game was disappointing. That has been an emphasis. In order for us to stay out there, to be able to score more points, to get some type of consistency, to get guys opportunities. We have to stay out there. So third down, definitely."
The Giants' touchdown percentage from inside their opponents' 20-yard line is actually in the top half of the league. It is 15th, at 53.3%. The issue is the Giants' offense doesn't advance into that area often enough. They have been there just 15 times, the league's third-lowest figure behind Miami (12) and the Jets (14) entering Week 9.
"We got to get down there more often," Sullivan said. "We're doing okay in terms of where we've had opportunities. Still, we'd much rather score the touchdowns, obviously, than kick the field goals. But I think the most important thing is that we're able to get down there. The way that we're able to get down there is by converting on third down."
Both third downs and reaching the red zone have been adversely affected by the Giants' dearth of experienced wide receivers. They played both of their last two games without the leading receiver on the active roster, Sterling Shepard, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Shepard is on track to return Sunday. With Odell Beckham, Jr. and Brandon Marshall out for the season, Shepard's 22 career games and 87 catches lead all wideouts currently on the roster.
In those last two games, rookie tight end Evan Engram was Eli Manning's most frequent target. Manning threw to Engram seven times in the victory in Denver and 12 times vs. Seattle. Engram caught five and then six passes, and scored the Giants' only offensive touchdown in each game. Only 10 NFL players have more third-down receptions than Engram's 12 (for 98 yards and a score). Engram is tied with Beckham for the team lead with three touchdown receptions.
"Need some more, though,' Engram said. "Definitely."
While Engram is happy to welcome back Shepard, who will draw the attention of many opposing defensive backs, he believes he has an advantage at tight end, where it's more difficult to double-team him.
"That's the tight end position," Engram said. "We move around a lot. It's kind of hard to kind of guess and plan for where tight ends are going to be. So we do a lot with multiple tight ends as well. It just kind of throws a lot, kind of puts a lot on the defense's plate."
Before the bye, Engram led all NFL rookies with 342 receiving yards. During the week off, he fell to third, behind Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster (who has 424 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown) and Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (378).
Sullivan is confident Engram will continue to produce enough to challenge for or even regain the lead.
"Evan is a talented player," Sullivan said. "We all know that. He brings a lot to the table and it would be foolish of us to not try to find ways to get him the football. From a matchup standpoint, he's someone that creates some issues for defenses. We want to continue to be creative to find ways to feature him and do things that he can do. Obviously, defenses are smart as well. If that's the only guy that's getting the ball, then there are certain things they can do. A little bit more difficult for a tight end than an outside receiver, but still, there are ways in which they can reduce his efficiency. That's where opportunities for other guys are going to be there and they have to make the most of them."
In addition to Shepard, those "other guys" include Roger Lewis, Tavarres King, and rookies Travis Rudolph and Ed Eagan.
"There's going to be opportunities for guys," Sullivan said. "I think as they're getting more experienced - you talked about going from a practice squad role to now all the sudden you're on Sunday Night Football - you're playing and I think that repetition and those experiences are things we're going to count on for them to get better moving forward."
If they improve, the Giants' offense certainly will as well. The Giants didn't need to scout themselves to know that's imperative if they're going to have a successful second half of the season.