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The secrets behind Big Blue's offensive turnaround

The Giants have won four of their last five games since the bye, averaging more than 30 points per game. The offense has clearly turned things around after averaging only 18.75 points per game in their first eight games, when the Giants went just 1-7. Why? As usual, it is complicated.

It actually starts with the defense. The Giants have three defensive touchdowns in their last five games, inflating their point total. They also have finished at least +2 in the turnover ratio in each of their four wins, with their 12 takeaways giving the offense good field position and making it easier to score points. The Giants had just seven takeaways in their first eight games.

If you put that aside, the offense has undergone a major shift of its own.

“Just our identity and being able to run the ball,” Eli Manning said. “I think that’s been the biggest difference since the bye. Just an emphasis on running the ball, the play-action. A lot more under center. Not as much shotgun. Not as much seven-step drop. Just having everything build off the run game.”

It’s easy to say, but is it true? Emphatically, the answer is yes. Pro Football Focus was kind enough to share data splits between the team’s first eight games and last five, along with some other advanced statistics, and there has been a big shift.

The Giants ran the ball only 18.5 times per game the first half of the season, a number that has jumped to 27 in the second half. How the Giants have run the ball has also undergone a transformation. In the first eight games of the season, the Giants ran the ball from under center 60% of the time, but in their last five games since the bye, that percentage has jumped all the way to 87.4%.

A big reason the Giants have been able to undergo such a change is because they have been more effective running the ball.

“It’s much easier as a play caller also to call runs when you’re gaining yards,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “And when you hand the ball to a runner that can score touchdowns.”

When the run game is generating more yards it is much easier to continue to call running plays. If a team is gaining only a couple of yards per carry, or losing yards, it is hard to continue to run the ball at the risk of constantly putting the offense in third and long situations. It becomes counterproductive.

In the first eight games of the season, the Giants averaged over five running plays per game for zero or negative yards. In their last five games, that number has dropped to four. Given the team runs it nine more times per game, it has gone to from a run for zero or negative yards every 3.7 runs to one every 6.75. It is a significant drop. They had four games with six or more rushes for zero or negative yards in the first half of the year but only one such game since the bye. 

The change in success running the ball is the real reason the Giants have been able to transform the way they play. In the first eight games of the season, the Giants averaged only 3.2 yards per carry when running from under center. They were actually better running from shotgun, averaging 6.76 yards per carry, though this number may be skewed by third and long draw plays that gained a lot of yards but did not yield first downs.

One piece of evidence the team wasn’t as better running from shotgun as from under center as the raw numbers suggest is the percentage of runs in those situations that have gone for first downs or touchdowns. Despite the overall rushing average for runs under center being half of those from shotgun, 22% of them went for first downs or touchdowns, versus only 19% of the runs from shotgun.

In the last five games, the Giants have become a dominant team running from under center. They are averaging 5.58 yards per carry in those situations since the bye week. Their 118 carries from under center since the bye is already 29 more than their number of carries in those formations in the team’s first eight games.

The team’s ability to run from shotgun is also still good, averaging 5.65 yards per carry on 17 rushing attempts. Only 6% of those runs, however, have gone for first downs or touchdowns indicating a lot may be in third and long situations. The Giants had 59 attempts from shotgun in the team’s first eight games.

So why has the team been so much better running the ball after the bye? It starts up front. The Giants have had the same offensive line combination for the last five games, something that could not be said the first eight games of the season due to performance issues and injuries. The center, right guard and right tackle all changed in the first eight games.

“I’m an old offensive lineman, and I understand the importance of blocking,” Shurmur said. “It starts up front, and I think our guys are doing a better job blocking, which helps the run game.”

Jamon Brown has settled in at right guard with Spencer Pulley at center since the bye. It would be unwise to give them all the credit for the team’s turnaround in the run game, but their impact should not be ignored. Nate Solder and Will Hernandez have also played better in their last five games.

“Our offensive line is playing at a very high level these last couple weeks,” Barkley said. “For the last three games, we’ve been able to run over 100 yards. That’s directly towards them and a credit towards them. They’re playing very confident, the chemistry is high there.”

It is always difficult to define statistically how well an offensive line is playing, but a good number to use is yards gained before contact. A running back that constantly has to gain yards after contact is a sign the offensive line he is running behind isn’t playing as well. In the first eight games of the season, Barkley averaged only 1.51 yards before contact, but in the last five games that number has jumped to 2.51.

That number may also be a sign that Barkley has made improvements in his vision, decisiveness and running style. He looks far less eager to hesitate and bounce runs outside and is hitting holes quicker and getting downhill more.

“When you see a player of Saquon’s caliber, the dirty runs, and he embraces it, that’s another part of his personality that’s outstanding because he’s coachable,” Shurmur said. “People that thought that was the right thing to do told him to do it and he did it. That’s awesome. You don’t always see that from great, high-caliber, high-quality players, so that’s another box we can check on him.” 

Pro Football Focus has given Barkley four of his five highest rushing grades of the season in his last four games, an indication he is doing a good job of seeing and hitting the holes better than he was earlier in the season.

Another reason is the team’s use of personnel groups. The Giants have been using more two tight (12 personnel) and a fullback with one tight end (21 personnel) in the second half of the season. In the team’s first eight games, the team ran out of 12 personnel 49 times, which has already been eclipsed in just the five games since, with 57 runs out of two right ends. The team’s rush average has jumped from 4.55 yards per carry to 6.02 in that personnel.

The Giants ran from 21 personnel just 10 times in the first half of the season and already have 21 in the last five games. They have gone from averaging 4.3 yards per carry to 5.62.

“Sometimes it simplifies what the defense does,” Manning said about the advantage of using a fullback or two tight ends. “Especially nowadays in this league with everyone in three receivers and one tight end and one back, they have all different sorts of blitzes and looks and the safeties can rotate either way to disguise things. All of a sudden, you throw out two tight ends and a fullback, two receivers, one tight end and a fullback, I think it shows how teams line up. Teams don’t spend a lot of time in those formations or personnel as much and you can know how they line up and what they do. You can just get up there fast and play quickly and get the ball snapped and run your base plays.”

While the number of carries per game from 11 personnel hasn’t changed much, the level of success has. The Giants are averaging 6.13 yards per rush from that group in the last five games, up from 4.4 yards per carry in the first half.

The way the Giants are utilizing their tight ends might also be a clue as to why success in these groups has improved. Due to injury and coaches’ decision, Evan Engram hasn’t been on the field as much since the bye. He has played just 86 snaps in three games, while Rhett Ellison has played 228 in five games. Scott Simonson has also played a lot more, averaging nearly 20 snaps per game in the last five games. Not counting his outlier 63 snaps game against the Eagles in the first half of the year, Simonson averaged only 10 snaps per game before the bye.

The improvement in the rushing game has impacted the Giants passing game. In the first half of the season, the Giants ran only 15.6% of their pass plays from under center. In the second half that percentage has jumped all the way to 33.5%. Gaining consistent yards on first and second downs keeps the entire playbook open for a play caller, instead of forcing them into shotgun or straight dropback situations.

There has been a similar increase in the number of play-action passes from under center. The Giants are averaging slightly under nine play-action passes from under center per game since the bye. Before the bye, they averaged just four. On those play-action passes in the second half of the season, Giants quarterbacks have a 140 quarterback rating, completing 27/39 passes for 380 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Data collected across the league indicates that success running the ball does not lead to a more effective play-action game, but the Giants numbers from the first half of the season versus the second half indicate differently.

The passing game has changed in one other way. The team is passing far less frequently out of 11 personnel. The Giants averaged 32 passes per game in that group in weeks 1-8, but just 21 in the past five games. The sack rate in those situations, one per 10 drop backs has remained nearly identical, but the impact is not felt to the same extent because there are fewer raw attempts. The sack rate on pass plays from 12 personnel this season is only one per 23.5 drop backs. 

The same can be said for straight dropback passes out of shotgun. Their pass rate out of shotgun has dropped from 33.9 per game all the way to 20. The team’s sack rate on passes in shotgun sits at one per 10.8 dropbacks, and hasn’t changed a lot as the season has gone along (9.7 to 12.5 dropbacks per sack), but is much higher than their sack rate on straight dropbacks from under center, which stands at one sack in just 31 attempts. 

The raw increase in the number of running plays per game and the increase in the number of play action passes has reduced the number of reps the offensive line is asked to block in straight pass blocking situations, especially in shotgun and 11 personnel. The numbers show the pass protection isn’t that much better in those non-play action situations, it’s just that the team is putting them in those situations a lot less. It’s a big reason the passing game is more efficient. 

The larger point from this deluge of numbers is that the Giants did change the way they played, but it was only made possible because the players began executing better. The coaches could have run the ball more frequently from under center in the first half of the season, but if they continued to average 3.2 yards per carry and were stopped for losses a half dozen times or more per game, it would not have mattered.

The Giants have been better offensively because some players on the field changed, the players that remained in the lineup began to play better, and the coaches began to use them in different combinations and formations. There is never one simple answer or one silver bullet for why a team starts playing better. In the end, from the coaches to the players, football remains the ultimate team sport.

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