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2018 Opponent Scouting Report: New York Giants Offense, maybe Saquon Barkley can play QB too?

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 23, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the New York Giants. In this Week 16 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our surging Colts.

The Colts have lost to the Giants once in the past twenty (20) years, that loss coming in 2002. Prior to that the Colts hadn’t lost to the often talked about G-Men since 1993 and going back to 1968 (not a typo, the Vietnam War was being waged) our Colts are 8-3 against these Giants. Unfortunately for us, history has nothing to do with the game on Sunday, unless you consider Eli Manning’s career, as the best of it is far in the past.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 16.


Offensive Scheme

When the New York Giants hired Pat Shurmur away from his post as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, they believed they were getting the man who made Case Keenum look like a top 15 quarterback which is exactly who they got. The biggest problem is he couldn’t bring the Vikings defense with him so while the wins haven’t come for the Giants at the pace they were probably hoping he has managed to improve Eli Manning’s statistical output to the best they’ve been in years. He’s currently on pace to throw only 10 interceptions on the year which would tie the lowest amount he’s had in a single season (as a full time starter) in his career.

So what does this offense look like? For answers I turned to my favorite football website, not named Stampede Blue; Inside the Pylon. Nick Turchyn looked at Shurmur’s offense from 2017 and while I’m going to give you excerpts here to paint a coherent but (hopefully) succinct picture this article is worth the read.

Without diving into the drama of the past, the future with an offensive mind like Shurmur and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula is bright. This is not because Shurmur will reproduce his 2017 Minnesota offense or Shula will mold personnel into what he had in Carolina or Jacksonville. Rather, these are two coaches that have a history of making the most of their personnel.

...Running a balanced offensive attack is paramount in this NFL era of flexible and talented defensive personnel who athletically can equal or out match many of even the best offensive players. Coach Shurmur’s media quotes so far have centered on this theme and it’s not just lip service. Last year the Vikings ran the ball 45.9% of the time (5th highest in the NFL), an increase from 37.7% in 2016. These runs were mostly zone based (very focused on inside zone or outside zone with early cuts by the running back to the backside, 60% of their rushes went through the mid-guard area, according to FOA).

Here’s one example of running back Latavius Murray cutting back an outside zone run for a big gain, from Week 7 against the Ravens:

Shurmur frequently started off games with a series of these runs, and sprinkled in “easy” passes for the quarterback: such as RB swing passes and screens, often coming off of play action. Before jumping into that fun topic, Shurmur will also employ a fair amount of delay draws to prey on certain aggressive defensive lines.

This last paragraph jumped off the page when I read it as it is very consistent with what I’ve seen on tape of these Giants. Lots of swing passes. Also given the aggressive nature of our defense I presume we will see many delayed handoffs this Sunday.

The passing game really starts with play action and is the most stark difference between Shurmur and past Giant offenses. Last year Minnesota ran play action 26% of the time (2nd in the league) with yards per play on play action of 8.7 (6th). New York, on the other hand, ran it 16% of the time (28th) for 5.9 yards per play (30th).

Some will expect this piece to go on and say Shurmur “established the run to set up play action,” ( the effects of Chris Collinsworth’s broadcasts are widespread). Although examples do exist where this “establishment” happens sequentially on a drive, the NFL is much more rampant with teams that use play action successfully (like the Vikings, and even better New England) independent of that game’s rushing attack.

If you’ve followed my work very long, you’ve probably seen me talk about play action working regardless of run success. I’m not just making stuff up, but that’s not the point of this article.

Turchyn goes on to break down a couple of different play action passes that turned into screens. He then goes into the differences between Ben McAdoo’s West Coast offense and what Shurmur might look to do when he drops this gem:

So again, starting with the perception of the West Coast quick game, Eli Manning spent 2.5 seconds or less in the pocket on a league high 66.1% of his dropbacks in 2017. Box checked, right? On those throws he completed 67% of them, with 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and a QBR of 86.5. With the injuries this year on the offensive side, that can really be considered a win.

On the drop backs lasting 2.6 seconds or more (33.9% of the time) he dropped off substantially to 48.9% completions, 7 TDs, 5 interceptions an a QBR of 67.5. The key to remember here is that although the quick game does exist in the West Coast, a quarterback going through his whole progression will obviously lead to pocket times longer than 2.5 seconds. The QB’s footwork should drive the timing, and as familiarity increases their pocket presence should grow, meaning Manning should be getting more comfortable in a clean pocket, not less...

He goes on to show a clip of Manning against the Cowboys in week 14. I am unable to embed the video but it shows exactly what he’s talking about above. Manning wasn’t getting more comfortable.

Turchyn goes on to show similarities and differences between McAdoo and Shurmur’s system. He highlights some quick hitting passes and where Manning was successful and where he struggled.

The above slant-out example is a microcosm of the Giants experience the last four years; seemingly good on paper but just a little off in the details, leading to negative results. Manning’s time in the pocket was a big factor, and it is interesting that last season the Vikings Case Keenum had 50.8% of his drop backs at 2.5 seconds or less, and 49.2% at 2.6 seconds or more, yet in many ways was decidedly more effective in the quick game and overall short routes.

This balanced approach often leads to success as the defense has to defend a wider range of potential outcomes. Certain aspects of the Giants offense were left out above, such as the weakness in pass protection at the tackle positions, and Manning’s lack of pocket awareness to even front side pressure. Both aspects and more require a lot of attention by Shurmur and Shula.

...If Manning is having trouble coming off his first read, simplify the structure. If the pocket can not hold because of Manning or others, move it with bootlegs after play action. If it is a big ask for him to win games throwing it over 40 times, build the rushing attack to compliment him.

The long and short of it is, the Giants will look to establish the run, use play action and get the ball out of Manning’s hand quickly. If the Colts can limit the ground game and force the Giants to throw the ball down the field, it could bode well for the Colts playoff chances.

While Shurmur has done all he can to improve the offense he hasn’t been able to overcome all of their deficiencies. The rankings haven’t improved much and they will miss the playoffs for the 8th time in the past decade. For a deeper dive into Pat Shurmer, really go read the entirety of the above article, it is excellent.

Despite the Giants overwhelming lack of success, like the Cowboys, analysts year after year talk about them ad nauseam. I’ve been a Giants fan a total of two days in my entire life, each of those two days they’ve made me proud, beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Beyond those two games, like the Cowboys, most of their recent seasons have been irrelevant.


Quarterback:

I feel it’s important to preface the clips I’m about to show you with this: I pulled these clips before I found the article and subsequent data from the Inside the Pylon article. I need to tell you that because if I weren’t the guy who watched the tape, found the clips and then many, many hours later found an article that perfectly explained what the clips showed, I would assume the guy writing the article was cherry picking to fit his narrative.

That’s not how it happened, but it does completely back up everything you’ve read up to this point.

Rolling out:

Manning does a good job here off of play action, rolling to his right, finding a receiver and delivering a catchable ball under pressure. I would say that he makes a read, but that would imply that he progressed through his reads and I don’t think that’s what happened here at all. It worked out, but you’ll see in the last clip how quickly it can go wrong.

Quick hitting throw:

This ball comes out quickly on his first read. There’s nothing great about this play, but this play and plays like it are why Manning’s numbers have been good. You can rack up a lot of yards and a great completion percentage without racking up a lot of wins.

Longer than 2.5 seconds:

Just like Nick Turchyn said, if Manning has to hold the ball and progress through reads, his footwork gets sloppy and he is slow to process. That’s exactly what happens here as he fades away and throws a bad pass.

RPO-ish:

While this play could be confused as a RPO, it’s just a play action pass. Manning was going to his first option all the way, the cornerback recognized it, jumped the route and made the interception.

Most of Manning’s mistakes this season have been fairly minor. He isn’t making big mistakes, he isn’t taking big risks, he’s not making a lot of big plays and he’s not winning the Giants any games.


Running Back:

There’s not much I can tell you about Saquon Barkley that you probably don’t already know. He’s really good. He should be, he was drafted second overall, he better be great and so far he has been. What does a great running back on a bad team get you? A losing record.

With that said he could turn into a huge problem if our Colts don’t play their assignments and gang tackle. He is a lot of fun to watch but hopefully he won’t be adding to his highlight reel this Sunday.

It would be a mistake not to mention his ability as a pass catcher. He’s caught 82 passes, 15 more than Odell Beckham. There isn’t much to say about it, he’s a complete back.

That’s a tiny crease. Barkley hits it in a hurry. This is what you should expect out of him but it isn’t common.

I watched Barry Sanders play a handful of times as a kid. I wasn’t able to really appreciate what I was watching and while Barkley isn’t Sanders, he can do some of the same things I didn’t think the NFL world would ever see again.

This is why our Colts have to stay in their gaps and multiple people have to flow to Barkley. At Penn State he majored in making the first guy miss and minored in breaking tackles. He is a special back who can take over games, our defense will need to have a plan in place to keep that from happening.


Pass Catchers:

Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram all trail Saquon Barkley in catches but they’re the guys you need to know. Beckham is a great receiver with the temperament and maturity of an emotional 10 year old who was handed a million dollar check. If the Colts had the chance to acquire his services I would hope they pass, no matter how good the guy is. I don’t have a high opinion of Beckham the person but he is a lot of fun to watch.

Engram is talented and Shepard would be a big upgrade on the Colts roster but as long as Eli Manning is under center we may never know how productive these receivers can be.

Yards after catch is a concept foreign to Colts fans, the Giants receivers not only need it if they have any hope of moving the ball, they are good at it too.

To Beckham’s credit he’s the only guy on the roster with the guts to throw a pass down field.

I know, Barkley’s section was above this one but how could I not include him in the pass catcher’s section?

If the Colts can give Beckham the same treatment they’ve given DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper, they’ll just have to worry about stopping Saquon Barkley.


Offensive Line:

In the off season the Giants signed Nate Solder to a massive contract to play left tackle. At the time I criticized the move and said that they were paying Solder insane money to play worse than Anthony Castonzo. I caught some flack, but I was right. Solder, hasn’t been bad but they paid him like the best tackle in football and he hasn’t been close to that.

The Giants also took Will Hernandez in the second round in the 2018 draft. Hernandez has played well at times but he hasn’t changed the entire culture and attitude of the Giants offensive line like some other rookie guard we’ve all heard about.

Chad Wheeler the Giants starting right tackle, is probably a good guy. I don’t have anything positive to say about his ability to play football. Spencer Pulley the starting center is in the same boat as Wheeler. Jamon Brown, the starting right guard is in the exact same boat. These guys better hope they keep their looks because they’re not going to get by on their ability to play football much longer.

I expect to see a lot of this on Sunday. They just don’t have the talent up front to block the Colts deep defensive line.

I also expect to see this. This isn’t on the offensive line but it counts all the same.

This line is bad. I expect more production from our young defensive line and with any luck a fun day in the trenches for the good guys.


Final Thoughts:

The Giants have played better over the second half of the season. They’ve beaten the 49ers, the Buccaneers, the Redskins and the Bears. Of those opponents only the Bears are a quality win and the Giants have yet to beat a team with quarterback as good as Andrew Luck. This isn’t a game anyone should overlook but as a fan I’m not going to worry about the outcome of this one.