If you have been reading for a while, you know that I use the research done by the fine folks at Pro Football Focus all the time. Well, that doesn't mean that I don't realize our friends at Football Outsiders are still the kings of the castle when it comes to innovate statistical football analysis.
FO has come out recently with a couple of analytical pieces that -- I think -- tell us something about the New York Giants on the offensive side of the ball. FO has a look at the use of empty backfield sets by NFL teams in 2010, and a look at which NFL teams relied the most on using a sixth offensive lineman rather than an extra tight end.
FO found that, on average, NFL teams used empty backfield sets five percent of the time during the 2010-2011 season. The Giants, however, were well below average in the number of times they used the empty set, doing so only 2.9 percent of the time. The thing about FO's research that is even more interesting is that it shows that the Giants averaged more yards per play (8.6) than any team in league other than New Orleans, which also averaged 8.6, from the empty set.
Before you start screaming about offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride not using the empty set enough -- which I know you probably already are -- consider the six offensive lineman set research by Football Outsiders.
The Giants used the six offensive lineman set 115 times in 2010-2011, or 11.3 percent of the time. Only Oakland (124 times) used the set more often. The Giants used the sixth offensive lineman 31 times on passing plays (that's 27 percent of the time it was utilized, for you math majors).
What does this tell us? It does not tell us that Gilbride doesn't know what he is doing. It tells us that the Giants did not completely trust their makeshift offensive line last season. Yes, Eli Manning was sacked only 16 times last season, fewer than any quarterback in the league not named Manning (Eli's brother, Peyton, was also sacked just 16 times).
The Giants did a lot of things a season ago designed to keep Manning upright, notably often keeping in extra blockers and sending out fewer receivers.
Think about this for a second. We spent Wednesday discussing Travis Beckum's role, or lack thereof in the Giants offense. It's a logical assumption that on many of those occasions when Will Beatty, Shawn Andrews or someone else was lining up as an extra blocker Beckum could have been on the field as an added weapon if the Giants did not feel the need to use extra bodies to keep Manning safe in the pocket.
In all honesty, that probably was the right approach. It is also hard to argue that it was a foolish one. First and foremost, the quarterback has to be standing upright to throw the football. Secondly, New Orleans (105 times) and Atlanta (78), two teams looked at as having explosive offenses, were third and fourth in the league in their usage of the six offensive lineman set. The Falcons, incidentally, were third in the league in sacks allowed and the Saints were fifth. You can't throw when you are buried under pass-rushers.
Obviously, the success rate the Giants had last season with the empty set tells you the Giants have lots of weapons and that Manning operates well from that alignment. It would be ideal if the Giants could get to that set more often. When I look at this, though, it's hard to argue with a philosophy whose first priority is keeping Manning upright, and trying to give him a pocket to throw from.