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Film study: Giants impressive in red zone vs. Cowboys

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The New York Giants finished every drive that made it inside of the Cowboys' 20-yard line. How did they do it?

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

We all feel pretty good about the New York Giants’ offense.

And we should.

Eli Manning is a franchise quarterback with accomplishments that few more well-regarded active or retired quarterbacks can match. Odell Beckham is a bonafide superstar and is fairly considered one of the top three receivers in the NFL. Victor Cruz’s return to effectiveness and Sterling Shepard’s potential are just plain exciting. The Giants even have a competent running game and weapons at tight end.

It wasn’t an accident that they finished 2015 as the eighth overall offense and sixth-ranked scoring offense.

But hidden in the talent and numbers is an ugly blemish on the 2015 Giants’ offense: They just couldn’t get it done in the red zone. With a red zone efficiency of just 44.44 percent, the Giants had the third-worst red zone offense in football, just behind the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns.

Much film has been watched and many keys have been smashed trying to figure out why, but the 2015 Giants were like a baseball team that just couldn’t hit with runners in scoring position, but could they ever mash dingers with a runner on first.

It’s a very small sample size against a depleted Dallas Cowboys defense, but the Giants managed a 100 percent efficiency rating inside of the 20-yard line.

Put simply, they finished drives.

Without getting into why they struggled to score in 2015, let’s take a look at how they went 3-for-3 against the Cowboys.

Play 1)

Situation: Second Quarter, 9:41

The Cowboys were up 6-0 after a pair of long drives that resulted in field goals. They were dominating time of possession and the Giants needed a score to generate any kind of momentum. After a 1-yard run by Rashad Jennings, Manning jump-started the offense with a 14-yard pass to Shepard and a huge 45-yard catch-and-run by Odell Beckham. That put the Giants on the Cowboys’ 15-yard line and the Dallas defense reeling.

The Giants line up in their 11 personnel set (one running back, one tight end), but with the wrinkle of Larry Donnell lining up as a wide receiver before motioning inside. The Cowboys appear to be in a hybrid coverage (possibly Cover-6) playing zone coverage over Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard at the bottom of the screen and man coverage on Odell Beckham and Donnell at the top.

The Giants create a big problem for the coverage by moving Donnell inside and attacking the seam.

The Giants take advantage of the attention Beckham commands running the curl route to the first down marker, pulling linebackers out of coverage on Donnell and creating confused traffic in the middle of the field. Likewise, the wheel route run by Rashad Jennings pulls one of the safeties out of the middle of the field.

That gives the tight end plenty of room to catch the touchdown pass and keeps coverage from getting back to him.

The route combination at the bottom of the screen draws further attention as Cruz runs to the middle of the field. And while Donnell is the first read and the subject of the play, Shepard gets a 1-on-1 matchup in the back corner of the end-zone which is a decent second option.

Play 2)

Situation: Second Quarter, 0:13 -

After the Giants’ first scoring play, a lightning-fast, four-play, 93-second strike, the Cowboys kicked a third field goal, going ahead 9-7. The Giants got the ball back with just over four minutes left in the half.

The perfect time to execute the kind of scoring drive that they simply couldn’t perform in 2015, costing them games.

Once again the Giants are in the shotgun with their 11 personnel set — noticing a theme here? The Cowboys are in a nickel set with man coverage under a single-high safety.

Once again the Giants use combination routes at the top and bottom of the field.

On the top of the field they have the tight end running a corner route while Cruz runs the post in a "Scissors" concept, creating separation at the top of the screen.

At the bottom of the screen Beckham runs across the flat, forcing the defender on Shepard to run around both himself and the corner covering him. That creates plenty of separation as Shepard runs his route to the back corner of the end zone. The safety reacts well, but has too much ground to cover to get to the receiver in time to make a play on the ball.

Eli underthrows the ball a bit, he puts it up over the defender, where Shepard has the best chance to make a play or bat it away from a defender. Fortunately the rookie shows off his 41-inch vertical leap and gets makes a very tough catch around the defender’s arm. Hopefully, it’s the first of many (easier) TDs for Shepard.

Play 3)

Situation: Fourth Quarter, 6:19 left in the game

The Giants’ defense had just forced a three-and-out, but the Cowboys had previously scored a touchdown to go ahead 19-14 following an ugly interception.

With the clock winding down, the Giants needed to get seven points to retake the lead and put themselves in position to win the game.

As you should expect by now, the Giants are in the shotgun with Shane Vereen at running back, in their 11 personnel grouping.

The Cowboys’ defense is backed up against their own goal-line but appear to be in man coverage under a Cover-2 shell. The touchdown is the unlikely result of a great block by Larry Donnell.

Donnell fires out of his stance and through the linebacker matched up on him, taking him on a ride more than halfway through the end zone. That, combined with Vereen’s route, creates a mass of confusion in the middle of the end zone, which Cruz uses to create separation between himself and the corner in coverage on him.

On the other side of the field, Beckham runs a flat route to the goal line, drawing double coverage from the corner in coverage on him and the safety in the middle of the field. That combination of Donnell, Vereen, and Beckham creates a huge void in the middle of the end zone where Eli finds Cruz for his first touchdown since Week 3 of 2014

Salsa For Everybody!

Final Thoughts

Will the Giants keep their perfect red zone efficiency going? We don’t know yet, and all we have to go on is a sample size of three against an under-manned defense.

What we do know is that the Giants very clearly showed a preference for using route combinations. Rather than relying on the individual skills of their talented receiving corps to win their matchups, they are using the play design as a whole to create the opportunities they want. Everything happens faster in the red zone, so creating confusion and traffic definitely makes it easier for the offense. But on the other hand, all the offensive players need to do their job or the whole play falls apart.

We’ll just have to see if they can keep finishing drives as the year progresses.

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