Everything was going against the New York Giants heading into Sunday night, especially on the offensive side of the ball. With a myriad of injuries at receiver, it was going to be tough to throw the ball. Against Denver’s run defense -- which entered the week first in DVOA and yet to allow more than 75 yards on the ground in a game in 2017 -- running the ball also seemed like an impossible task.
But somehow, the Giants ran right down the throat of the Denver defense, to the tune of 148 rushing yards on the night. The biggest run was Orleans Darkwa’s 47-yard gain at the start of the second quarter.
It was a first-and-10 from the Giants’ own 40 and the offense came out in 12 personnel -- two tight ends, two wide receivers, and Darwka. Through the course of the game, the Giants would use 12 personnel way more often, but early in the game the Giants had still favored 11 personnel with three wide receivers. The two tight ends on this play were Rhett Ellison and Matt LaCosse, which would indicate a run is about to occur. Denver countered by running their base personnel and bringing most of their defenders near the line of scrimmage.
One of the perks of running from 11 personnel is spreading out defenders and getting an extra defensive back on the field. Because the Giants ran that so often, they rarely saw eight-man boxes against the run. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Paul Perkins had not faced an 8-man box in 2017 -- the only back with at least 30 carries to not see one. But with heavier personnel on offense, more defenders are invited closer to the line of scrimmage. The Broncos showed an eight-man box on this play and it was already the third Darwka faced on Sunday night. Darkwa ended up facing an 8-man box on 81 percent of his rushing attempts against the Broncos, though much of that was a result of running the ball late with a lead.
The Giants started this play with both receivers (Roger Lewis and Tavarres King) wide to the right side and both tight ends inline to the left.
Before the snap, Ellison motioned from left to right and settled next to right tackle Justin Pugh. That movement caused Denver to react by shifting everyone in the box over one gap towards Ellison and it would set up the defenders perfectly for how the Giants would run the blocking.
There hasn’t been much success for the Giants blocking just about anyone this year regardless of the blocking scheme or numbers advantage. But on this run, the blocking was the key to everything working and it was one of the more involved blocks called this year.
While there were seven Giants on the line of scrimmage to block, three were the main focus -- Ereck Flowers, John Jerry, and D.J. Fluker. Flowers was supposed to swim around Adam Gotsis (99) before moving up to linebacker Todd Davis (51), who is second on the team in tackles against the run, per NFL Game Statistics and Information System. Jerry is also tasked with passing Gotsis on his path to cut off Brandon Marshall (54) before the defender his the near hash. It’s Fluker’s job to hit the unblocked Gotsis with a trap block.
Those three linemen being the focus of this play might not cause immediate confidence in most Giants fans, but they pulled off their responsibilities perfectly. All three hit their blocks and opened a hole for Darkwa.
Fluker’s trap block is the catalyst for the play.
As the play developed, Broncos safety Darian Stewart (27) crashed down in the wide open space between Flowers and LaCosse. But the path Darwka took opened in the middle of the line and Stewart put himself out of position to make a tackle. The Giants got a box defender out of the play without having to block him.
When Darwka got through the hole, Stewart was five yards behind him. The closest defender was Marshall, who was still being blocked by Jerry. Davis was off-balance and turned around into Jerry after a shove from Flowers. There was no one in position to catch Darwka from behind.
One advantage of heavier personnel and a loaded defensive box is the lack of defenders deep. More defenders at the line does mean the possibility of a stuff is higher, but it also increases the chance of a huge gain if the play can break through the second-level and that’s what happened here.
The Broncos had just a single-high safety on this play, Justin Simmons (31), and he was lined up on the far hash at the start of the play, shaded toward the two receiver side.
When Darkwa got past the linebackers, Simmons was Denver’s only chance of getting to the back. Simmons’s initial steps were backward before he took a few steps in when he read run. But those few steps also slowed him from getting straight to Darkwa, which allowed the back to get further down the field before Simmons could catch up.
The Giants ran twice after this play -- an 8-yard gain by Wayne Gallman and a run for no gain from Darkwa. The third play was a 5-yard touchdown pass to Evan Engram that gave the Giants a 10-0 lead. While the only offensive touchdown of the night came through the air, it was the run game that helped set it up. This performance would have been impressive against any defense, but it was stellar against a Broncos unit that had kept teams contained on the ground before this game.
It’s yet to be seen if both the game plan and execution on the ground will continue going forward. Seattle is up next, but the Seahawks have been surprisingly weak against the run this year -- 23rd in DVOA through Week 5. If the Giants can continue to run the ball well on early downs, it can help set up more manageable third downs and bringing eight men into the box can help open up the passing game with fewer defenders deep. This isn’t what anyone expected the Giants offense to look like at this point in the season, but these types of plays could be the best hope for the rest of the year.