Before the 2016 season the New York Giants were expected to field a dynamic offense. With mega-star Odell Beckham Jr, promising rookie receiver Sterling Shepard, the return of Victor Cruz, and a pair of H-Backs capable of turning 4.5 second forty yard dashes, it’s tough to blame people for being excited.
However, things just didn’t turn out that way. Will Johnson was injured before the season even began, Will Tye failed to build on a promising rookie season, and Victor Cruz was simply unable to recapture his trademark explosiveness from before his injuries. On top of all that, the Giants offense was small and (with no help from injuries on the offensive line) unable to run the ball.
They were limited by injuries and the personnel available, and the offense fizzled as a result.
As we look ahead to the opening of the 2017 regular season against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night, the Giants’ offense already has one marked difference before they even take the field:
They are much bigger.
The Giants abandoned their traditional roster and retained four tight ends -- Rhett Ellison, Evan Engram, Jerell Adams, and Matt LaCosse -- and five (5!) running backs, including fullback Shane Smith.
Most thought that the Giants would either keep a fourth tight end or a fullback. Instead they kept both.
So then, what does Smith bring to the Giants that forced them to put him on the 53-man roster?
We start with the Giants’ second drive of their fourth preseason game. They are lined up in a “21” (two backs, one tight end) personnel package, with Smith motioning from an “I” formation to an offset just before the snap. The Giants run a power man/gap blocking scheme with Orleans Darkwa taking the ball through the right A-gap. Most of the push is generated by RG D.J. Fluker and C Brett Jones, who combine to generate movement at the line of scrimmage.
Smith blocks the play-side linebacker who looks to come around and try to tackle Darkwa behind the line of scrimmage — Something the Giants have seen all too often in recent years.
Smith blocks with good pad level, uncoiling his hips as he engages to jolt the linebacker backwards. His pads might be a bit to high to truly “blow him up,” but once the linebacker’s balance is broken he drives him backward through the whistle.
Darkwa has tremendous acceleration through the line of scrimmage once a hole presents itself, but Smith’s block ensures that the linebacker can’t disrupt the play.
Later in the fourth quarter we have a similar play. The Giants are lined up in an off-set I formation with a “21” personnel on the field. And once again they run to the weak-side of the offense, away from the side with the tight end and fullback.
One of the hallmarks of Power Football is a pulling lineman, who comes from the other side of the offensive line to create a numbers advantage on the play side. On this run the Giants use Smith in a manner similar to a pulling guard, coming across the back of the offensive line to block an outside linebacker.
Drawing a line down the field from the center, the Patriots only have three defenders on the left side of the offense, where the ball is essentially run. It’s a numbers advantage forced by the Giants’ weighting the right side of their offense with a tight end and fullback, they have to put defenders on that side to account for the additional blockers.
However, by “pulling” Smith from the right side to the left B-gap, the Giants are able to account for every defender, opening a hole to the second level for Darkwa.
Finally we come to his effect on the passing game. Smith was rarely used as a receiver in college, catching an average of five passes a year. However, he could be an over-looked outlet option for the Giants, which was how his only reception of the preseason came.
His bigger impact will likely come as a blocker.
On this play the Giants field a “22” (2 RB, 2 TE) personnel package. Traditionally, this would be a running formation, which the Patriots account for by crowding the line of scrimmage, but the Giants opt to throw instead.
Smith lines up in the backfield but releases out into a shallow route, chipping the defensive end on his way out. Left tackle Chad Wheeler holds up well against the rusher, but the chip from Shane Smith ensures that Geno Smith has plenty of time to find Will Tye wide open by the side line.
Smith releasing into a shallow route created a conundrum for the linebacker in zone coverage there. He could either cover Tye or Smith, but not both. Caught in a moment of indecision, Smith opts for the longer pass, picking up more yards.
This is a quick first-down play, tantamount to a running play but unlikely to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage, but Tye is able to break a tackle pick up 10 yards.
The fact that the Giants kept Smith on their 53-man roster likely doesn’t mean that they will be building their offense around him or using the old Vince Lombardi “three yards in a cloud of dust” offense. However, Ben McAdoo has an avowed willingness to play his young players, so they are experienced by the time the end of the season arrives.
In some ways Smith reminds of Henry Hynoski as an undrafted rookie. Hynoski showed a bit of hesitancy in his blocks that first year, especially in the first part of the first year. But like Smith does now, he flashed glimpses of the punishing lead blocker he would eventually become.
Having a dedicated fullback on the roster gives the Giants options in plays, alignments, and wrinkles that they simply did not have in 2016. He might not play a tremendous number of snaps, but he will play, and the Giants offense should look very different from 2016 when he does.