The New York Giants offense has been disappointing. It’s a unit that ranks 19th in yards per drive and 22nd in points per drive, though they’re actually a more respectable 17th in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. There are clear problems on this offense the team needs to fix going forward and heading into the Monday Night Football game against the Atlanta Falcons. While we could say things like “the offensive line has been bad” and “the quarterback needs to play better” we’ll look at a few deeper issues to correct.
Problem: Figuring out first down
One of the places to start fixing the offense is the first place the offense starts. The Giants have been one of the worst teams on first down this season. They’ve improved slightly since the beginning of the season, but first down struggles have still slowed the offense. The Giants are 24th in average yards gained on first down (5.01) and 26th in the percentage of first down plays that result in another first down (19.4 percent).
Negative plays, both pre- and post-snap are part of the problem. Only the Miami Dolphins (10.37) have faced a longer average to-go on first down than the Giants (10.28) due to penalties. Once the ball is snapped, only four teams have taken more first-down sacks than the Giants (eight).
These types of plays throw the rest of the drive out of whack and because of it, only the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns have faced more second-and-7-or-more plays than the Giants this season.
Solution: Get Saquon Barkley more legitimately involved in the passing game early
When passing, first down has been the Odell Beckham down. It’s never a bad thing to have an Odell Beckham down, but it hasn’t exactly worked out — and not to Beckham’s doing. Beckham leads the team and is eighth in the league with 27 targets on first down. But only 18 of those passes have been considered catchable by Sports Info Solutions and on those, Beckham has 16 receptions and no drops.
Barkley is second on the team with 16 first down targets, but those come with their own issues. 12 of those passes have been catchable per SIS, but all of those targets have combined for a total of negative-one air yards and 38 of his 58 receiving yards (65.5 percent) have come after contact. Barkley has the ability to make defenders miss, but that doesn’t mean that should be the goal of every Barkley reception. None of his 16 targets on first down came from the slot or on the outside. Too many of them had Barkley as the check down when all other options failed. Only two targets — one completion — came on a screen designed to get Barkley into space and away from contact.
Throwing to Barkley a little more often and on more than just check downs and swing passes will help move the ball and take advantage of one of the best assets the team has on offense. Overall passes to running backs are more efficient on first down than the typical third down and the Giants should start looking at their very talented pass-catching running back in that way.
Immediate Monday impact: Only the Kanas City Chiefs have allowed more yards per play on first down than the Falcons this season. Atlanta has also had trouble stopping running backs in the passing game — they have allowed the most receptions (53) to opposing backs and averaged 73 receiving yards allowed per game. They’re 26th in DVOA against running backs through the air.
Problem: Poor play-action
Play-action is a cheat code for NFL offenses. All but five teams average more yards per play with play-action than on non-play-action passes. 16 teams average at least 8.0 yards per play on play-action passes while only four hit that mark without it.
The Giants, though, haven’t exactly gotten that play-action boost. They’ve run it on 20 percent of their plays, which ranks 23rd and have only averaged 6.8 yards per play with it, which ranks 24th. It’s harder to run play-action when a team is trailing when the threat of a run is less meaningful, but that only impacts the frequency and should have little to do with how relatively ineffective the Giants’ play-action game has been. It’s also well below the performance of the Minnesota Vikings last season with Pat Shurmur as the offensive coordinator — Minnesota’s 30 percent play-action rate led the league and the 8.4 yards per play ranked seventh.
Solution: Get more creative
We know the best way to run play-action is to be good at running and selling play-action, so in that case, the Giants can just get better at execution there.
But also, the Giants can change up some of their offensive plays to open up some more play-action opportunities and one of those could be the inclusion of the jet sweep.
The jet sweep and jet sweep action have been one of the latest innovations for the league’s best offenses. First, teams can use their faster players on actual jet sweep runs, but more importantly, the pass plays that can be built off of it can have an even bigger impact. Teams have been using jet sweep action to and tossing the ball to the sweeping player, which counts as a completion and eliminates the risk of a fumble with a bad handoff because any drop will be considered an incompletion. Then building off that, once the defense gets sucked in by the jet sweep motion, play-action can open up.
So far the Giants only have one jet sweep run — by Odell Beckham for no gain — and no passes off the sweep, per Sports Info Solutions. But even just that one play can show the potential of building more options. Against the Texans, the Giants ran the play on a second-and-9. They started with typical pre-snap motion before Beckham came over for the jet sweep. Watch how the defense reacts when Beckham gets the ball. The entire defense floats over to the play side, which could lead to some other openings.
Look at where the defense is already just before the handoff. Everyone on the defense is reacting to the sweep. Now imagine Evan Engram running past his defender instead of looking for contact to block or Sterling Shepard running a corner route on the opposite side with the corner’s hips turned toward the middle of the field.
Watch the Kansas City Chiefs run a jet sweep fake against the Jacksonville Jaguars. When Tyreek Hill went in motion, the linebackers moved up to the line and it opened up a path for Travis Kelce to get behind the defense down the sideline. It also opened the middle of the field for Spencer Ware, if Patrick Mahomes had chosen to go there. It’s all about creating openings, passing lanes, and space. This is the type of play that does all of those things.
Immediate Monday impact: Atlanta has been one of the better teams against play-action. Opponents have run play-action against them on the ninth-lowest rate (19 percent) and have averaged just 6.8 yards per play, which is 11th-best.
Problem: Throwing deep against zone
We’ve heard it a bunch, how the “soft zone” is preventing the Giants from throwing deep when they want to and when those plays are called. Whether that should be a legitimate reason or not, it is how things have played out.
Against man coverage — Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2-man — the Giants are more likely to go to Beckham. Per Sports Info Solutions, Beckham is the most targeted Giant against those coverages with 29 passes his way — 19 catchable and 17 receptions. Sterling Shepard is second with 20 receptions and Saquon Barkley is third with 10 receptions.
But against clear zone coverages — Cover 2 and Cover 4 — Beckham only has 13 targets and nine receptions, while the amount Barkley is targeted skyrockets. Barkley had 17 receptions on 19 targets against these zones, but just negative-11 air yards on those catches. This is when most of the check-downs occur.
Solution: Spread ‘em out
One way to attack zone coverage is to spread the defense out horizontally so the space each defender needs to cover increases. The Giants could use the likes of Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley in the slot to stretch the defense laterally, which in turn could eventually help open things up vertically. Using the space to eventually flood more than one route into a given zone would help, too.
Engram could be a key up the seam. Eli Manning was one of the better throwers on seam routes last season, albeit on a small number of throws. So far this season, Manning has only thrown five passes up the seam with two completions, per SIS. But using someone like Engram in a wider alignment with a vertical route could either hold a deep safety from flowing over to an outside receiver and if not, it will result in Engram open up the seam, which could turn into a deep pass and big play itself. Making the defense account for more possibilities make the job of the defense harder, which was supposed to be the point of this offense, to begin with — it just hasn’t happened yet.
Immediate Monday impact: The Falcons are a Cover-3 base team with Dan Quinn coming from the Seattle Seahawks defensive coaching tree, though they’ll mix in man coverage into those looks. However, the secondary hasn’t been great at stopping big plays — they’re 26th in big play rate allowed on defense.