Fans of the New York Giants have gotten depressingly used to their team snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They have seen it time and again over most of the last decade, and most often against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But this time it looked like things would finally be different — the Giants were the healthy team while the Eagles were sporting wounded units all over their roster. The Giants were the team on the upswing, winning two straight since emerging from their bye week, while Philadelphia had lost two straight and three of their last four, following their own bad fourth quarter collapse.
And after a half of football, the Giants looked like they were set to walk away with this win. The Eagles injury-devastated secondary had no answers for the Giants’ talented skill-position players, and that looked like it was going to be the difference in the game.
Then the world turned upside down and the Eagles’ defense utterly dominated the Giants’ offense in the second half.
So, what happened?
The first half
The Giants got out to about as great a start against the Philadelphia Eagles as any team could reasonably ask for in the first half of last Sunday’s game.
Eli Manning started the game by completing 76 percent of his passes for 236 yards, (9.4 per attempt) and a touchdown. Add in another 110 yards rushing and a touchdown, and the Giants piled up 346 yards and 19 points in the first half. Which, other than the relatively low number of points, would be a solid game from the offense, let alone a half.
How did they do it?
Well, a big part was the Eagles’ depleted secondary, which was down five of their top six defensive backs — in addition to starting ILB Jordan Hicks.
The Eagles ran a varied coverage scheme to start the game, mixing man coverage (mostly Cover 1), and zone coverage (mostly Cover 2, with some Cover 3 and Cover 4).
With the Eagles’ depleted secondary, the Giants were able to find voids in their coverage. Either by beating man coverage:
(Note: The coverage appears to be Cover 2 before the snap, the play features a post-snap sprint from the safety on the defensive left from the deep half to man coverage underneath, revealing the Cover 1 shell.)
Or by finding the soft spots in the Eagles’ zone coverage schemes:
The varied coverage schemes presented a variety of weaknesses for the Giants to exploit. The high athletic advantage they enjoyed made man coverage vulnerable to big plays while zone coverages gave up enough to keep the offense moving in between chunk plays.
The Giants’ offensive performance in the first half wasn’t a track meet. They did, however, have enough answers (and a pair of big runs from Saquon Barkley in which the rookie made defenders look silly) to beat the various coverage schemes and control the game for most of the first half.
The second half
Of course, as we all know by now, the Giants didn’t keep the offensive onslaught up for the whole game. While they had a game’s worth of yards in the first half, their 56 yards and 3 points in the entire second half barely constitutes a disappointing drive, let alone two whole quarters of football.
So then, how could the Eagles have flipped the script so completely on New York? The answer came in two parts.
First, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noticed a distinct trend in the Giants’ play selection. When faced with zone coverage, the Giants would likely opt for a short pass underneath, taking what the defense gave them. They were hesitant to look down the field on zone coverage, and would only do so if they happened to have the perfect play call for an easy completion. When they did look down the field, it came when Manning identified man coverage with a favorable one-on-one matchup.
As well, the Giants were going to run the ball no matter what front they faced, whether it was a seven-man box, or eight.
So with that in mind, Schwartz simplified the Eagles’ defense for the second half, settling on one coverage scheme which took away most of what was in the Giants’ game plan.
The Cover 3 scheme is, generally speaking, a balanced defense that performs well against both the pass and the run.
Cover 3 defends against the pass by dividing the deep part of the field into three zones, one for each outside cornerback and one for the free safety. Compared to the Cover 2, this limits the amount of field for which an individual defender is responsible, while putting more athletic players in those zones. It also floods the short and intermediate areas with zone coverage from the linebackers and strong safety.
Against the run, the Cover 3 presents a consistent 8-man box, allowing the defense to swarm to the ball carrier and limit the potential for yards after contact.
If this looks familiar, that is because it formed the basis for the Seattle Seahawks’ championship defense.
But none of that is to say that the Cover 3 is an impregnable defense. There are several well known counters for the scheme if an offense is willing to use them. The first is that the Cover 3 is vulnerable to “death by a thousand cuts.” The underneath zones are prone to giving up easy, albeit short, receptions — particularly when in base defense and those zone are being manned by a safety and linebacker.
Second, the deep zones are vulnerable to the “four verts” scheme, in which the offense floods the zones with vertical routes. Three defenders simply can’t cover four receivers, so the quarterback finds the open receiver and targets him.
Finally, Cover 3 is vulnerable to seam routes, such as this one run by Rhett Ellison:
The Eagles played Cover 3 on 15 of the Giants’ 21 plays in the second half.
But if it is a coverage scheme with such well-known counters, particularly with suspect personnel, why didn’t the Giants simply counter?
Well, that’s the second part: The psychology of the Giants’ offense.
We’ve noted all season long that the Giants simply don’t want to throw down the field if they can avoid it. Odell Beckham Jr. revealed after the game that attacking the secondary downfield didn’t figure prominently in the Giants’ game plan. Meanwhile, Eli Manning is 27th in the league in average intended air yards (per Next Gen Stats) with 7.2, while his average completion travels 5.2 yards in the air. The Giants’ passes average 2.2 yards behind the first down markers. Given the choice, the Giants have consistently elected to take a few easy yards over a greater but riskier gain — and as we already noted, that trend continued through the first half of the game.
So by going with a defensive scheme which gave up short passes while presenting a less favorable look to deep passes, the Eagles were able to effectively dictate the Giants’ offensive decisions.
The Giants also proved willing — perhaps informed by Saquon Barkley’s success against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense which presented him with an 8 (or more) man box on just 7 percent of his runs in week 11 — to run against any front the Eagles’ showed. By switching to the Cover 3, they had more players able to play downhill and swarm the Giants’ running backs, limiting their yards after contact. With the running game contained and Barkley unlikely to make a half-dozen defenders miss and break off a big play, the Giants offense was forced to pass to move the ball, and they consistently took the low-hanging fruit offered by the Cover 3.
The offense eventually adapted and exploited the downfield weaknesses of the Eagles’ defense when they were forced into high gear to keep up with a resurgent Philadelphia offense. Unfortunately, late-game plays such as the above seam route to Ellison and a deep curl-out by Beckham were too little, too late.
In response to Beckham noting when asked that the game plan didn’t feature an attacking mindset when faced by a severely depleted secondary, Pat Shurmur pointed out the Giants’ explosive plays. But there’s a difference between getting explosive plays and actively trying to match a strength against an obvious weakness. The Giants need to do some self-scouting and perhaps adjust their offensive philosophy and psychology. With the second half of this game on tape, Shurmur’s offense runs the risk of being stymied by Cover 3 similar to how Ben McAdoo’s offense was easily countered by 2 - Man (Cover 2 with man coverage underneath). They will need to make adjustments to keep that from happening on a consistent basis.