Coaches talk all the time about staying ahead of the sticks on offense. That means gaining enough yards on early downs so the team isn’t consistently facing third and long. All of this, obviously, starts with first down. Success on first down leads to shorter second downs, more first downs, and shorter or fewer third downs. Early down success makes everything else easier.
Well, the New York Giants didn’t make things very easy on themselves against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The struggled mightily on first down in the opening game of the season.
On 25 first down plays against the Jaguars, the Giants averaged 3.28 yards — the fifth-worst average gain on first down among all teams. The Giants also set themselves back by putting themselves in a first down hole to start. Five of the Giants’ seven penalties on the day came on offense and three of those five came on first downs with penalty yardage of seven, 10, and 10 yards. So that gave the Giants a first-and-17 (on their first official offensive play of the game) and two first-and-20s. The Giants were one of three teams to face three first-and-15 or longer. It didn’t help the Giants basically conceded on those three plays — a run for no gain for Saquon Barkley, a loss of one on a poorly blocked screen for Wayne Gallman, and a poorly thrown screen to Barkley for an average of minus-0.33 yards on those three plays.
As you might have inferred, this put the offense well behind the sticks on second down. The Giants averaged 10.45 yards to go on the second down, the highest mark across the league. Because of that, only 17 percent of the Giants’ first or second down plays resulted in a first down. That tied with the Chicago Bears for the fourth-worst rate in the league in Week 1. All of this, of course, led to tough third downs. The Giants had the third longest average third down (10.21 yards) and converted just 28.6 percent. But all of that was set up by early down struggles.
Looking at the plays on first-and-10, the Giants were let down by a mix of play calls and execution. Drops from Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard hurt, but no one was really blameless.
Run game miscues
There were wide-ranging mistakes in the running game that put the Giants behind on third down. Saquon Barkley had eight rushing attempts on 1st and 10 for 30 yards — an average of 3.75.
On this run late in the first half, Barkley made a mistake of passing up an open hole to bounce outside. He was dropped by Calais Campbell for a 1-yard loss.
This is something Barkley routinely did and got away with in college, but he’ll find it’s not going to work as often in the NFL. Barkley bounced when he saw defensive tackle Malik Jackson (97) start to fill the gap. But someone of Barkley’s athleticism needs to trust he has a higher probability of breaking through an arm tackle of Jackson and possibly linebacker Myles Jack (44) than beating Calais Campbell and two waiting defensive backs (D.J. Hayden and Jalen Ramsey) to the outside.
There were also plays where Barkley just had no chance. This was a play with 13 personnel (three tight ends) and only one wide receiver. The lone receiver was only enough to keep one defensive player away from the middle of the field. The heavy formation brought a nine-man defensive box. We know running against stacked boxes isn’t good and a run against a nine-man box has a roughly 25 percent success rate. That’s not great and it led to a minimal gain here. This, honestly, just shouldn’t be an option in the playbook.
Then there were plays where there should have been success, but it didn’t happen. Below is a Barkley run against a pretty spread six-man box. This should have opened a running lane, but at the snap, Malik Jackson beat Ereck Flowers inside, knocked Patrick Omameh off his path to the second level, forced Barkley to bounce off his intended path and right into an unblocked Telvin Smith (50) for no gain.
There were also plays that could have been set up for success, but were derailed by pressure. This play was supposed to be a simple screen pass to Barkley, but Yannick Ngakoue blew past Nate Solder so quickly that Eli Manning had to throw the ball before Barkley was ready. Even if Barkley had caught it, the blocking hadn’t been set up yet.
Odell Beckham was nearly the exclusive recipient on first-and-10 targets — seven of 10 of Manning’s passes. A few plays were left on the table — the missed post play was on first down — including this slant that also could have been a big gain.
The Giants tried to set up play-action and the blocking up front left Telvin Smith with a clear hole. Smith had enough time to read the fake and because he’s much quicker than Jonathan Stewart, was able to avoid contact with the back to rush Manning’s throw. The pass sailed as Beckham had leverage on a quick slant, possibly one that if caught could have been taken to the house — safety Barry Church was crashing down and could have been forced into a poor angle.
This would be easier to fix if just one thing went wrong, but failure across the board leaves a lot to be worked on before the Giants face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.