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What lessons can be taken from this year’s playoff teams?

There are plenty of things to be learned

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants did not make the playoffs — breaking news here, I know. But the coaching staff and front office believe they’re close, whether there’s much truth to that or not. Either way, the Giants can look at the current team and the teams currently in the playoffs and find things that worked for them that could also work for the Giants. So with that, let’s try to find a lesson from each 2018 playoff team.

Team: Indianapolis Colts

Lesson: Offensive line is the key and can be rebuilt quickly

The Indianapolis Colts reworked their offensive line from a weakness to a strength in 2018. There were pieces in places, ones with high investments like first-round picks Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly. But much of the work happened this past offseason with the selections of Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in the draft. The Colts were eighth in pressure rate allowed in 2018 and with a schemed designed to get the ball out quickly, Andrew Luck was rarely under duress. The improved offensive line also gave a jump start to an efficient running game that finished higher than the Giants (13th to 18th) in rushing DVOA with a trio of running backs drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds.

Team: Los Angeles Chargers

Lesson: Big plays help more when there’s down-to-down consistency

Big plays are great for an offense and the Los Angeles Chargers were one of the best big play offenses in the league this season — fifth in big play rate. The Giants were also a team that was able to gain a lot of yards on a given play — they finished second in big play rate this season. But the biggest difference between the sustained success of the Chargers and the opposite for the Giants was consistency on the plays that didn’t gain big chunks of yards. The Chargers this season were sixth in success rate on standard downs, while the Giants were 27th. An ability to keep the ball moving on any play should be the goal of an offense and it helped the Chargers immensely, they were first in percentage of first downs coming on first or second down, which kept the ball moving and set up more opportunities to push the ball down the field.

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Lesson: Don’t be afraid of change

When Joe Flacco went down with an injury for Week 11, the Ravens put in rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and reworked the offense. Jackson had gotten time in designed packages when Flacco was on the field, but the Baltimore offense was completely transformed when Jackson was put in as the starter. Jackson and the offense were not the main reason the Ravens went on a hot streak in the second half of the season — the defense played lights out in that stretch — but it was clear the offense had a higher ceiling with Jackson leading the charge instead of the stale ineffective offense they had run with an aging, inconsistent, pricey veteran quarterback. Jackson stayed the starter even when Flacco got healthy. He continued to open things up on the ground with his own legs and for running backs like Gus Edwards and the rookie continually got better as a passer as the season progressed.

Team: Houston Texans

Lesson: Relying on your No. 1 receiver isn’t a bad thing

No team threw to a single wide receiver more often than the Texans threw to DeAndre Hopkins… and that worked out ok for them. Hopkins had a target share of 32 percent this season, the only receiver in the league over 30 percent. Hopkins was still efficient — second in DYAR (Football Outsiders’ advanced counting stat) and 10th in DVOA (efficiency) — and a big reason the Texans were above average in passing DVOA on offense (13th) while the run game was bad (26th). The threat of Hopkins opened up opportunities for Keke Coutee and Will Fuller when they were on the field, but when needed Hopkins was the main target and there was no worry of throwing to him too often.

Team: Seattle Seahawks

Lesson: A run-first offense can work … if the quarterback is a wizard

The Seattle Seahawks finished as the only team in 2018 with more rushing attempts than passing attempts. That was the plan when they hired Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator and drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. But Penny barely contributed to the run game. Instead, it was 2017 seventh-round pick Chris Carson, who rushed for over 1,100 yards. But even as Seattle ran often, the best plays were made by the quarterback, who was a magician, especially on deep passes. Russell Wilson had the ninth most passing attempts that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Per Sports Info Solutions, he had the fourth-highest on-target percentage among 31 quarterbacks with at least 30 such attempts, first in yards per attempt, third in touchdown rate, and third in interception rate. He was one of the best deep passers with the underrated Tyler Lockett and the rarely-rated David Moore tied for the team lead with 17 targets on those throws. On top of the deep throws, Wilson was able to run himself out of plays that shouldn’t have worked and kept the offense moving.

Team: Dallas Cowboys

Lesson: Athleticism wins on defense

The Cowboys defense finished the season ninth in DVOA and it wasn’t really an accident. The way Dallas built this defense included drafting some of the most athletic players in each draft class and waiting for them to develop — this Cowboys defense might be the SPARQ-iest unit in the league. SPARQ is a composite testing score that combines all the athletic drills from the NFL Combine into one number and can be compared to others in the NFL as a percentile. For example, Byron Jones, Dallas’s first-round pick in 2015, had a SPARQ score that was better than 99.9 percent of NFL cornerbacks. Chidobe Awuzie, 2017 second-round pick, was fifth among corners in that class, coming in the 97.7th percentile. This year’s first-round pick, Leighton Vander Esch was second among linebackers, also in the 97th percentile among NFL linebackers. Against modern offenses, speed and athleticism are needed and that’s been evident when the Cowboys have matched up with some of them this season.

Team: Chicago Bears

Lesson: Quarterback rushing matters

This might feel like a weird lesson for the Bears, but it’s not. You can try taking something away from the Chicago defense, but how much of that is replicable? They have one of the best defensive minds in the game with Vic Fangio and a roster of stud playmakers on that side of the ball. Maybe the lesson is don’t be afraid to trade for a superstar when one is available, no matter the cost.

But one lesson the Giants and other teams could use is on offense with Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky wasn’t a great passer this year, but he finished third in Total QBR thanks to his ability to move the chains and get positive plays with his legs. Only Josh Allen had more points added on the ground per ESPN than Trubisky this season and unlike Allen, Trubisky also added value through the air (10th in points added on passes). A lot of this value came on third down, when Trubisky had 24 rushing attempts, led all quarterbacks in Expected Points Added per Sports Info Solutions, had a positive play on 70 percent of his rushes, and a 66.7 percent first down rate. Quarterbacks don’t need to have Lamar Jackson’s skillset to be an asset on the ground and that could be an important thing to remember as the Giants look to a quarterback of the future at some point.

Team: Philadelphia Eagles

Lesson: Adaptability on the fly is a great asset

It was evident last year during the Super Bowl run and this year over the last part of the season, the Eagles offense is a little different with Nick Foles at the helm. That’s mostly because Foles doesn’t really run the Doug Pederson-Carson Wentz offense, they run a bit of that but with way more Chip Kelly-Nick Foles offense sprinkled in. Foles had his best professional season under Kelly and some of those concepts make more appearances when he is playing quarterback than when Wentz is on the field. That came from some conversations after Foles struggled at the end of the regular season last year as the Eagles prepared for the playoffs. Knowing and adjusting to a quarterback’s strengths and comforts might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — by how foreign that concept could be around some NFL teams.

Team: New England Patriots

Lesson: A bad division can be a good team’s best friend

New England was good again in 2018, though not dominant — seventh in overall DVOA. But the lack of dominance didn’t really matter because there was never any real challenge in the AFC East (for comparison, the Chargers finished third in DVOA and will be playing a road game on Wild Card Weekend because they play in the same division as the Chiefs). It’s basically been that way for the entirety of the Patriots’ current run of success. Yes, there was a good Miami team in there somewhere and the Jets made the AFC Championship Game a couple times, and the Bills even made the playoffs last season, but there was never any sustained challenge because the other teams in the division always got in their own way. There’s a chance the NFC East could follow that path. The Cowboys will keep Jason Garrett because of a winning streak where the team was fine more than good. Washington will never not be Washington under Dan Snyder’s ownership. The problem is the Eagles appear to be competently run and coached, so the Giants need to make sure they don’t become the third team in that group.

Team: Los Angeles Rams

Lesson: 11 personnel doesn’t have to be a dirty word

Under Ben McAdoo, 11 personnel (three wide receivers) became a running joke. The Giants offense used it almost exclusively as their offensive personnel package and it had little success. But over the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams have become one of the best offenses in the league by coming out almost exclusively in 11 personnel. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Rams used 11 personnel on 95 percent of their offensive snaps this season and on 81 percent in 2017. The difference is the the quality of route combinations and passing concepts used out of that personnel. McAdoo’s philosophy was taken from the Mike McCarthy book that featured tons of isolation routes, which won’t work often in the modern NFL no matter the personnel packages. But in Los Angeles, Sean McVay designed a number of passing concepts that create wide open throwing lanes for Jared Goff. They also use the personnel package to open up the running game. Because the threat of the pass is so dangerous, defenses can’t stack the box and Todd Gurley rushed against a box of eight defenders or more on just 8.2 percent of his carries per Next Gen Stats, which was the lowest among backs with at least 100 rushing attempts.

Team: Kansas City Chiefs

Lesson: A good scheme helps everyone

There might not be a better marriage of scheme and players than what is happening in Kansas City this season. Patrick Mahomes is incredible. So is Tyreek Hill. Travis Kelce is also excellent. Even Sammy Watkins was fifth among wide receivers in DVOA when he was on the field. All of those things are true and are magnified by the position they get put in by the Chiefs’ coaching staff. Like the Rams avoid 8-man boxes for Todd Gurley, the Chiefs avoid tight window throws for Patrick Mahomes. Per Next Gen Stats, Mahomes threw into a tight window on just 12.2 percent of his passing attempts this season, the third-lowest rate in the league. But he didn’t do that by just throwing to short open routes — he still tied for the fourth-deepest average pass in the league. A scheme that takes the pressure off like that allows Mahomes to do more Mahomes-like things and creates the setting for a likely MVP season.

Team: New Orleans Saints

Lesson: Running back targets don’t have to be inefficient

Alvin Kamara is one of the best running backs in the league and as he got a bigger role on the ground this season, he remained one of the best and most efficient receiving backs in the game. That’s partly because he’s used in a way that adds more value to the offense. 61.9 percent of Kamara’s targets and 60.5 percent of his receptions in 2018 occurred past the line of scrimmage. Just 41.2 percent of Saquon Barkley’s targets and 37.4 percent of his receptions were past the line. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Saints had a play with positive Expected Points Added on 58 percent of Kamara’s targets, while that number was just 38 percent for Barkley. There’s a difference between getting the running back involved in the passing game and doing it efficiently.