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How the Giants can improve the running game in 2019

There are ways to help Saquon Barkley be even more productive

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Eli Manning. Daniel Jones. Alex Tanney. Whoever is at quarterback probably isn’t going to change the fact the New York Giants want to run the ball.

In 2018, the Giants ended the season as one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league — 64 percent pass, which was the fifth-highest rate in the league per Sharp Football Stats — but that wasn’t for a lack of trying to establish the run. On first-and-10 plays in the first half before games got out of control, the Giants were just 47 percent pass, the seventh-lowest rate in the league during those situations.

It can — and should — be argued the Giants were forced to be pass-heavy overall because of the commitment to the run on early downs, but it’s unlikely the team will scale back those attempts in the upcoming season given the way the roster has been constructed — even if limiting the number of runs would ideally be the best option.

So what the Giants can focus on is what could lead to a more consistently productive run game. Last season, the Giants averaged 0.00 Expected Points Added per rush attempt, which ranked 12th per Sports Info Solutions (the average NFL run was minus-0.03 EPA/att in 2018), but just 30th in positive play rate (38 percent), which measures the percentage of plays that result in positive EPA. That meshes with what was expected of the run game — a lot of big plays with iffy play-to-play consistency. So let’s look at what the Giants could potentially do to improve in those areas.

Stick to the zone

Zone blocking is the preferred blocking scheme across the NFL for running plays — every team in the league used zone blocking on more than 50 percent of its runs, per SIS. That was especially true for the Giants who used it on 83.9 percent of their rushing attempts, second only to the Los Angeles Rams (86.9 percent).

The Giants were also second to the Rams in EPA per attempt on such runs — 0.06 to 0.03. Those numbers weren’t just good across the league in 2018, they’re among the best since Sports Info Solutions began tracking data in 2015. The Giants (blue dot below) are tied with the 2016 Dallas Cowboys for the third-best EPA/att during that time period, however, the 40 percent positive play rate is just slightly above average for this sample.

But there was a problem: any time the Giants didn’t use zone blocking. On those attempts, the Giants averaged minus-0.16 EPA/attempt (third-worst) with a positive play rate of just 28 percent (worst). The Minnesota Vikings had the next worst positive play rate at 34 percent.

Man blocking asks linemen to block a specific defender and asks the running back to hit a specific gap. There’s a small margin for error. On the contrary, zone blocking gives the benefit of the offensive linemen blocking to an area with the intent of creating holes in the defense and allowing the running back to read those holes to make his cut. For a running back like Saquon Barkley, who is patient behind the line and has good vision, it allows him to process and decide on the best path. It’s something he became more comfortable with as the season went on after leaving some yards on the field earlier in the year.

Do the opposite near the goal line

The advantages of gaps and decision making flip the closer a team gets to the end zone. With space condensed, there’s no longer a benefit to being patient and allowing the running back to pick his spot. It’s better for offensive linemen to win as early as possible to knock defenders back with a clear hole presented for the running back.

There were 32 zone runs for the Giants inside the 10-yard line last season, the fourth-most total attempts in the league. But unlike the success the Giants had overall, those runs were worth minus-0.03 EPA/attempt with a 43 percent positive play rate, which ranked 27th. Despite only three teams with more attempts, 13 had more rushing touchdowns.

Let Will Hernandez pull more

If there was a bright spot on the offensive line last season, it was the development of Will Hernandez. Hernandez has already turned into an above average guard overall and one place the Giants should take more advantage of his skill and athleticism would be by letting him pull more.

Last year Barkley had 12 rushing attempts to the right behind a backside puller. Those runs were worth 0.29 EPA/att with a 50 percent positive play rate. For comparison, Barkley ran just five times behind a backside puller to the left and averaged minus-0.54 EPA/att with a 20 percent positive play rate.

This run against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 highlights Hernandez’s ability to lead on a pull and open up a hole for a big Barkley gain — with an assist from Sterling Shepard.

With an improved right side of the line, the Giants should also have an upgrade on the other blockers leading the way to that side of the field.

Manipulate the box

Recent studies on the run game have shown two things: offensive personnel controls the number of defenders in the box and the number of defenders in the box greatly influences a running back’s yards per carry — these were brought up in a piece on the running game before the 2018 season. What that means is teams can do a relatively good job of controlling the defenses they will face, at least near the line of scrimmage.

No team did a worse job controlling that aspect than the Giants, who only ran 65.8 percent of their rushing attempts against boxes of seven or fewer defenders. The league average was 76.9 percent.

It’s not about defenders prepping for the frequency of the run. Seattle, the league’s most run-heavy team, saw the fifth-highest rate of light boxes. It’s also not about the running back. The Rams were fourth, the Chiefs were sixth, the Cowboys were 12th, and the Saints were 14th.

This rate got even worse over the final four games of the regular season without Odell Beckham on the field. The Giants ran just 57.7 percent of their attempts against boxes of seven or fewer defenders, the lowest rate in the league during that span.

Sometimes watching Barkley’s highlight runs, it can be easy to think this doesn’t matter when he’s breaking through tackles and running past everyone. But just because Barkley can do that doesn’t mean he should have to. Opening up space for Barkley would only make him more dangerous. That can be done by using and running from lighter personnel and condensing the splits of the wide receivers. Only 38 percent of the Giants’ rushing attempts came from 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) last season, the third-lowest rate in the league per Sharp Football Stats.

It’s not like the Giants were avoiding 11 personnel altogether since 69 percent of their passes came from that personnel grouping. And while that was below the league average of 74 percent last season, it’s still a significant majority of the team’s passing attempts.

The Los Angeles Rams have mastered the ability to manipulate the box count while still having a blocking advantage. Take the below play against the Detroit Lions. The Rams are in 11 personnel, which brings a big enough threat of the pass that the defensive backs have to play back on 1st and 10. But the alignment of the receivers and tight ends — all within the numbers — creates the necessary angles for the skill position players to quickly block and open holes and give Todd Gurley his first defender to make miss five yards past the line of scrimmage.

Game-script willing, the Giants are going to try to run the ball, even if that isn’t the ideal option in the modern NFL. But since that is the strategy the Giants appear to pursue, they might as well try to make that part of the game as efficient and productive as possible. There are a number of small changes the Giants could make in return for massive improvements in the effectiveness on the ground. How many changes they make and the effort they put into the smaller details of the run game could be one of the biggest keys of how successful this offense will be in 2019.