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Summer School: Anatomy of a play — How Evan Engram goes for 27 yards against the Colts

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How, and why, Evan Engram was able to turn a short pass into a big gain

New York Giants v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For the last few years, we have taken advantage of the summer doldrums to go to school and learn more about football, the game we all love. In year’s past we have looked specifically at individual ideas and concepts, such as the inside zone running play or coverage shells.

This year we will be getting contributions from Mark Schofield, Pat Traina and Dan Pizzuta, as well as myself.

For my own additions to the series, I’ll be taking individual plays from the Giants’ 2018 season and putting them under the microscope. Rather than breaking down various concepts on the white board (as it were), I want to look at them in action on the field, then break them down to see what happened and why.

The Play

At the start of the fourth quarter, the Giants were holding a slim 24-21 lead over the Colts. They have the ball in a third-and-1 situation, which had typically been a running down for the Giants.

Instead they throw the ball, resulting in a big gain for the offense.

The Giants line up in in the I formation using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Specifically, they line up with a bunch formation on the offensive right and the “X” receiver close to the offensive line on the left.

The Giants showed little hesitation to run the ball when faced with a stacked box throughout the 2018 season, and faced with a third and short, showing a heavy personnel grouping, it was a fair assumption that the Giants would run the ball. So when the Giants condensed their formation, the Colts obliged and condensed their defense in response, creating an 8-man box with the corners and deep safety in position to help in run support.

Instead, the Giants throw to Engram, who uses his speed advantage over the WILL linebacker to turn a 5-yard pass into a 27-yard gain. But what, exactly, did the Giants do, and why did it work so well?

Why This Play Worked

To find out why this worked, let’s take a look at the route concept in a still.

This play appears to be a variation on the Y-Cross concept.

The Y-Cross originated in Air Raid playbooks back in the 1990s. Originally run from a spread formation, the play looked like this, from Mike Leech’s 1999 Oklahoma playbook:

Just by looking at the play diagram, we can see how the Giants changed the concept.

First, they moved the fullback (F) up to the line of scrimmage as an H-Back (Rhett Ellison in the Giant’s play), weighting the strong side of the formation. Combined with moving the running back to behind the quarterback, the Giants made the play look like a running play.

While we can’t say for sure without getting a look at the Giants’ playbook, it appears as though the “Y” (Evan Engram) is the primary read and to focus of the play.

The Giants use play-action to play on the defense’s expectations of the run, slow down the pass rush, and create the opportunity for Engram. It also shows how the Pat Shurmur took an Air Raid concept and adapted it using West Coast principles. Bill Walsh simply loved play-action (or Play-Pass, as he called it), believing it to be the safest way to attack the defense.

“The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral part of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.”

In action above, the Giants use play-action to draw in the Colts’ defense, with the linebackers crashing down to fill their gaps and stop the run. Defending the run when the quarterback hands the ball to the running back is baked in to the DNA of every defense. The Giants did not need to “establish the run” for it to work — they only rushed for 89 yards that game, or a paltry 2.9 per attempt. But because they sold the run well through alignment and aggressive steps by the offensive line, the defense bit anyway.

This does a couple things which help ensure the success of the pass play. FIrst and foremost, it slows down the Colts’ pass rush so Eli Manning can execute his 7-step drop. The Giants keep Saquon Barkley back in a 6-man protection (in the original Y-Cross, the running back runs a flat route) to help give Manning time to find Engram as he clears the middle of the field. Secondly, by forcing the defense to honor its assignments in the running game, it created a free release for Engram and plenty of running room after the catch.

Their alignment did one more thing for the play. By concentrating players who could be blockers or receiving threats on one side, it forced the defense to shade to that side. If we bisect the defense using the left hashmark (where the ball is lined up), the have seven defenders on the right side of the Giants’ formation and just four to the left — where the play ultimately goes.

Shurmur creates even more running room for Engram by changing the post “Go” route run by the “X” receiver (on the left side of the formation to more of a “Post” route, angling back to the offensive right. That draws the corner and free safety to the deep middle of the field, then right. Manning helps by using his eyes after the play-fake to hold the defenders on the right side of the field while Engram clears.

Engram is able to get separation almost at the snap of the ball, and when he finally clears the crowd at the line of scrimmage it is a safe throw which he is able to turn upfield. Engram easily outpaces the Colt’s linebacker and turn pick up a full 22 yards after the catch.

Concepts In Use

  • 12 Personnel
  • Bunch Formation
  • Play-action pass
  • Eye discipline by the quarterback
  • Modified Y-Cross route concept

Why I Like It

In short, this play did a lot of what the Giants failed to do often enough throughout the 2018 season. It put one of their premier playmakers in position to maximize his athletic ability and create a mismatch against the defense. It used deception to scheme around the offensive line’s issues in pass protection (in fact, this was the only game the entire season in which Eli Manning wasn’t sacked).

Perhaps most importantly, this play featured the Giants’ offense playing against expectations.

This is a lesson the league at large has been learning at different rates. For most of the 2018 season, the Giants largely did what their personnel package indicated they would. And while they used 12-personnel more than league-average, they frequently ran when faced with heavy boxes (Saquon Barkley saw 8+ man boxes on 23 percent of his carries).

By contrast, The Los Angeles Rams schemed Todd Gurley to a season which had him in the MVP conversation by running out of spread looks. They used the 11-personnel package on nearly every down (though with far more variety in alignment and route concept than the Giants saw under Ben McAdoo), forcing defenses into smaller, faster subpackages to compensate. As a result, Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson both enjoyed more blockers than defenders on the majority of their runs, and Gurley had the third-lowest percentage of attempts with eight or more defenders in the tackle box (8.2 percent), per NextGenStats.

Meanwhile teams like the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints used heavy formations, usually 21 (two backs, one tight end) personnel to force defenses into respecting the possibility of the run and use heavier subpackages. But then those teams would exploit the bigger, but slower, defenses by throwing the ball.

And that was exactly what the Giants did here. They created an expectation through alignment and personnel, then exploited the defense’s reaction. These are the kinds of plays need to be featured in the Giants’ playbook and game plans going forwards.