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Summer School: Why the wheel route should be a staple in the Giants’ offense

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The Giants should make an effort to incorporate the wheel route into their game plans in 2019

NFL: New York Giants at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In our first two detailed looks at plays by the New York Giants in 2018, we looked at a pair of intricate plays. First we saw a variation of the Y-Cross concept designed to get the ball to Evan Engram in space, and the second was an exotic blitz scheme designed to create confusion in an offense.

But while both of those plays were effective, teams don’t always have to get complicated to get the job done. Many times the most effective plays are the ones are also some of the simplest. If a team can create a mismatch for their playmakers before the ball is even snapped, that is generally a win for them.

The wheel route is one of those plays that is deceptively simple yet consistently effective. It is frequently a part of other passing concepts, often paired with post or slant routes to make both more dangerous. The wheel route (and the concepts paired with it) also happen to be some of the best fits for the Giants’ offensive personnel.

It’s somewhat surprising then that the Giants rarely used it in their offense in 2018, so Giants’ fans might not be too familiar with the concept and why it is so effective. Let’s take a closer look at one of the few wheels the Giants’ ran.

The play

Compared to the other plays we’ve looked at so far, this one appears to be pretty straight forward, and there is a good reason for that — it is.

But we’ll still take a close look at what happened, why it happened, and why this should be a staple of the Giants’ offense for years to come.

The first aspect of the play of which we need to take notice is the personnel set and alignment. The Giants appear to be in a 10-personnel package (one running back, no tight ends), and in a 3x1 spread formation. However, they are actually in their 11-personnel package with tight end Evan Engram lining up as a wide receiver (flanker) at the top of the screen.

One of the benefits of this alignment is that it allows the offense to spread the defense out and create a number of possibilities for play selection.

The first of which is to run the ball. Thanks to the Giants’ personnel and alignment, they are faced with just a six-man box, which is usually an invitation to run. Against light boxes (six or fewer defenders), Saquon Barkley averaged 6.7 yards per carry, which is obviously more than enough to convert a third-and-1.

The Giants also have Engram matched up on free safety D.J. Swearinger on the offensive right. Playing off coverage, the Giants could target Engram of the quick first down reception. They also have Bennie Fowler matched up in man coverage on the offensive left (defensive right). But since he was matched on Josh Norman, that isn’t as attractive an option.

But the Giants opt to throw the ball to Barkley on a wheel route, going for the chunk yardage instead of a quicker-hitting play. The decision to throw longer is usually a riskier one, but the wheel route is one of the best routes a running back can run — particularly a back like Barkley.

The Giants recognize that the defense is using Cover 1, with a single high free safety and man coverage underneath. That means that a linebacker will likely be covering Barkley — in this case Zach Brown — which gives the Giants an immediate advantage. Most will assume that the advantage is athletic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, Barkley with the ball in open space is a nightmare for any defense. But there is also a definite schematic advantage to the wheel route that any running back enjoys against a linebacker.

The wheel route is, essentially, a flat route that turns into a vertical route by the time the running back catches the ball. The combination of width and the running back getting the ball in-stride puts an extreme amount of stress on the linebacker covering him. That stress means that if there is any hesitancy, mis-identification, or anything else to slow down the linebacker’s processing or ability to get to the sideline, the running back is off to the races.

It also isn’t a new play, and has been featured in college Air Raid offenses for decades now, and has been in the NFL for years. This is a piece of Hal Mumme’s playbook from Kentucky in 1997.

Put the quarterback and halfback in a shotgun alignment and move the fullback up to a receiver position and you have the same alignment as the play the Giants’ ran.

The Giants use the slant portion of the Slant Wheel concept to essentially sett a screen (though carefully not a pick), keeping Norman from being able to make a play on Barkley before he is able to turn the route downfield.

Fowler’s route also gets in the way of linebacker Zach Brown’s most efficient angle to the sideline, slowing him enough that Barkley can gain a decent chunk of yardage. Credit where it is due, Brown recognizes the route quickly and makes sure he isn’t held up long and does a good job of getting to the sideline and making a nice open field tackle. This play could have gone for a much bigger gain had Brown not made that tackle.

Concepts in use

  • 11-personnel package.
  • Deceptive alignment manipulating the defense.
  • Running back wheel route.
  • Route combinations expanding the receiving window.

Why I like this play

Frankly, the slant-wheel concept should have been a staple in the Giants’ offense all season long. It is a quick-hitting route combination play that puts a tremendous amount of stress on the defense and fits the strengths of the Giant’s offensive personnel very well. Surprisingly, however, the Giants only threw seven (7) passes on wheel routes all of last season. Five of the targets went to Saquon Barkley, one to Wayne Gallman, and one to Rhett Ellison.

The Giants’ offense will be run through Barkley in 2019 and beyond, and they would do well to structure their offense to get the ball to him as efficiently as possible and put him in position to maximize his skillset.

Evan Engram was regarded as one of the biggest YAC (yards after catch) threats in the NFL in 2018 — and for good reason. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Engram was second among receivers and tight ends with 9 YAC per reception. Fully 55 percent of his receiving yards came after the catch, which is a remarkable number, but pales in comparison to Barkley. The Giants threw to Barkley behind the line of scrimmage so often that 110 percent of his receiving yardage game after the catch, more than completely negating the times he caught the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

Routes like the Wheel, and concepts like the Slant Wheel and Post Wheel are good ways to get the ball to Barkley (and other players) in space and in position to make plays. They create easy reads and throws for the quarterback while putting stress on the defense to defend the whole field. Hopefully we’ll see them much more frequently going forward.