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Summer School - Evan Engram and the running game

Evan Engram shows how the Giants can run the ball without using the running back

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants want to run the ball in 2019, that much we do know about the coming year.

But some times things don’t go the way you hope, and the team will go up against an opponent that matches up well against you and what you want to do. I’ve mentioned the Giants’ week 16 loss to the Indianapolis Colts a few times already in this year’s Summer School series. I do that because I believe that game could be instructive as we look forward to 2019.

In this case, I want to look at how the Giants solved a problem that had presented itself over the previous weeks: They were struggling to run the ball.

In the midst of the Giants’ 40-16 drubbing of the Washington Redskins, Saquon Barkley piled up 170 yards on just 14 carries. While that is incredible production, the fact that 130 of those yards came on two carries (a 78-yard touchdown and a 52-yard run) should be noted. Outside of those two highlight reel runs, Barkley had 40 yards on 12 carries (3.3 yards per carry).

The next week, in a cold, wet, sloppy meeting with the Tennessee Titans, the Giants only managed 47 yards on 16 carries, 31 yards on 14 carries for Barkley (2.9 yards per carry for the team, 2.2 for Barkley). Defenses were stacking the box against the Giants’ running game and their best weapon was having difficulty finding space with which to work. If the Giants wanted to field something like a run game — and they did — they needed to find some way to move the ball on the ground.

Against the Colts, they hit on something of a solution: Give the ball to players other than Barkley.

That game the Giants did not run the ball well overall, picking up 83 yards on 29 carries (2.8 yards per carry). The Colts frequently played with eight defenders around the tackle box and their defense’s speed helped to limit Barkley’s playmaking abilities.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the Giants’ running game. Twice they handed the ball to tight end Evan Engram on a sweep, picking up 12 and 14 yards on those carries. Where trying to (metaphorically) punch the Colts’ defense in the mouth failed, misdirection succeeded.

The Play

As we’ve done in the previous play breakdowns, let’s just take a look at game speed before we put the play under the microscope.

The Giants are at the Colts’ 13 yard line on 1st and 10 and come out in a heavy 13 personnel set, with three tight ends, one running back, and one receiver on the field. With Eli Manning under center and the tight ends in a bunch formation, this looks for all the world like a power run play. The Colts line up in a base 4-3 defense and are playing under a Cover 1 shell (man coverage on the outside, single high safety), and are clearly expecting a run as well. Particularly, they’re expecting a run to the strong side of the offensive formation — the offensive right, where the tight ends are bunched.

With (potentially) nine defenders near the line of scrimmage and just eight available blockers, running the ball here would be a Bad Idea. The Giants do decide to run the ball, but not in the way the Colts are expecting.

If we divide the field in half, drawing a line from the center to the back of the endzone, the Colts’ formation is heavily weighted to the offensive right. They have seven defenders (two linemen, two linebackers, two safeties, and a corner) to the offensive right, with just four defenders to the offensive left.

The Giants play on the Colts’ expectations and use Evan Engram as a ball carrier on an end-around. The play negates the Colts’ numbers advantage, running away from the bulk of the defenders.

From Engram’s perspective, the play is pretty simple: Sprint across the offensive formation, catch the ball in stride, and turn up-field.

However, the Giants do some things with their play design to give him as much of an advantage as they can, and create as much room for him to work with as possible.

Starting from the backfield, Saquon Barkley runs to the offensive right, faking the an off-tackle carry to that side. Most of the Giants’ blockers add to the perception, briefly blocking as though for an outside-zone run. Barkley’s motion, and the blocking, freezes most of the Colts’ defense — including the unblocked right defensive end and all of the defenders at the second level.

That hesitation gives the Engram time to get past the right defensive end, who the Giants left unblocked so they could work left tackle Nate Solder to the second level. The Giants also have tight end Rhett Ellison pull from the back side of the formation and work as an extra blocker on the play side.

Counting wide receiver Sterling Shepard — who is noticeably conscientious about not engaging his man early — the Giants start the play with three blockers to deal with four defenders. They are at a disadvantage, but that problem is solved through play design.

By leaving the defensive end unblocked, releasing Solder into space and bringing Ellison from the right side, the Giants created a numbers advantage for themselves. Where the Giants were at a three to four disadvantage on the left side, they created a four to three advantage by removing the RDE through misdirection and bringing Ellison over as an extra blocker.

Engram ultimately picks up 12 yards on the run, being ruled down just short of the goal line. The Giants’ blocking isn’t great on this play, with RG Jamon Brown and Ellison being more inconveniences than blockers, Solder being unable to keep the WILL linebacker (number 49) from making the tackle, and Sterling Shepard not quite sustaining his block long enough.

But while the execution wasn’t quite there, the play design was a solid and the playcall itself was timely.

Concepts In Use

  • 13 personnel package.
  • End Around.
  • Offensive misdirection.
  • Second level and wide receiver blocking.
  • Box counting.

Why I Like This Play

Any play that gets your playmakers the ball in space and with room to make plays is a good one. And while Saquon Barkley is going to get the overwhelming majority of the attention from both the NFL and the sports media ecosystem, but as far as the Giants are concerned, Engram should be 1b to Barkley’s 1a. Not only does Engram possess a rare blend of size and athleticism, he plays a position against which defenses are particularly vulnerable.

But more than that, I like the thought process behind this play.

Outside of Barkley’s two highlight reel plays, the Giants had struggled to run the ball with any consistency in weeks 14, 15, and 16. Against the Colts, the Giants showed a solid self-awareness and planned to have players other than Barkley carry the ball. That game wide receivers Corey Coleman (1 carry, 5 yards) and Sterling Shepard (1 carry, -3 yards), and Engram (2 carries, 26 yards) all carried the ball. While four carries isn’t much, it does serve to give defenses something to think about beyond simply stopping Barkley.

I also like that the Giants played to on the defense’s expectations with their play design. By loading up with a heavy 13-personnel package, the Giants telegraphed that they were going to run, then gave the defense exactly what they were expecting to see — then did something different. That is a strategy the Giants should embrace in 2019, and use misdirection to slow down pass rushes and create opportunities for their offensive weapons in space.

Perhaps a next step to take would be to incorporate end-arounds and sweeps into the base offense and build RPO plays off of them. In 2017, the Giants were one of the most effective teams in the league when it came to running the ball on RPO plays — coming in fifth at 5.4 yards per carry.

Hopefully the Giants will continue to build on their offense and add in wrinkles to create opportunities such as these for their playmakers in 2019.