If there’s one thing pretty much every fan of the New York Giants can agree upon, it’s that Saquon Barkley is a great football player. That’s a very good thing for the Giants because he is going to be carrying the bulk of the Giants’ offense for the foreseeable future. Much of the conversation around Barkley is centering on his ability to run the ball and the Giants’ apparent reorganization around the running game. What should probably be talked about more is his role in the passing game.
Barkley was one of the most productive receiving backs in the NFL in 2018, but what if he could have been used better?
Dan Pizzuta and I asked that question after Dan found that Barkley was the league’s most targeted receiving option in “garbage time” situations — but he also found that how the Giants used Barkley limited his ability to help the offense.
In the first part of the series that developed, Dan found that while Barkley did see more targets beyond the line of scrimmage in the second half of the season, his yards per target, expected points added (EPA), and positive play rate all dropped.
From there I zoomed in on the last four weeks of the 2018 season, charting each of Barkley’s 28 targets over that span. I found that of those 28 targets, only seven were really meaningful — that is, were designed in a way to put Barkley in position to take advantage of his rare athletic abilities and attack the defense. I also found that all of Barkley’s targets came when aligned as a running back and most (15 of 28) were either swing passes behind the line of scrimmage or flat routes run to the sideline, both of which limited ability to use his athleticism in space.
To finish our three-part look at how the Giants could use Barkley in the passing game, we’re now going to take a look at how some other offenses use running backs as receivers.
Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints have pretty much set the gold standard for using a running back in the passing game — particularly over the last two years with Alvin Kamara. Payton has mastered using Kamara’s abilities as a receiver to manipulate the defense and create opportunities for his offense to exploit. The Saints run an offensive scheme which, while certainly different in execution from Pat Shurmur’s, isn’t dissimilar to the Giants’ in terms of influences. Sean Payton blends both West Coast and Air Coryell principles into an offense that can stress a defense in a variety of ways.
Shurmur has had similar influences as a coach. He grew up coaching under Andy Reid — probably the best “WCO” coach in the NFL — with the Philadelphia Eagles, and also coached under Norv Turner (who is the NFL’s leading “Air Coryell” disciple) at Minnesota, and brought in Mike Shula (who’s offense at Carolina was heavily influenced by Coryell) as his offensive coordinator.
Between Payton’s use of Kamara as a receiving weapon and the similarities in influences, it makes sense to look at one way how the Giants’ might improve Barkley’s usage.
As I did with Barkley, I charted all of Kamara’s targets over a four-game stretch — though this time I used the first four games of the season as Mark Ingram was suspended and Kamara was the Saints primary running back.
Several things quickly leap off the screen when focusing on how the Saints used Kamara as a receiving weapon. The first is just how involved he was as a receiver, being targeted 48 times in four games. Because of Drew Brees’ prolific passing stats, it’s easy to assume that the Saints are pass-happy and easily threw the ball more than the Giants. That assumption is a false one. Though the Giants were run-heavy at the beginning of games, they were tied with Kansas City for ninth in pass attempts on the season while New Orleans was 23rd in the league.
It should be noted that Barkley only really played 3 3⁄4 games in the stretch I charted, sitting out the final quarter of the Giants’ win over Washington in Week 14. Meanwhile, Kamara played an extra quarter of football in the Saints’ overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons. That being said, playing an extra half of football doesn’t account for a 20-target disparity.
Taking a closer look at those targets, I found a full 29 of the 48 to be meaningful. Payton went to great lengths to put Kamara in position to get the ball in space, heading downfield, and with room to run. He ran an incredible variety of routes, and while there were still swing passes and dump-offs, he also ran slants, go routes, wheels, curl routes, post routes, and plenty of screens. Kamara also had nearly a quarter (11) of his 48 targets come when lined up as a wide receiver, slot receiver, or H-back. The Saints frequently used Kamara as a wide receiver to force defenses playing a heavier personnel package to try and defend a spread offense — and it usually ended in a big gain for New Orleans.
Here we can see the Atlanta Falcons in a nickel package, but still see how Payton was able to use Kamara as a wide receiver (at the bottom of the screen) to spread the defense out and create an opportunity for a 21-yard gain on first down:
Kamara and Barkley have similar skill sets as receivers. Both are good, precise route runners and natural catchers of the football. They both have great contact balance, vision as runners, and explosively powerful lower bodies and Barkley is even more athletic than Kamara. There is no reason why the Giants can’t look to the Saints for inspiration for how to make Barkley an even more productive player.
But New Orleans isn’t the only team from whom the Giants can learn. Shurmur could, and probably should, lift some concepts and plays from his first boss in the NFL.
“If play callers don’t bring a volume of Andy Reid’s RB-passes to study over the summer they aren’t trying hard enough to win.
Even with Patrick Mahomes, Reid wants to make life easy on the QB. Easy passes, huge gains. All from 2018, most on early downs. Copy off the king, he’s the best.”
- Warren Sharp (Sharp Football Stats)
Pat Shurmur’s first job in the NFL came when he was hired by Andy Reid when Reid became the Eagles’ head coach in 1999. He spent the next 10 years coaching, and learning, under Reid before leaving to be Steve Spagnuolo’s offensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams.
The above quote probably conjures a nervous tic for many Giants’ fans. But that’s only because it rings true — for years Brian Westbrook was the bane of many Giants fans’ existence, and Reid has only gotten more skilled in using running backs as receiving weapons.
For our first play, I want to use one that should be fairly familiar to Giants’ fans. It should be familiar because the Giants themselves occasionally ran something similar under Ben McAdoo.
The Chiefs ran this play several times throughout the year, both to Kareem Hunt and Damien Williams. They went back to this play for good reason: It’s quick and effective.
Whenever the Chiefs ran this play, the ball handling from Mahomes was the same — quick, stabby fakes which were only long enough to suggest hand-offs with the least amount of motion necessary. There were, however, two variations of the play that Reid would call. The first was how the Giants ran it under McAdoo, with the blocking going to the play side and offensive linemen getting in front of the running back in space. The other way, as we see above, has the blocking leading the fake end-around. The initial play-action sucks the defense up, while the blocking motion and fake hand-off to the receiver gets the defense flowing away from the play. The result? A quick, easy completion to the running back and plenty of room with which he can work, but also not much onus on the offensive line to lay blocks.
One of the best ways to simplify the game for a quarterback is to force the defense to show its hand. When you can accomplish that while also creating an opportunity for a talented running back, you almost have to do that.
Here I want to focus on play design from the pre-snap phase onward.
The Chiefs start their pre-snap phase by shifting three players. TE Travis Kelce moves from the left side of the offensive line to the right, RB Kareem Hunt moves out to wide receiver, and WR Demarcus Robinson moves from the line of scrimmage to the running back position. Through it all, the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense doesn’t move, save to shift a cornerback out over Hunt. That lack of movement is a clear indicator that the Bengals are playing a zone defense.
By moving all of the receiving options except for Hunt to the right side of the offensive formation, the Chiefs have the Bengals’ defense looking to that side. They run a variation of a “Stick Concept” on the right side while Hunt runs a crossing route from the left. With most of the offensive threat on the right side and the defense playing zone coverage, Hunt is able to find a huge void in the middle of the field. While Mahomes does have to hold the defense to the right side with his eyes and step up in the pocket for this play to work, the end result is an easy pitch and catch for 13 yards on a first-and-10.
Finally, we have one more example of Andy Reid’s play design getting Mahomes a quick, easy, and safe completion to his running back for a big gain.
The Denver Broncos are showing heavy pressure at the start of the snap, and their reaction to some pre-snap motion by Tyreek Hill, moving from the slot to the backfield, suggests man coverage behind a blitz. That’s exactly what the Broncos do, but Reid has a call in place to exploit it.
Once again we see him use a fake hand-off to get the defense flowing away from the play. Reid also uses a vertical route from Kelce to pull a safety deep and away from Hunt.
For his part, it first looks as though Hunt is providing backside protection for Mahomes on a play-action pass. That — apparently — gives him the task of blocking OLB Shane Ray. However, Hunt is only chipping on his way out of the backfield. Hunt’s chip slows Ray down, and by the time he is able to pressure Mahomes, the ball is out and in Hunt’s hands.
For the third time in three games we have seen Reid use alignment and play design to manipulate the defense into giving his running backs huge chunks of field with which to work — while also creating quick, easy completions for his quarterback.
The NFL is a copy-cat league.
That’s been said so many times is beyond cliche — but the saying won’t die because it’s also absolutely true.
Innovation is the lifeblood of the league and strategies are constantly evolving to try and give teams even the barest fraction of an edge over their opponents. But that also doesn’t mean that coaches shouldn’t pay attention to what their peers are doing or try to reinvent the wheel every offseason.
There is nothing wrong or even dishonest about looking around the league and taking some of the most effective plays that fit your personnel and adopting them. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
And if the Giants are going to be reorganizing their offense around the skill set of Saquon Barkley, it only makes sense to put him in the best possible positions to produce to his highest potential. Taking a look at how other teams use their playmaking running backs could help the Giants get the most out of Barkley.