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Giants vs. Bills: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

Can the Giants’ offense find traction against the Buffalo Bills?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This week the New York Giants will host the Buffalo Bills in their home opener as they try to put a disappointing Week 1 performance behind them.

Most have targeted this game as the point when the Giants would begin to hit their stride as an offense. The Bills defense did not rack up sacks in 2018, but did have an effective defense. Per Football Outsiders, Buffalo finished with the 15th most efficient defense and 14th ranked rush defense, but the 2nd ranked pass defense. Buffalo came on at the end of the year, finishing with the 2nd ranked “weighted defense” (a Football Outsiders metric which weights recent games more heavily).

So then what do the Giants need to do to put themselves on the right track offensively against the Bills?

Bills’ defensive stats

Rushing Yards - 68.0 (7th)
Passing yards - 155.0 (2nd)
Total yards - 223.0 (3rd)
Points - 16.0* (7th)

* Buffalo’s offense gave up 8 points on turnovers, an interception returned for a touchdown and a safety. Buffalo’s defense only allowed 8 points for the New York Jets’ offense.

Respect Buffalo’s defense

The Buffalo Bills should have lost their game against the New York Jets. They turned the ball over four times in the first half and had a net turnover margin of -3 on the game and gave, yet still managed to come away with the win.

That is because the defense only gave up 8 points on the game, hanging on to win against a Jets offense that couldn’t get out of its own way.

They finished the game with four sacks from four different players (Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Lorenzo Alexander, and Jordan Poyer), while Ed Oliver harried Sam Darnold on the offensive interior. In addition to those four sacks, the Bills’ defense had 9 tackles for a loss and 5 quarterback hits.

For the most part the Giants’ offensive line played well against the Dallas Cowboys defense, but they will be tested again by a Buffalo defense which looked fierce in the opening week.

We should pay particular attention to the potential matchup of Oliver on right guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler suffered an unspecified shoulder injury during the game, and while a lineman’s power comes from the ground up, any shoulder issues are a concern. Oliver not only has rare explosiveness and agility for a defensive tackle, he also has enough power to play nose tackle in college despite weighing 280 pounds.

At the second and third levels, second year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is one of the few linebackers with the size and athleticism to match up with both Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram in coverage, while Buffalo also boasts a talented secondary duo of Tre’Davious White and Jordan Poyer. With Sterling Shepard in the concussion protocol and Golden Tate suspended, the Giants will be playing with a depleted receiving corps.

The Bills have speed at all three levels of their defense and the Giants can’t take this game as a given.

Feed Saquon Barkley... and Evan Engram

The expectation all off-season was that the Giants’ offense would flow through Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram. And it did flow through them against Dallas with Barkley picking up 139 yards on 17 looks and Engram getting 116 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets.

The lack of opportunities for Barkley might be what stood out the most about the Giants’ offensive game Sunday. 11 touches in the run game and 6 targets in the passing game is just not enough. Even given the context of the game — trying to catch up to a team that the defense couldn’t even slow down — the Giants should have run the ball more. Perhaps not dramatically more, as 120 yards on the ground should be enough for any offense, but when your running back is averaging nearly 11 yards per carry, giving him the ball until the defense stops him is not a dumb move.

The Giants need to get Barkley more involved in the offense and should probably plan for a third of their offensive touches to go to him. That doesn’t have to mean that he gets 25-30 carries per game. Barkley is explosive, no matter how the ball gets in his hand, so a stat line of 17 carries and 8 targets would give him plenty of touches. The other aspect is that the Giants (still) need to get him the ball further down the field. Barkley’s average reception went for 4.8 yards, by far the lowest among pass catchers. He is rare among running backs for his ability to match up with, and threaten, defensive backs from an athletic stand point and the Giants would be well served to take advantage of that ability.

Turning to the tight end, that number of targets is probably about right for Engram. He is the Giants’ most dangerous receiving option and has the ability to be a mismatch against pretty much any defender he is matched up against. However, those targets should come further downhill. Most of Engrams’ targets came less than 10 yards down the field and most of those targets came five yards or fewer downfield. His average depth of target was 5.1 yards downfield, per NextGenStats, the same as in 2018.

But as we saw on the Giants’ second quarter attempted bubble screen to Engram (and other plays) that after an off-season of watching tape, teams are sitting on the Giants’ short passes. Engram was one of the most dangerous tight ends (or receivers) in the NFL with the ball in his hands in 2018. Against the Bills the Giants should look to create opportunities for him at the second level.

The Giants showed a promising offense on their first possession, balancing explosive plays from Saquon Barkley with aggressive passing from Eli Manning, and an excellent use of misdirection as they passed out of a 23-personnel set on play action for Engram’s touchdown to cap the drive.

If the Giants want to field an effective offense this season, they need to lean on their two biggest playmakers and put them in position to make plays.

Lean on play-action

Four teams used play-action a lot this past weekend — as in “almost every other pass, on average.” The Baltimore Ravens (50 percent of passes), Dallas Cowboys (46.6 percent), Kansas City Chiefs (45.5 percent), and Tennessee Titans (43.3 percent) averaged a run fake on 46.4 percent of their passes as a group.

No other team who played by Sunday evening used play-action more than 35.7 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus.

Each of those four teams also enjoyed commanding victories in week one. Kansas City had the closest game of the bunch — winning by just two touchdowns — but as a group the four teams won by an average of 27.75 points.

With Shepard in the concussion protocol and Cody Latimer struggling to create separation, the Giants need to do everything they can from a schematic standpoint to help their offense. Play-action is probably the safest way to attack downfield, and if you don’t believe me, believe Bill Walsh:

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 pant 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 highly competitive football, it is very unlikely that you will be able to run the ball so effectively that you will not need to do anything else to move the football. There is no question that having the play-pass, as a part of your offensive arsenal, can allow you to get a key first down or big chunks of yardage.

However, the play-pass and the commitment to it require more than just minimal inclusion in your team’s offense. It must be practiced, on a regular basis, with painstaking precision, by every member of the offensive unit. The proper use of the play-pass must be planned for and anticipated by a well prepared coaching staff.

*note: Play-Pass is Walsh’s term for “play-action pass”

The Giants didn’t attack downfield in 2018 and that trend continued in Week 1. Eli Manning’s average target was 6.6 yards downfield, average completion coming just 4.9 yards downfield, and 2.7 yards behind the first down marker (all per NextGenStats). The Giants need to look downfield more in the passing game, but with Sterling Shepard in the concussion protocol and Cody Latimer struggling to create separation, the Giants need to scheme as many easy — and meaningful — throws as they can.