Throughout the week following the New York Giants 32-31 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I have been trying to call attention to the play of two Giants in particular.
Those players would be wide receiver Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram.
Shepard, who missed the Giants’ game against the Buffalo Bills with a concussion, and Engram, who was largely an afterthought in that game, combined to be the focus of the offense against the Buccaneers. Tampa’s game plan was obviously to take Saquon Barkley and the running game away from the Giants and they were successful even before Barkley was lost to injury.
What Tampa wasn’t counting on was Shepard and Engram having simply excellent games.
Game clock - First quarter, 8:23
Field position - NYG 44, third-and-9
Now let’s take a look at the play in motion as it unfolded.
For our first play we come to the Giants facing a third and long with Tampa up 6-0 after their opening drive. The Giants are still on their side of the field and well outside of even Aldrick Rosas’ considerable range. They absolutely need to pick up this first down if they want to answer the Buccaneer’s opening score. Unfortunately, converting third downs is something the Giants struggled mightily with through the first two weeks of the season.
But here Sterling Shepard makes it easy.
This play is going to the offensive left the whole way. With the Giants calling just a max protect and sending just three receivers on routes, it’s likely that Sterling Shepard was Daniel Jones’ only read.
Sterling lines up in the slot with Russell Shepard on the line of scrimmage as the “X” receiver. The route combination has Russell (for simplicity’s sake I’ll be using their first names) running a post route while Shepard runs a post-corner double move. Tampa is sending a six-man pressure under a Cover 1 shell (one deep zone safety, everyone else in man coverage), and the post route forces the free safety to double-cover Russell.
Sterling, meanwhile, does a fantastic job of running the stem of his route right into the defender, getting him back on his heels and forcing inside leverage and getting him back on his heels. Once Sterling has the defender positioned behind his right hip, he drops his pad level and breaks hard for the sideline.
The set-up hard break creates plenty of separation and a massive passing window for Daniel Jones. With the defender thoroughly beat with no help, all Jones has to do is throw the ball to a general area between the numbers and sideline and let Sterling make the adjustments and run under it.
It’s a good thing Shepard beat his defender as quickly as he did, as Tampa had forced a one-on-one matchup between Evan Engram and Shaquil Barrett. This goes about as well as you would expect, but with some help from Saquon Barkley the Giants are able to slow the Buccaneers’ Boogeyman down just enough to get the play off.
Game clock - Second quarter, 7:30
Field position - NYG 24, first-and-10
Now let’s take a look at the play in motion as it unfolds.
Here we find the Giants beginning a drive half-way through the second quarter with the Buccaneers leading 15-10. The Giants come out in a 12-personnel classic run formation and Tampa responds appropriately by stacking the box. Instead of running the ball — which the Giants largely failed to do all game long — they call a play-action pass deep down the field.
The Giants are obviously respecting Tampa’s pass rush, keeping eight players back to block, running play-action, releasing Jones on a bootleg, and sending just two receivers on routes.
New York is trusting their play-action and Sterling Shepard’s route running to create the necessary passing window against man coverage, and though the play ends in an incomplete pass, they are right.
Tampa bites hard on the play-action, with all eight players in the box and the free safety reacting to the run fake and Barkley’s motion to the offensive left. This puts Shepard one-on-one on an island with his defender and Shepard’s route running takes care of the rest.
He initially jumps inside, apparently trying to take inside leverage on the cornerback. He doesn’t want the defender between him and the sideline, but just wants to create as much room for himself as he can — which he does. Stepping back to the outside he gets into his route, once again pressing it into the defender and downfield. That sets him up for the second move of the route, as Shepard quickly stops and turns back to the line of scrimmage as though it is a deep comeback route. The defender bites on the move, sticking a foot in the ground and killing his momentum. It would have been really good coverage which would have allowed him to drive on the ball ... If that was what the GIants were doing.
Shepard is able to quickly get vertical again after getting the corner to commit, creating a nice window of space a in front of him and between his outside shoulder and the sideline.
For just a second I want to go back to the still and note the Giants’ field position. The ball is on the left hash, so while the Buccaneers’ defensive alignment is fairly balanced — obviously weighted a bit toward the offensive right where most of their receiving threats are — the density of coverage is much lower on that side of the field. The Giants have Jones roll out to his right, to the wide side of the field which not only makes for a much easier throw for a right handed quarterback, the situation means that he has more room with which to work than if they had been on the right hash. When the Giants ran that ill-fated rollout with Eli Manning in week 1, they did it from the right hash mark and into a crowded area of the field. For all that Manning’s mobility was blamed, it was not a great play call.
Okay, back to the play at hand.
The roll-out does a couple things for the Giants here. Going from the left hash to the right sideline is a long throw, even on a short pass and it turns a deep pass into a long bomb of a throw. Sprinting to the right shortens how far Jones has to throw the ball. It also simplifies the throw for the quarterback by expanding the passing window. Instead of trying to fit the ball over the defender but still inside the sideline, it increased the slice of the field available and gives the receiver opportunity to run under the ball. Unfortunately the ball is overthrown a bit and also drifts out of bounds, but credit to play design and Shepard’s route running give the team a chance to open the drive with a huge play.
Game clock - First quarter, 9:47
Field position - First-and-10, NYG 25
To start our look at Engram we’re going to start with the first play of the game for the Giants’ offense.
Really, it is a modified version of a dirt-simple play design that forms the basis of many offenses. But while the Giants are based on (Andy Reid’s take on) the venerable West Coast Offense, this play is borrowed and adapted from the Air Raid offense, and it works just as well in the NFL as it does in college.
This is the Mesh Concept and it is one of the few plays and passing concepts which is effective against both man and zone coverage, and is damn maddening to try and defend.
The heart of this play is the overlapping crossing routes run just beyond the line of scrimmage — the “mesh.” These routes are so effective because they create a natural “rub” against man coverage, forcing separation for one of the receivers and an easy throw for the quarterback.
Against zone coverage it creates a triangle stress between the crossing route, the deep route run by the wide receiver, and the swing route run by the running back. In this case, the offense is going to be wrong somewhere, so all the quarterback has to do is throw where the defenders aren’t.
In this case Tampa is running a Cover 1 defense, with a free safety in deep zone coverage and man across the board underneath.
In the normal Air Raid offense, this play will be run from a 10 (four-receiver) or 21 (two-back) set, with smaller, quicker players. The Giants, however, have adapted it to their 12 personnel package. In the Giants’ case, they recognize that Rhett Ellison does not have the same physical abilities as a slotback or slot receiver — he just can’t get out into a route with the same speed as a smaller player. So the Giants have modified his route to be a stick route, rather than the standard crossing route on a Mesh. Not only does this force the rub to the point where it borders on a “pick play,” it also uses Ellison’s frame to potentially shield the ball from the defender and create another target. The Giants call another stick rout on the left side of the field, giving them two options for the first down.
But ultimately the first read is Engram, who is able to use his agility and explosiveness to get into his route like a player more typically used for this concept (though he’s still 20 pounds bigger).
The combination of Ellison and Barkley’s routes pull two of the three linebackers out of the middle of the field and open up a massive window for for Engram. Meanwhile Engram is able to use his speed to outpace the slot corner assigned to defend him while the corner is forced to run around his defenders. From there, Engram puts that 4.4 speed to use and finds an extra gear running up the sideline.
The corner is finally able to knock Engram out of bounds, but not before he is able to turn a 2-yard catch into an 18-yard gain.
A good, crisp route and catch by Engram, but also some really clever play design by either Mike Shula or Pat Shurmur.
Game clock - First quarter, 6:13
Field position - Third-and-6, TB 26
Now let’s take a look at how the play unfolded in real time. After getting a look at the whole offense, we’ll use the end zone view.
Any look at how Evan Engram played in week three pretty much has to start with this play. It was simply spectacular from start to finish.
The Giants are facing a third-and-6 on their first drive of the game. They run a three-level read on the right side of the field with a receiver running a vertical route along the sideline, Sterling Shepard running a Dig route over the middle, and Saquon Barkley sneaking through the left A-gap and running a quick curl as a check-down option.
On the other side of the field we have Engram lined up a detatched tight end in a 2-point stance running a crossing route.
Engram is matched up on a slot corner for this play and knows he won’t have the athletic advantage he usually enjoys over a linebacker. He initially jumps out as if he is taking a release toward the left side of the field. As with Shepard’s routes, it gets the defender back on his heels and creates quick separation at the start of his route. He is able to drop his hips and drive into his inside break with no wasted motion, maximizing his early separation.
Engram quickly clears the middle linebacker, looking back to Jones for the ball. The Giants’ quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly as Nate Solder was unable to deal with the stunt the Buccaneers run between their 4i technique and the EDGE. The ball winds up very high and behind Engram, who somehow manages to pluck the ball out of the air.
This play could have gone very sideways very quickly for the Giants. Engram getting into his route and creating quick separation allows the quick pass which saves a likely sack while the remarkable catch keeps the ball from sailing high to where the deep safety on that side of field was in excellent position to make an interception.
There’s a good argument to be made that this was the play of the game for the Giants.