The search for the first victory of the 2020 season creeps into Week 4 for the New York Giants. After three-straight losses, and the loss of running back Saquon Barkley, that search has proven to be elusive so far. The task will not get easier, as the Giants face Aaron Donald and the stiff Los Angeles Rams defense, as well as an offense that seems to be getting back on track.
As we have each week this season, we look to craft at least part of a game plan for Jason Garrett and Daniel Jones. Although this week there is a twist. It came in the form of a suggestion from our fearless leader, Ed Valentine:
“...might be worth incorporating some run stuff if you can, since the Giants, umm, don’t do that very well.”
To the film!
Before diving in to this idea, it is good to point out that this is the kind of football-related research problem that I love to explore. Faced with a question like this: “How can the Giants run the ball on the Rams?” we can comb through the film and try to identify patterns. Is there a specific scheme, such as zone, power or duo that has worked against them? Is there something personnel-related, perhaps as simple as “don’t run towards Donald?” Is there a combination of those two elements, such as “run zone at Donald and power away from him?”
Faced with these questions, I poured through all three games the Rams have played this year, watching every running play against their defense. I wanted to find running plays that were very successful, using 10-yard gains as a qualification.
A few hours later, a pattern had emerged. One that I was not expecting at all.
The Rams have given up seven 10-yard runs this season.
Every single one was to the left side of the offense.
Looking at the statistics of these seven plays, there are a few patterns that you can see. While two of them were more interior runs, the other five were outside plays, either aimed just outside the left tackle or to outside of the formation. Five of them came with the Rams having six defenders in the box. Perhaps most interestingly, some came running towards Donald, while others came while running away from him.
Take the first such play, from Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys:
This is an inside zone running play, with Ezekiel Elliott taking the handoff from Dak Prescott who aligns under center. The hole that develops is on the left, through the A-Gap. It is run towards Donald, who gets penetration working against the left guard but his penetration actually creates the hole. Elliott identifies it, cuts through the A-Gap, and gets upfield for the gain.
Donald’s penetration skills is one reason why just a few weeks ago the debate over his ability as a run-stopper was raging on Twitter. In creating their new run defense metrics, ESPN noted that often Donald got too deep into the backfield against the run, taking him out of the play. You saw that on the previous play, and it shows up here on this outside zone running play from the Cowboys:
Again, you see Donald get upfield and penetrate into the Cowboys’ backfield. This time, Elliott takes the handoff to press the left side on an outside zone play. But when he sees the defensive tackle get upfield, Elliott simply cuts inside of him and upfield, picking up 14 yards and another first down for Dallas.
So these two examples highlight how you can run at Donald by using zone schemes and in a sense use his talent against him. Let him get upfield, read the leverage and then cut based off his penetration. Zone run schemes at Donald should be part of the game plan.
Because even when he does what he does best, which is destroy worlds, you can get around him on zone designs:
Donald slices between the center and the left guard and is immediately into the backfield, almost to the point where he could have taken the handoff. But by then Josh Allen has handed the ball off to Devin Singletary aiming for the left side on an outside zone running play. He picks up 16 yards, and all Donald can do is try to chase this down from behind.
I did want to highlight one more play from this past weekend and the Buffalo Bills. If you notice on the previous play, the Bills sent a receiver in motion prior to the snap. On this final example they use the same formation and use the same pre-snap motion, but they are not running outside zone:
Here, the Bills run power toss to the left with pin/pull elements. The wide receiver and the left tackle block down - the “pins,” - while the center and left guard pull to the edge to get in front of Singletary. They serve as a convoy to outflank the Rams defense on the edge, and Singletary finishes the run by plunging down to the goal line.
Whether inside zone, outside zone or even power, the way to run against this Rams team has been by running to the left side. If Donald is in the game, zone designs are best because you can use his penetration against him, allowing the play to set up and the running back to read how it develops and cut off of Donald’s penetration. Now granted, this is a small sample size, but as the Giants continue to hunt down that elusive first win, they’ll take any edge they can get.