Ordinarily we would be using this time to preview and break down the New York Giants next opponent. But considering that is the Washington Football Team and they’ve played all of one game since the Oct. 18th meeting between the two teams, that doesn’t make much sense.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been two NFL weeks since the Giants played Washington, more like a month or two. Perhaps it was an intentional concession to the COVID-19 pandemic or just a quirk of the 2020 schedule, but the Giants have five divisional games in six consecutive weeks before their week 12 bye. Add in the 10-day layoff between Thursday and Monday night games and the schedule is just bizarre.
So instead of breaking down a team we just broke down three weeks ago and hasn’t changed much, Nick Falato and I are using the opportunity to take a look at where the Giants are after eight games. There will be more in-depth breakdowns over the course of the Giants’ upcoming bye week, but the half-way point is the traditional time to pause and take stock of where the team is.
We have to start our look at the Giants’ offense with a look at quarterback Daniel Jones.
Neither the box score nor the advanced stats have been particularly kind to Jones over the first 8 games. So far Jones has completed 61.8 percent of his passes, while throwing 7 touchdowns to 9 interceptions (to go with 5 fumbles, 4 lost).
In terms of advanced analytics (when controlling for garbage time), Jones has averaged -0.054 expected points per play, a success rate of 44.1 percent (percentage of plays with an EPA greater than 0), and a completion percentage above expectation of -3.2 percent. All of those marks are second-worst in the NFL behind only Sam Darnold. Jones has also averaged just 6.4 air yards per attempt, which is third-worst in the League behind Darnold and Cam Newton.
Schematically, the Giants’ offense hasn’t looked much like what we thought it would when Jason Garrett was hired. When the Giants’ hired Garrett, we expected to see something akin to the offense based on Air Coryell principles he ran in Dallas. However, the limitations of the Giants’ personnel forced Garrett to adapt.
The offensive line and skill positions hav been a significant limiting factor on the Giants’ offense (we’ll get to that in a minute), but so has Jones.
Garrett’s offense featured a vertical passing game in Dallas, with Dak Prescott averaging 9.3 intended and 7.6 air yards in 2019. Jones has always played in short, quick passing offenses under David Cutcliffe and Pat Shurmer, and deep passing hasn’t been a significant part of his game. So far this year, Jones has completed 42 percent of his deep passes, per NextGenStats (over 20 yards), down from the 43.2 percent (per Football Outsiders) he completed a year ago. While neither of those totals are bad — they rank around 23rd among quarterbacks — the inconsistency makes running a vertical offense difficult to sustain.
So instead, Garrett has adopted a much more quick-strike philosophy in the passing game, which plays to both the strengths of Jones and most of his receivers. It also serves to supplement (or, at times, supplant) the Giants’ anemic running game.
And speaking of running, If there’s been one bright side to Jones’ play it has been his work on the ground. Jones is currently the Giants’ leading rusher, and it isn’t particularly close. Jones has 316 yards rushing, nearly twice the total of Devonta Freeman, who has the next most yards on the ground. Whether through scrambling, read-option plays, or designed quarterback runs, Jones has shown the ability to hurt defenses with his legs. He’s also provided the Giants with the production on the ground they’ve lacked pretty much everywhere else in their offense. Having your quarterback be your leading rusher is hardly ideal in just about any offense (barring a college triple-option offense), but the Giants aren’t in a position to be choosy.
The Giants’ offensive line has been remarkably consistent throughout the first half of the season — at least in lineup. While many other teams have had to struggle with replacing offensive line starters on the fly due to the injuries which have ravaged the league, the Giants fielded the same five starters through the first seven weeks. It wasn’t until left guard Will Hernandez was diagnosed with COVID-19 that the Giants’ starting offensive line was disrupted.
Of course, that’s about the extent of the Giants’ consistency along the offensive line. Their play, unfortunately, has been pretty much anything but consistent.
It shouldn’t really be much of a surprise that the Giants’ line struggled through the first half of the season. By the time the season started, the Giants were fielding three new starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle, in a new blocking scheme, in a new offensive scheme. And they were doing all of that without the benefit of an offseason, a regular training camp, or a pre-season.
But even so, the Giants’ line struggled mightily through the first half of the season.
The Giants’ offensive line was largely unable to open any kind of hole in the running game, which limited Saquon Barkley to just 38 total yards and 1.8 yards per carry before his season ended. Watching the Giants’ offensive line there hasn’t been any one player or problem to blame for their struggles running the ball. Instead, each of the Giants’ starters has shown a variety of technique issues without a clear pattern. The team’s run blocking has improved over the course of the season, but they remain last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ “Adjusted Line Yards” metric which attempts to separate blocking from running back production.
The Giants’ offensive line has struggled in pass protection as well. The tackle duo of Andrew Thomas and Cameron Fleming had given up more pressures than any other pair of tackles in the NFL going into the week 8 game against Tampa Bay. And as a whole, the Giants’ offensive line is ranked 32 in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric, holding just 45 percent of their blocks for more than 2.5 seconds.
But if there has been one pleasantly surprising storyline in the first half of the season it has been third round rookie tackle Matt Peart. Peart is not a starter, but he has started receiving snaps at right tackle during games. Perhaps partly because defenses have little tape on him and little chance to prepare or adjust when he is suddenly in the game, but Peart has shown promising upside. So far, Peart has shown all of the movement skills that made him an intriguing prospect, but the strength concerns which cropped up from his collegiate tape haven’t shown themselves.
We haven’t heard anything definitive regarding Peart’s role in the second half of the season, but at this point it feels likely that he will at least get a look at the starting right tackle job before the season is out.
Skill position players
This area might have been the biggest gut-punch for the Giants over the first half of the season, and it came early on. The Giants lost running back Saquon Barkley for the season to a torn ACL in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, which was compounded by the loss of WR Sterling Shepard for a month to turf toe the same game. In about three hours the Giants lost their best offensive weapon and their most reliable receiver.
And just like that it was “Next Man Up” for the Giants at receiver and running back. The Giants turned to Darius Slayton and Evan Engram to carry the load in the passing game. The two have taken on roughly even shares of the offensive load, with Engram getting 54 targets (31 receptions) while Slayton has seen 56 targets (32 receptions).
Beyond their other two primary receiving weapons in Slayton and Engram, the Giants turned to a rotating cast of receivers to round out their offensive formations. Wide receivers Golden Tate (29 targets), C.J. Board (11 targets), and Damion Ratley (10 targets - no longer on the team) all caught passes, as did tight ends Kaden Smith and Levine Toilolo, as well as running backs Dion Lewis, Devonta Freeman, Wayne Gallman jr. and fullback Elijhaa Penny.
Speaking of the running back position, the Giants were forced to resort to a platoon there as well. The Giants signed Freeman immediately in the aftermath of Barkley’s injury, giving them added depth and a runner with a similar style. The team then elevated veteran Alfred Morris from the practice squad when Freeman injured his ankle in the Giants’ week 7 game against the Eagles. But it hasn’t really mattered who the Giants have lined up in the backfield, they have struggled to run the ball. Freeman, Morris, and Lewis have each averaged roughly 3.2 to 3.5 yards per carry. The running game has functioned the best with Gallman on the field, with 4.2 yards per carry and 2 touchdowns, but he hasn’t seen many touches to date. Through seven games he’s had just 37 carries and 12 receiving targets, or 5.3 carries and 1.7 targets per game.
That being said, Gallman has shown to be a fit for what Jason Garrett and Marc Colombo want from the running game and run blocking. He is a no-nonsense, downhill runner who doesn’t have anything like Barkley’s big play potential, but is able to pick up what is blocked for him and finish his runs. In years past, Garrett has favored one-cut runners with a man-gap or inside zone blocking scheme. We finally saw that scheme against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and were able to move the ball on the ground, at least more than they had in previous weeks.
In truth, the Giants’ success on the ground (outside of Daniel Jones’ runs) is more a barometer of their success along the line of scrimmage than a measure of their running backs.