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5 Cowboys’ plays adapted for the Giants’ personnel

How might Jason Garrett adapt his playbook to the Giants’ personnel?

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The New York Giants, and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett have their work cut out for them in 2020.

I’m not talking about overcoming some of the best defenses in the NFL this year, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and San Francisco 49ers, I mean something more fundamental. The Giants have stated a couple times that their offense will be very similar to what Garrett installed in the Dallas Cowboys from 2007 through last year.

“Schematically, the easiest way to describe it right now to the outside world is it’s going to be similarly based off of what [Jason Garrett] has done in Dallas over the last 10 or so years,” new head coach Joe Judge said on a conference call back in May.

NFL offenses cross pollinate ideas so much and so often that there are few truly unique offenses in the League — save offenses built around unique talents like the Ravens and Lamar Jackson or the Arizona Cardinals and Kyler Murray. However, there are still different overarching philosophies in the league that lend themselves to roster construction. And starting in 2014, the Giants’ offensive personnel were overhauled, transitioning from Kevin Gilbride’s Run ‘n Shoot based offense (a scheme built on vertical and option routes) to a West Coast Offense under Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur (a scheme built on quick, short timing passes and run after catch. With the Giants switching back to a vertical offense, they will likely have to get creative in adapting Garrett’s playbook and philosophies to a personnel group that was was assembled for a different style of football.

Judge, at least, recognizes that that’s going to have to be the case, and at that same conference call said, “There’s going to be similarities with that [Garrett’s offense in Dallas], but it’s got to be catered to the players we have on our roster. Right now we’re installing all the base concepts and the shell of the offense. I think really you’ll see throughout training camp and as it takes form — as different players emerge — and it’s going to take shape throughout the season as well.”

So I decided to take my cue from Mark Schofield and his work in putting together an Air Coryell game script for the Giants. I took things in a slightly different direction and went back to the Cowboys’ 2019 tape and looked for five plays that could be adapted to the Giants’ personnel.

For my source material I used the Cowboys’ Week 5 game against the Green Bay Packers. It was speculated in the Cowboys’ media ecosystem that while their offense got off to a hot start under Kellen Moore at the start of the year, Garrett reasserted control following a poor performance against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4.

Play 1)

We’ll start with one of the Cowboy’s first plays of the game, and one which makes me think there might be some credence to the idea that Garrett took a larger hand in the Dallas offense. This play, with the light modification of the quarterback being in the shotgun as opposed to under center, appears in Dan Mullens’ 2005 playbook with the Carolina Panthers.

The Mullens’ and the Cowboys’ versions of the play are both run out of 11-personnel, with 1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 receivers.

The target of the play is Michael Gallup playing the “X” receiver on the offensive left, while the running back sneaks out into the flat. On the other side the slot receiver looks to find a void in the middle of the field while the tight end and flanker run vertically down the field, stressing the defense and helping the slot to find that void.

We can’t know what the progression read is, or whether it is a full-field or half-field read without being in the meeting room. However, we do know that the ball ultimately goes to the “X” receiver (though he fails to make the catch).

So let’s see how that play could be adapted to the Giants’ personnel.

Adapted to the Giants:

The first thing you may notice is that I changed the personnel package from 11-personnel to 12-personnel. I did it for a couple reasons. First and foremost, I believe that creative use of those tight ends should force defenses into uncomfortable positions and bad matchups.

Historically, 12-personnel is a better passing formation because it forces defenses into a base package, putting a linebacker or safety on the tight end in coverage. That’s generally a favorable matchup for the offense, but when the tight end in question — Evan Engram — offers the same kind of height, weight, and athleticism advantages as a prototypical “X” receiver, it’s even better. By moving Engram out to the “X” position, it forces the defense to either put a cornerback on him, who can keep up with him athletically but not physically, or a safety or linebacker, who might be able to match up physically, but not athletically. What’s more, safeties and linebackers aren’t used to playing on the edge in a cornerback’s role, which could slow them down more or create communication issues.

This formation puts Saquon Barkley on Engram’s side as well, creating another dilemma for defenses. If Engram succeeds in pulling coverage down the field, it could give Barkley an opportunity to get the ball in space, which is always a problem. Likewise, putting a tight end and running back on the same side of the offensive formation and both receivers on the other side of the formation would encourage

In this adaptation, Slayton is the flanker, using his speed to stretch the defense vertically, while Kaden Smith runs up the seam. Smith was a surprising bright spot for the Giants in 2019, and showed enough athleticism to get vertical and be more than a safety blanket.

Finally we have Sterling Shepard in the slot, using his route running to find a void hopefully create an opportunity for a chunk play over the middle.

Play 2)

We’re going to stay with the theme of Evan Engram’s versatility again. One of my biggest complaints with how both Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur used Engram was how limited the route selection was. Engram was almost exclusively used as a check-down option, which could have been done by any waiver-wire acquisition and ignores everything else he brings to the offense.

Here we have the Cowboys in a 21-personnel package, with 2 backs, 1 tight end, and 2 receivers. Before the snap we see running back Ezekiel Elliott motioning from the backfield to a wide receiver position, and the fullback staying in the backfield. That’s a pretty clear indication to the defense that this is going to be a pass, and if this is man coverage, the tight end is going to have a window down the field.

Witten ultimately runs down the seam, but Prescott over-throws him and the venerable tight end isn’t able to run the ball down.

Adapted to the Giants:

I’m sticking with the 21-personnel package her, for much the same reason I went with 12-personnel in the previous play: It is an efficient passing package. Defenses are encouraged to stay in base personnel packages and the offense can force them into bad match-ups.

However, I AM making the slight, but potentially significant change in the backfield. This adaptation uses a pair of running backs rather than a running back and fullback. I chose Wayne Gallman because he is both a capable runner and receiver, and keeping the threat of the run in play opens up play-action. Well-executed play-action doesn’t depend on “establishing the run,” but keeping a running back in the backfield could add an element of uncertainty that at a fullback won’t. Play-action could help increase the window down the field by freezing the defense for a critical moment, as well as slow down opposing pass rushers as they honor their responsibilities in the run game. Having a second running back also keeps the option of calling an audible and switching to an actual run play.

Finally, instead of sneaking through the A-gap, I have Gallman running an angle route to the outside of the left tackle. This is a route Gallman runs well, and gives him the option of chipping a pass rusher and helping with pass protection.

Saquon Barkley gets motioned out wide, creating a similar dilemma as moving Engram to receiver in the previous play.

Finally I have Engram as an in-line tight end, matching his size and speed up on either a linebacker or safety. Assuming everything else in this play happens similarly, Engram enjoys a significant speed advantage over Witten. That speed should allow for more forgiveness down the field, as well as the potential to turn a long pass into a home run with Engram’s run-after-catch ability.

Play 3

While Engram’s athleticism and versatility could, and should, be significant factors for the Giants, they have other players on offense. Let’s take a look at a play that could work for the Giants’ most reliable receiver.

The Cowboys line up in an 11-personnel group with the quarterback in the shotgun, two receivers to one side, and the tight end in-line next to the right tackle. All told, it’s a fairly standard and incredibly common set in the NFL.

Dallas runs play-action to set the play off, drawing both linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, as well as freezing the strong safety deep in the secondary. The play-action serves to create a fairly massive void in the middle of the field, which their passing concept on the left side exploits.

Dallas is running a Tosser concept, which consists of a pair of slant routes on the same side of the field, on the left side. Both routes attack inward, toward the center of the field which the play-action has forced the defense to vacate. Dak Prescott targets Randall Cobb out of the slot on the play, and the ball glances off of his hands. Had he made the catch, it would have been a decent gain with the opportunity to pick up another five (or more) yards after the catch.

Adapted to the Giants:

For the Giants I decided to leave the personnel package alone, for a couple reasons. The first is that the Giants will likely still lean on their 11-personnel package, as it is just the standard for offensive football at the NFL level. Second, because it’s a better running formation, as it encourages (if not outright forces) defenses to field lighter sub-packages in response.

If we go back to the Dallas play, notice the how light the box Green Bay uses. They are calling what appears to be a Cover 4 defense, pulling the corners and safeties back to defend against a big play — a bit of context, this was the last play before halftime. The result is a light six-man box and Ezekiel Elliott easily finding room to run.

I want to preserve the option to audible to a running play when the defense invites a run like that, and forcing the defense into lighter personnel groupings and spreading them out puts the offense in a good situation. Along the same lines, I put Kaden Smith on the field instead of Engram. While Engram is a solid, if unspectacular, blocker, the athleticism and versatility that lets him double as a wide receiver above limits the types of defenders he can effectively block. No tight end should be asked to block an edge player like Za’darius Smith, but Kaden Smith has a bit better chance of slowing him down than Engram.

Now, moving back over to the tosser concept. Apologies to Golden Tate, but it looks like the post route on the right side of the field is basically a decoy and not in the progression. It appears as though this is a quick two-receiver progression, reading the left side only.

I have Darius Slayton as the “X” receiver, counting on his explosiveness to force the outside corner back and help create a larger window on that side of the field.

Speaking of Shepard, I have him as the primary read on this play for a couple reasons. The first is that he is the Giants’ most reliable pass catcher. If the Giants are calling this play because they need to convert a third down or want chunk yardage to start a drive, Shepard has the best chance of securing the catch. He is also their best route runner and his average of 3.1 yards of separation was the best on the team in 2019, just trailing players like Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett despite them being targeted an average of nearly 3 yards further downfield.

Of the Giants’ receivers, Shepard is the one I trust to run the route with precision, adapt to coverage, haul in the pass over the middle, and pick up extra yards if they’re there to be had.

Play 4

As mentioned in the play above, the Giants have two potential candidates to line up as slot receivers on any given play. This time I want to feature a play for Golden Tate, after using him as a decoy in the play above.

Dallas once again lines up in an 11-personnel set, this time in a 3x1 set. They have all three receivers on the right side of the offensive formation while the tight end is detached on the left side. This play uses all five receiving options to stress the defense, creating another sizeable void in the middle of the field. The tight end runs a curl route and inside receiver runs a comeback route. The other two receivers to the outside run a post and fade route, respectively.

The combination of routes creates a good-sized window over the middle and an opportunity after the catch for Randall Cobb.

Adapted to the Giants:

Once again I stuck with the 11-personnel grouping. I have Engram back on the field, with the play potentially needing a more versatile receiving threat from the tight end position.

Where I played on Shepard’s ability to separate and haul in tough catches in the previous play, this time I’m using Tate as the primary read. Golden Tate struggled with separation last year, with his 2.2 yard average among the lowest in the NFL, and had a relatively low 57 percent catch rate. However, he is still a threat with the ball in his hands so I wanted to put him in position to use that skillset.

This play creates separation at the catch point and the comeback route allows the receiver to present a good target to the quarterback. That should make life a bit easier for Tate as a receiver. But as we also see in the actual play, it creates an opportunity for yards after the catch, which is still the strength of Tate’s game. It also puts a blocker in position to help with run after catch.

The Giants have options there, and playing Engram in that position is an intriguing one. He has plenty of speed to get down the field ahead of Tate, as well as the size to be an excellent blocking option on a DB in space. But I opted to keep Shepard there, both to preserve the look of the play to the defense and because he is a strong and tenacious blocker in his own right.

As well, the combination of Engram and Saquon Barkley on the left side of the formation presents further options for an explosive play, depending on how the defense responds.

Play 5

With Saquon Barkley at the Giants’ disposal, I couldn’t not hunt for a play that got the running back involved as more than just a decoy.

Dallas once again lines up in their 11-personnel grouping and in the shotgun formation. They’re in a 3x1 set, with three receivers to the offensive right and the tight end detached on the offensive left, with the running back to that side as well.

The Cowboys run a post-wheel combination on the left, with Jason Witten running the post route while Ezekiel Elliott runs the wheel. The Post-Wheel combination can be effective against both man and zone coverage — either by creating responsibility conflicts for defenders in zone coverage or forcing a linebacker into an athletic mismatch with a running back.

The Packers happen to be in man coverage in the above play, and we can plainly see the athletic mismatch on display. Neither EDGE Rashan Gary nor inside linebacker Blake Martinez have the speed to keep up with Elliott in the open field, and Prescott is able to find Elliott for a 27-yard gain. That pass could have gone for even longer, as Elliott had to slow down to catch a slightly under-thrown pass, allowing defensive back Will Redmond enough time to come over and make the tackle.

Adapted to the Giants:

I am, once again, putting the Giants in a 12-personnel package. For the most part I do it for the reasons listed above — I want to force the defense into a “base” package and keep nickel defenders off the field. Whether the Giants are facing man or zone coverage, getting Barkley and Engram athletic mismatches down the field is the goal.

On the other side of the field it might, at fist blush, make sense to have Darius Slayton run the post route while the quicker and more detailed Sterling Shepard runs the comeback route. However, if Slayton uses his speed and explosiveness to run the stem of his route into the corner covering him, the DB would be forced to commit fully to defending the deep pass, creating easy separation with a sharp break by Slayton.

Kaden Smith, meanwhile, should be a safe and reliable check-down option running the curl route in the middle of the field. Or, depending on the opposing defense called, Smith is a good enough blocker to stay back as a sixth pass protector.

Finally, on the play-side, the combination of Barkley and Engram is potentially devastating for defenses. They offer all the same advantages as Elliott and Witten, but greater athleticism than either of the Cowboys’ players. Engram’s 4.4 speed is enough to force a safety to respect the deep post, hopefully drawing a double team down the middle of the field. That should create a massive window to get Barkley the ball in space, and (hopefully) in-stride. Conversely, if the defense devotes its resources to doubling Barkley, Engram has the ability to get a step on just about any linebacker in the NFL. Regardless of which player gets the ball, both have the speed, explosiveness, and run-after-catch ability to turn a chunk play into a home run.