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What’s wrong with the Giants’ running game?

The Giants are averaging a yard and a half per carry. What’s the problem?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The start to the New York Giants 2020 season has been a familiar disappointment for Giants fans. The Giants dropped a pair of potential upset wins, but with the added gut-punch of losing their best player to a season-ending ACL tear.

Adding as a backdrop for all that is the fact that the Giants haven't run the ball well at all. If there is one thing the Giants' coaches and fans thought they would be able to hang their hat on this year (to borrow a McAdoo-ism), it was the running game.

Just watching the games it hasn't been pretty. While there have been a couple good runs, entirely too many runs seem to have been stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage. But Football Outsiders and Next Gen Stats paint a pretty ugly picture, even after watching the games.

Football Outsiders ranks the Giants 32nd in the NFL in adjusted line yards, 32nd in “stuffed” percentage, and 32nd in 2nd level yards.

That’s obviously bad, but the exact numbers are even worse.

The 31st run blocking offensive line belongs to the 49ers, who are averaging 3.33 adjusted line yards — the average yardage Football Outsiders attributes to the offensive line. Per Football Outsiders, the Giants’ offensive line has accounted for less than half that number, with 1.61 adjusted line yards.

Football Outsiders has the Giants’ running backs being “stuffed” (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) on 37 percent of their runs. The next worst is, again, the 49ers who have a stuffed rate of 28 percent. The .09 difference is the biggest between any two consecutive rankings in the NFL.

And finally the Giants’ 0.6 yards per carry between 5 and 10 yards downfield (how Football Outsiders defines “2nd Level Yards”) is again the worst mark in the NFL, with the next worst being the New York Jets at 0.85 2nd level yards.

The belief might persist that the threat of Saquon Barkley’s explosive ability running the ball lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears to stack the box and sell out to take the Giants’ run game away from them. Next Gen Stats’ player tracking data blows a big hole in that belief. NextGenStats’ data shows that Barkley only faced a defensive front of 8 or more defenders just once in his 19 carries (5.26 percent), while Dion Lewis saw two heavy boxes on his 11 carries (18.18 percent). The Bears and Steelers were able to effectively suffocate the Giants’ running game while playing coverage, and that’s on the offensive line.

Football Outsiders considers the Giants’ pass protection to be a bit better. They rank the Giants 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate (which weighs sacks based on down, distance, and opponent) at 8.5 percent. But while we’ve talked about the Giant’s pass protection and the issues that has caused, we haven’t really talked about what is going on with the Giants’ run blocking, or why.

All told, the Giants’ running backs have carried the ball 30 times in the first two weeks, for a total of 55 yards (1.83 yards per carry), and 18 of those yards came on one play.

Stats are all well and good, and they absolutely can serve to give us context and nuance that cuts through our various biases.

(Easily one of the most important things I learned from the Scouting Academy is the importance of checking your own biases. I try to keep that infographic in mind at all times.)

But we want to figure out why the stats are painting the picture they are, and for that we have to go to the tape.

Poor fundamentals

For much of the last two months we have heard the words “details” and “fundamentals” from the Giants’ coaching staff and players. The Giants have said that they want to have a detail-oriented approach to the game and are focusing on being fundamentally sound.

That has yet to translate onto the field with any kind of consistency and the Giants blockers have suffered breakdowns in technique throughout the first two weeks.

We could reasonably expect rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas or new center Nick Gates to have technique issues — after all, Thomas is new to the speed, power, and complexity of the game at the NFL level while Gates is new to the center position. However veterans Kevin Zeitler, Will Hernandez, and Cam Fleming have also had breakdowns in their technique and fundamentals.

We’ll start with a run early in the first game of the season.

The Giants had just recovered a muffed punt and now have possession of the ball on the 3-yard line, giving them another chance to get an early lead following a failed drive.

The Giants have a chance to punch this through for a touchdown. The center and right guard do their jobs well enough, with a hole first opening up at the left A-gap followed by the right A-gap as Saquon Barkley approaches the line of scrimmage.

However, the first hole doesn’t stay open long enough and Barkley is caught in the wash before the second hole is truly open.

The problem comes from the play of Thomas and Hernandez on the left side — Evan Engram has a bad rep against Bud Dupree as well, but that isn’t what limits this to a 1-yard run.

We’ll start with the rookie left tackle, who starts his block by lowering his head and lunging at DE Vince Williams at the same time as his hands go low and wide. As a result, he isn’t in a great position and can’t strike Williams’ chest plate, compromising his leverage. Thomas is eventually able to strain, establish half-man leverage and push Williams back, but the play is over by then.

Hernandez doesn’t lunge, but he does let his hands go low and wide as well, and never really establishes a block on DT Cameron Heyward. Heyward not only gets his hands on Hernandez first, but he is able to gain extension and establish control. That lets Heyward close the A-gap while Williams and Dupree collapse the play from the back side.

Things happen very quickly this close to the goal line, and even minor mistakes can derail play. You can’t have three players on the same side all making similar mistakes at the same time.

But that wasn’t nearly the only instance of poor fundamentals by the Giants. Of the Giants’ running backs’ 30 carries, roughly half of them had some kind of technique breakdown that limited the play.

Here we see a poor rep from Gates. We don’t need to get too deep into the weeds on this one. NT Tyson Alualu beats Gates easily after he straightens his legs and bends at the waist right off the snap of the ball. With Gates’ weight out over his toes, it’s easy for Alualu to toss him to the ground and tackle Barkley in the backfield.

Spinning ahead to Week 2, we see a similar issue with RG Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler lunges off the snap, making it all too easy for DT Akeim Hicks to swim over him and get the stuff on Barkley. It’s also worth noting that both Will Hernandez and Nick gates abandon their double team on the nose tackle when it becomes clear that LB Roquan Smith is unblocked. Hernandez might have been able to sustain the block on his own, but he had worked past the NT’s level and wasn’t in position to block when Gates moves to block Smith. That allows the NT further into the backfield to help make sure Barkley can’t “athlete” his way out of the stuff.

Confusion and communication breakdowns

The other recurring issue for the Giants on the ground in the first two weeks seems to be confusion or breakdowns in communication along the offensive line.

This was one of Dion Lewis’ better runs following Barkley’s injury in Week 2 and went for 3 yards. However, we can easily see the problem on the left side of the line — and it’s a distressingly familiar one for Giants fans.

Thomas initially moves to pick up Khalil Mack as he reads the hand-off. At the same time the 3-technique takes and outside path essentially setting up stunt on the outside. Rather than Hernandez passing the defensive tackle off to Thomas so he can stay in position to pick up Mack, Thomas and Hernandez both engage with the defensive tackle. That gives Mack a clear path into the backfield through the left A-gap.

Meanwhile Gates and Zeitler both engage with the 1 technique, though Gates is able to disengage to work off the double team to the second level. He moves to pick up Smith at the second level, only to see Mack threatening the gap as well and has a moment of indecision. That moment keeps Gates from engaging with either defender while Mack disrupts the play from behind and Smith gets the stop.

The Giants come out in a 13-personnel set with three tight ends on the field, bringing them from a spread alignment to a tight alignment with an 8-man line. When the Giants motion to their 8-man line, Heyward takes the defensive end position on that side (just before the gif starts). The run sees all three tight ends block Heyward, which is probably appropriate considering he’s a 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive tackle. However, that opens a free rush through the right C-gap for Vince Williams. Levine Toilolo, does seem to see the rush coming, but never disengages to take the block (though he may have tried to trip Williams as he went through, which would have been a penalty). Asking a tight end to block a defensive tackle is a losing proposition for the offense and something you rarely see. However, Toilolo needs to trust Kaden Smith and Engram to sustain the block so he can pick up the free rusher or the play is going to get blown up anyway — which is exactly what happened.

Barkley’s last run

I wanted to take particular note of this play. Frankly I’m not sure if this is another example of a communication breakdown or if it is just a very ... unconventional blocking scheme. I also want to be clear that I am not blaming Barkley’s injury on the offensive line, but rather this is an aspect of the play that is certainly curious.

We’ll get to the full gif in a moment, but first I want to present a still from the play, focusing on Zeitler and Hernandez.

The left and right guards each pulled, which isn’t unheard of. There are plays in which both guards pull to create a numbers advantage elsewhere in the formation. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a play in which the left guard and right guard pulled in the opposite directions at the same time like a mesh concept run behind the line of scrimmage.

The double pull leaves a wide-open path for DT John Jenkins to get into the backfield. And had he read the play a little more quickly, he might have blown it up in the backfield — a bad outcome, but better than what happened.

Jenkins is still almost able to make the play, as are Tashaun Gipson and Roquan Smith, though they’re slowed enough by confusion for Hernandez to get to the gap in time to keep them from getting into the backfield themselves.

Sitting here I can’t say for sure whether this play was designed to look like this, if there was a change that didn’t get communicated, or if a player didn’t understand their assignment. However I have a hard time seeing the this play pick up 6 yards with many other backs besides Barkley.

Final thoughts

Not all of the Giants’ poor run plays came down to poor play by the offensive line. They have faced — and will continue to face — good defensive fronts this year. The guys on the other sideline are professionals, paid to make plays, and sometimes the other guy just plays better.

But there have been entirely too many lapses along the offensive line. It would be one thing if it was one or two players with consistent issues. However each of the Giants’ linemen have had problems and it seems more like a game of whack-a-mole where they keep popping up in positions. The loss of Saquon Barkley will put even more on the Giants’ line, as he was occasionally able to salvage broken plays through sheer athleticism. While Devonta Freeman might be an upgrade over Dion Lewis or Wayne Gallman, the run game now begins and ends with the Giants’ line.