The New York Giants (6-1) outlasted the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) on Sunday to come away with a 23-17 win in a game that was close for 60 minutes and literally came down to the wire.
The game followed a familiar script as the Giants hung around and traded blows with their opponent for the first three quarters. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Giants once again able to do enough to give their defense a lead to protect.
It was a (very) near thing, but the Giants were able to do enough to come out on top of another one-score game.
So what can the stats and analytics from the game tell us about the Giants’ latest win?
Paper cut passing attack
Before the game on Sunday we wondered how the Giants would attack the Jaguars’ run defense. They came into the game with one of the best rush defenses in the NFL, and the Giants obviously depend heavily on running the ball.
Mike Kafka’s answer was “don’t bother.” Instead of trying to run the ball against a stout run defense, the Giants decided to throw the ball. It makes sense to attack a defense that was relying on Tyson Campbell with Shaquille Griffen dealing with a back injury. And it looked like the Giants’ passing attack might finally break through against the Jaguars.
Daniel Jones went into halftime completing 15 of 22 passes (68 percent) for 168 yards (7.6 per attempt).
But then the script flipped in the second half and we ended up with a passing game that has become very familiar. Jones only threw the ball eight more times over the course of the second half, picking up just 34 yards through the air.
By the end of the game, the Giants finished with 202 yards passing, most of which came on short passes inside of 7 yards down the field.
Interestingly, the Giants’ passing yardage was almost perfectly divided between air yards and yards after catch. The Giants finished with 103 total air yards (5.4 per completion) and 99 yards after the catch (5.2 per completion). Wan’Dale Robinson was predictably potent after the catch. He averaged 6.5 yards after the catch, which works out to 39 of his 50 yards coming with the ball in his hands.
The Giants were able to get going on the ground, thanks to a combination of defensive fatigue from the Giants’ long drives in the first half, Daniel Jones’ running forcing the defense to slow down in pursuit, and the Giants’ blockers finally being able to work to the second level. While Saquon Barkley had just nine runs for 18 yards in the first half, he had 13 carries for 92 yards in the second half.
The Giants aren’t a team to hang back and sling the ball down the field. Instead, they’re running an offense that does just enough to keep the chains moving and sustain drives. Those five-yard passes don’t make them much more likely to score, but they do serve to keep drives alive. It’s a methodical brand of offense that’s based heavily in the West Coast Offense philosophy of “you don’t go broke making a profit”.
Rather than gashing opposing defenses with big plays, the Giants are offering an offense of a thousand cuts. It also has the added benefit of wearing down defenses, and that’s enabled the Giants to be a fourth-quarter team.
Pass rush, run defense, and big plays
The Giants’ pass rush is finally starting to come together.
While the Giants didn’t officially have any sacks — Dexter Lawrence had a sack of Trevor Lawrence in a case of Lawrence-on-Lawrence, Tiger-on-Tiger violence, but it was negated by a holding penalty — their pass rush was a factor throughout the game.
Between the individual play of the Giants’ defenders and Wink Martindale’s blitz schemes, the Giants’ pass rushers were largely living in the Jaguars’ backfield.
Lawrence’s mobility and quick release allowed him to evade the Giants’ rushers (they had just two QB hits on the day), but they undoubtedly had an impact. Lawrence was visibly hurried on multiple occasions, forced to throw before he was ready or unable to properly layer his passes. In both scenarios, he was off-target, either over-throwing receivers or throwing before the receiver was able to finish his route.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, in particular has shone brightly late in games and is rounding into the form we saw on tape in college.
Given how heavily the Giants use the blitz, it isn’t a surprise that they’re also giving up big plays. Big plays down the field have been there for opposing offenses all season long against the Giants’ defense. Their commitment to the blitz necessarily opens up downfield passing opportunities. This game, Lawrence was able to throw for 180 yards on passes of more than 10 yards downfield. But, as mentioned above, the Giants’ overall pressure kept him from fully taking advantage and he was 10 of 21 on those deep passes.
It also helps that the Giants are remarkably sound tacklers. Overall, they’re tied for third in the NFL with just 21 missed tackles on the season.
But while the Giants’ pass rush has been impressive in recent weeks, their run defense has been less-so.
They came up big in high-leverage, short-yardage situations (such as their third- and fourth- down stops early in the fourth quarter). However we also have to note that they were gashed on occasion as well.
Etienne was a concern before the game, as the Giants have struggled with speed around the edge for most of the season. Travis Etienne had a several big runs, two of which could have ended in touchdowns had it not been for the efforts of Xavier McKinney and Thibodeaux.
But even so, the Giants will need to address their run defense. The interior of their defensive front remains stout, but the edges are vulnerable.
The Giants might not be able to properly address the problem until after the season, but we can be sure that teams with athletic runners will test the edges of the Giants’ defense. Martindale will need to figure something out, because the Giants can’t just assume that big plays will continue to not hurt them.
A game of inches and seconds
When Lawrence threw the 16-yard pass to Christian Kirk on what would become the final play of the game, the Jaguars had a 17 percent chance of winning. Even though Kirk made the catch and secured the first down right on the goal line it turned out to be the second-biggest change (loss, in this case) of Win Probability in the game, and the eighth-biggest change in EPA.
The details of the play (the distance, the fact that it was caught, and that it put the Jaguars right on the goal line) that would normally mean a positive EPA and change in Winning Percentage. And had the play happened a down or two earlier or had Jaguars been able to sprint to the line to spike the ball, it probably still would have been a massively positive play for the Jaguars. But instead, Julian Love and Xavier McKinney were able to hold Kirk up — keep him from falling forward into the end zone and tackle him slowly enough that the Jags couldn’t get back to the line of scrimmage — it turned out to be a game-ender.
The genesis of that play goes back to the very beginning of the fourth quarter, and speaks to the importance of coaching and game management.
Doug Pederson used his first timeout of the second half just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter (14:30 left). The Jaguars had just had an incomplete pass on first-and-10 and the clock was stopped, however Pederson felt the need to call the timeout with about 17 seconds left on the play clock. He used his second timeout with 7:07 remaining after the Jaguars stuffed Barkley for a 1-yard loss, setting up a third-and-2.
Coaches typically like to hoard their timeouts, holding on to them until the end of the half. Sitting here, we have no clue why Pederson called those timeouts — there could have been confusion or a breakdown in communication, or perhaps his eyes in the sky noticed something he needed to address.
But we can see the effect of burning those timeouts early. The first effect came almost immediately after Pederson’s decision to call a time out at 14:30. Christian Kirk caught a pass near the first down markers on a second-and-6. The ball was spotted just short of the first down, but it was close and Pederson probably could have challenged the spot. But after using his first timeout so early in the quarter, he was effectively forced to accept the spot. That set up a turnover on downs (-4.0 EPA, the second-biggest change), instead of potentially a fresh set of downs inside the Giants’ 20-yard line. We don’t know what could have happened there, but the Jaguars might have been able to increase their lead from four points to seven or 10 had that drive ended in a score.
And then of course we come to that final drive.
The Jaguars had no way to stop the clock on their final possession. But if they had one (or both) of those timeouts, they would have been able to stop the clock after the Kirk catch and potentially punch the ball in for a game-winning touchdown.
All season long people have asked how the Giants can keep winning like this. A big part of the answer has been these little moments and mistakes that seem trivial but add up over the course of the game. Hidden yardage on penalties, poor decisions by opposing players and coaches adding up, and the Giants remaining composed, opportunistic, and executing when they need to the most.