The New York Giants came out on top Sunday against the Chicago Bears, winning a wild, and ugly, game 20-12.
We were expecting an old school brawl between these two venerable and storied franchises, but nobody was expecting the game to go quite like it did. The game, which finished with the Giants out of healthy quarterbacks and the Bears still desperately keeping a play alive through MetLife’s celebratory fireworks, left many with the question “what exactly just happened?”
So what can the advanced analytics tell us about the Giants’ win over the Bears? Well, in all honesty, the answer is “not much”.
Saquon Barkley was the only Giants’ offensive player to do enough to get charted. NFL’s NextGenStats has a minimum cut-off in the charting metrics they share with the public.
- Quarterbacks must throw at least 15 passes.
- Receivers need a minimum of 5 targets.
- Runners need a minimum of 10 carries.
Daniel Jones only attempted 13 passes and had six carries, no Giant was targeted more than three times through the air, Barkley was the only player to carry the ball more than 10 times (he had 31 carries).
Since Barkley pretty much was the Giants’ offense on Sunday, and we have a much bigger sample size on his play, let’s concentrate on him.
As mentioned above, Barkley carried the ball 31 times — a career high — and he picked up 146 yards (4.7 per carry). While the sheer volume of Barkley’s workload is a bit surprising, the Giants’ commitment to running the ball isn’t. Not only have they been hesitant to throw the ball through the first three weeks of the season, but the Giants’ running game has just been the better option.
This game was pretty much “classic Barkley,” featuring a bunch of good runs, a few great runs, and a couple that didn’t accomplish much at all. And as we’ve come to expect from the Giants this year, they featured a diverse running game that was ambidextrous and didn’t fall into a predictable rut.
The limited tracking data and advanced analytics we have available from this game reveal a few interesting facets to the Giants’ running game and the Bears’ response to it.
We’ll start with, possibly, the most shocking stat from the whole game: Saquon Barkley didn’t see a single loaded box (eight or more defenders in the tackle box) all afternoon. Barkley wasn’t the only runner to see neutral or lighter boxes, but he was the only runner to have more than 20 carries to not see a single heavy box.
Considering everyone interested in the game pretty much knew the Giants would go for a run-heavy game-plan, as well as the state of the Giants’ receiving corps. That makes the decision to play with a seven (or fewer) man front a curious one indeed. That isn’t to say that Chicago ignored the run, they spent about 2-thirds of the game in a “base” defense with three linebackers on the field. They also sent safeties on run blitzes on occasion — though those weren’t consistently effective thanks to their generally questionable (at best) discipline.
While running the ball was the Giants’ best option (and ultimately their only option, thanks to injuries), it still wasn’t a particularly efficient. Barkley finished with -3.8 EPA on the game, or -0.12 per carry. That was largely counterbalanced by Daniel Jones +0.64 EPA per carry on the ground, which accounted for 2 touchdowns and 2 first downs.
NextGenStats’ player tracking data also gives us some insight on how the Giants’ offensive line performed in run blocking.
Barkley finished with 21 rushing yards over expected, which was good for 8th in the NFL this week (through Sunday Night Football). But spread over Barkley’s 31 carries, he only averaged about 2-thirds of a yard more than expected per carry. That would suggest that the Giants’ offensive line earned every bit of praise given to them by Barkley after the game. They did a good job of opening holes, and Barkley picked up what was blocked for him.
Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, Wink Martindale’s defense largely feasted on a very vanilla Bears’ offense. There were a couple potential issues I want to cover before we get to the good stuff.
Some warning signs?
Much has been made of how much Justin Fields has struggled throwing the ball in his young career. But he had his best day throwing the ball this year. Granted, he still only completed 11 of his 22 attempts and never got in the end zone, but he still threw for 175 yards on the game. Considering his previous high-water marks were 17 attempts and 121 yards, he was able to be (relatively) successful through the air against the Giants.
Going a bit further, Fields held the ball for an average of 3.23 seconds against the Giants. While much of that was influenced by him scrambling to try and buy time for a receiver to work open, there were also instances where he was able to hold the ball in the backfield to strike deep.
Fields attempted passes of 56 yards, 21, 18, and 18 yards to Darnell Mooney, he also attempted passes of 20 yards to Equinimeous St. Brown and 15 yards to Dante Pettis. Overall, his intended air yardage was an impressive 9.6 yards downfield, while his converted air yardage was 9.0 yards downfield. That was among the highest in the NFL this week, and the -0.6 yard differential was tied for third-best (with Josh Allen).
While about half of those deep shots fell incomplete, it does follow a trend through the first four weeks of the season. Each of the offenses the Giants have faced have had opportunities for explosive plays through the air. So far only the Cowboys were able to consistently take advantage of that, but the opportunities have been there. It’s a facet of this defense that we knew would be there — Martindale calls a high-risk, high-reward game — but its something to be aware of nonetheless.
As well as the Giants’ defense has been playing, and despite the fact that giving up these plays hasn’t hurt the team yet, they will be facing better (and more competent) offenses over the remainder of the season.
Sending the Bears to hibernation
With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to how the Giants largely shut down Chicago’s offense.
Part of the reason why Fields was unable to capitalize on his deep passes was due to the Giants’ pressure packages. Fields was pressured on roughly 51 percent of his dropbacks (per Pro Football Focus), and the Giants came up with six total sacks and eight quarterback hits. Two Giants, Dexter Lawrence II and Kayvon Thibodeaux, were constant presences in the Chicago backfield.
The Giants also made good use of schemed pressure, getting free rushers on multiple drop backs. Most notably, Tae Crowder was completely unblocked on his sack. It was the fastest sack of the game at 3.6 seconds and came on a double-linebacker blitz.
While Fields attempted more passes than he had in any other game this year, the Bears’ inability to deal with the Giants’ pressure likely played a role in their extraordinarily conservative red zone play calling. Fields only attempted four passes from inside the Giants’ 20-yard line, despite the Bears getting into scoring position several times throughout the course of the game.
Between the game speeding up in short-yardage situations, decreasing margins for error with a weak receiving corps, and the Giants’ pass rush, the Bears were much more likely to hand the ball off any time they got remotely close to the goal line.
That, of course, worked to the Giants’ favor.
Khalil Herbert was able to find some success off the offensive left, picking up 40 yards on six runs on off-tackle runs to that side, most of his carries were up the middle and for not-much.
11 of Herbert’s 19 carries were run between the tackles, and he got just 34 total yards (2.9 per carry).
Dexter Lawrence played almost every defensive snap (58 of 62), and his play was likely critical for the overall success of the defense. He (as well as Nick Williams and Justin Ellis) likely allowed the Giants’ linebackers and safeties to play downhill without fear of the Bears’ linemen climbing to the second level. Herbert is still quick and tough to tackle, but being able to flow to the ball made the lives of the Giants’ second level defenders much easier.