Every year we speculate on how the newest New York Giants could fit into the offensive and defensive schemes. That academic exercise has gotten been made more interesting by the biennial ritual of changing schemes or coaches, dating back to 2014.
Last time I likened figuring out how the Giants might fit their scheme together to solving a jigsaw puzzle.
It might be counter-intuitive, but we started trying to piece together what the Giants scheme might look like by looking at receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Conventional wisdom suggests that the receiver’s job is to catch the ball and just fit into whatever scheme the coaches have devised.
In this case, the Giants’ second round selection of Robinson might tell us more about the Giants’ plan than their first round selection of Evan Neal. Neal is a talented, athletic, well-rounded, and versatile lineman. He should be pretty scheme-versatile at the NFL level.
The selection of Robinson and the response by the front office, however, makes him an outlier. Outliers can often tell us a lot more than some people would like them to, and that makes them useful starting points.
The Giants selected Robinson much earlier than was expected, then definitively stated that they have a plan for how they want to use him. As we discussed last time, the selection of Robinson suggests that the Giants wanted to double (or triple) down on his skill set. That suggests that they want to make it a substantial part of their offense next year.
The inference there is that the Giants want to incorporate Air Raid and Spread concepts into their offense this year.
Making an assumption based on an assumption is a generally a big no-no and a logical fallacy when it comes to analysis. But given we don’t have much to work on and this is really more a fun academic exercise than anything else, I’m going to indulge a bit.
If the Giants are going to make Air Raid and Spread concepts important parts of their offense, we could see them make heavy use of an inside zone blocking scheme for their running game. For sure, we’ll see the Giants’ use a varied blocking scheme that uses a variety of principles, but inside zone could play a very important role in their offense.
Inside zone would make sense for the Giants for a variety of reasons, both personnel and schematic.
We’ll start with the personnel side of things first, and Saquon Barkley is the prime driver here. The Giants currently have five running backs on the roster, but none who are really going to push Barkley for playing time if he’s healthy. The Giants have tried multiple times to get Barkley to be a more efficient runner — asking him to run behind his pads and pick up what he can in the mold of Wayne Gallman Jr. or Devontae Booker. Those attempts have often been met by mixed success and more than a bit of frustration. Barkley has always been at his most productive when running in zone schemes, where he can pick from a variety of cutback lanes and use his athleticism to pick up chunk yardage.
Inside zone also forms the bases for most collegiate running games, which would help shorten the developmental curve for Neal, as well as Joshua Ezeudu (should he win a starting job). The need to get rookies up to speed and producing sooner rather than later isn’t an issue that’s unique to the Giants. Every team needs to get as much from their rookies as possible out of simple economic pressures. In addition to the Giants’ cap pressures, their general lack of depth at a variety of positions add another incentive to get the rookies on the field and producing as quickly as possible. Using schemes and concepts with which they’re familiar can young players get up to speed while they learn the nuances of the pro game.
This brings us to the primary schematic reason why the Giants might make heavy use of inside zone (and related) blocking schemes. Inside running schemes pair very well with Spread and Air Raid concepts. Those passing offenses use spacing to force defenders to cover broad swaths of field, creating large voids in the defense and placing individual defenders relatively far from reinforcements.
As a side effect of how spread offenses use spacing and personnel packages, defenses are forced to decide between devoting players to defending the run or the pass. Defenses typically opt to use lighter boxes, generally devoting just six defenders to the tackle box. Even Cover-3 schemes — which normally have eight defenders in the tackle box — can be forced to use light boxes against spread passing attacks.
By reducing the tackle box down to six defenders, the offense is able to create a numbers advantage on inside runs. That advantage is further enhanced by the tendency for defenses to use lighter sub-packages (such as Nickel or Dime) to match up with receiver-heavy spread offenses.
That gives the offense the opportunity to create double teams of bigger blockers against smaller defenders on the play side, which is generally considered a “win” for the offense.
With each defender accounted for, the running back only has to deal with a pursuit player from the backside of the play or defenders coming down from the third level of the defense — at least in theory.
There are, of course, ways in which defenses can counter the combination of spread passing attacks and inside running games. Things like using TITE fronts and man coverage are used by some of the top defenses in college to frustrate Spread and Air Raid offenses. We don’t have nearly enough to go on to game out the various moves in the chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators.
Finally there’s one last context clue for an inside zone scheme where scheme and personnel come together: the Zone Read.
Looking at the picture above, we see how zone schemes can leave a defender unaccounted in order to gain double teams on the play side. That defender can be accounted for by using the quarterback as a runner. Much like RPO plays, Zone Reads work by isolating a single defender and then allowing the quarterback to either hand the ball off or run based on what that defender does. Zone reads can easily be paired with the RPO plays we discussed last time to add a third option for the defense to consider: pass, hand-off, or QB run. Adding the quarterback as a runner obviously creates the possibility of injury to the most important player on the field, but even the threat of creating a natural numbers advantage for the offense is a good incentive.
Last year Daniel Jones was the Giants’ leading rusher through a significant portion of the season. Jones has, historically, been at his best when he is able to use the threat of a run to slow down the defense. Significantly, Josh Allen was the third-leading rusher among quarterbacks with 763 yards on 122 carries with 6 touchdowns. It’s also significant that Tyrod Taylor lead all quarterbacks in yards per carry at 7.9, the most in the league by a full yard and a half.
None of this is to say that the Giants will make zone reads and quarterback runs a central piece of their offense. However, it’s another set of context clues that suggest one way in which the Giants’ current offensive pieces could fit together.