A Christmas Eve battle between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings ended on a last-second 61-yard Greg Joseph field goal, giving Minnesota the victory. There were several mistakes throughout the game for the Giants that impeded the Giants' efforts to earn a road victory.
Big Blue turned the football over twice in scoring territory on a Daniel Bellinger fumble and a Daniel Jones interception. Rookie cornerback Cor’Dale Flott had an initially confirmed interception reversed that would have thwarted a 12-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in T.J. Hockenson’s second touchdown reception.
And who could forget the blocked Jamie Gillan punt that set up a third-and-10 Justin Jefferson touchdown with less than five minutes to go in the game. These self-inflicted errors positioned the Vikings in a territory where they typically thrive - close games.
The Vikings were 11-0 in one-score games. That’s impressive, and coach Kevin O’Connell’s staff, along with the Vikings’ players, deserve credit for their resilience in the face of pressure. However, some of that success should also be attributed to luck; it would be disingenuous not to suggest as much.
It’s a game of inches with some of the best athletes in the world. Fortuity plays a factor to a certain degree in those tight situations. Still, the Giants left points on the field, and the game came down to the wire. One surefire way for the Giants to improve their chances of success is to improve their efficiency on third down.
Third down efficiency
The New York Giants converted 36.8 percent of their third down attempts in 2022. That ranks them 22nd in the NFL. Mike Kafka’s game plan against the Vikings was impressive - a quick game-passing attack, allowing quarterback Daniel Jones to make simple reads against man and zone coverage by exploiting Ed Donatell’s defense with switch releases and boundary stacks while targeting Saquon Barkley out of the backfield when man coverage was confirmed post-snap.
There’s much more to that game plan, but the tactics employed by Kafka to move the football worked. The Giants only faced third down 11 times; the primary reason was the Giants' effectiveness on first and second downs.
The Giants were efficient and effective on second down in the game; they had a positive EPA (Expected Points Added). On third down, the EPA was negative but not one of the worst on the season, which was primarily due to Darius Slayton’s 32-yard conversion late in the fourth quarter.
New York only converted 27 percent of their third down attempts against Minnesota; they were three of eleven. However, the Giants did convert their lone fourth down for a 27-yard touchdown rush by Saquon Barkley. Let’s bask in the beauty:
Barkley's ability to hit the crease and redirect his path with that type of burst is one of the many things that make him special— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) December 25, 2022
Great block by Nick Gates and good COMBO from Feliciano & Glowinski to help spring this 4th & 2 TD run pic.twitter.com/ymMMfSgefs
Despite the fourth down success on the play, the Giants' 27 percent third down conversion rate was tied for their third-lowest of the season. The Vikings deserve credit; their defensive line gave rookie tackle Evan Neal issues all game, and Donatell’s employment of Za’Darius Smith gave the interior offensive line problems.
The Vikings only blitzed on 22 percent of their defensive snaps, yet they pressured Daniel Jones on 38 percent of his drop backs. The possible liability at right tackle could plague the Giants in their first playoff game since 2016.
Still, if the Giants can find ways to move the chains on third down, then their defense can get more rest, and that keeps Justin Jefferson on the sideline. The chess match between these two teams should be fascinating to watch on Sunday. Here are the 11 Giants' third down plays; let’s go over why some of them succeeded and failed.
First quarter, 11:50, third-and-3: 17-yard gain to Darius Slayton
By EPA, this was the best third-down play for the Giants' offense. New York used a 2x2 set in shotgun, spread, with two receivers outside the numbers. They run a simple double slant-RB flat. To no surprise, the Vikings match the Giants' 11 personnel with nickel (the Vikings deviated away from nickel on one third down attempt where they used dime personnel).
Jones read the apex defender aligned at the top of the screen between the numbers and the hash; he’s in a slight tilt with his butt to the sideline, and he matched Saquon Barkley (26) to the flat in the Cover-3 Match. Eric Kendricks (54) went to wall Richie James (80) on the first slant from the No. 2 position.
Jones confirmed the intentions of the apex defender, and all Slayton had to do was win inside on the slant against Duke Shelley (20). Jones knew the window was ajar, with Barkley and James occupying the adjacent defenders, and Slayton did a solid job bursting out of his break to secure the contested catch. First down, Giants.
First quarter, 11:06, third-and-10: Pass batted at line of scrimmage
After two incomplete passes on the Giants’ 48-yard line, Kafka dialed up a 2x2 set with a 47 COMBO (if we using the Don Coryell numbering system) to the boundary side; it’s a simple in-route from the No. 1 and a corner from the No. 2. However, Jones targeted the switch release at the bottom of the screen.
At the snap, Richie James - the initial No. 2 receiver to the field - released underneath and to the outside of Isaiah Hodgins (18), who stemmed inside. Minnesota ran Cover-3 Match with a five-man pressure that Barkley sufficiently picked up in the B-Gap, but Kendricks did happen to get his paw on the football, forcing an incomplete pass.
It appeared as if Hodgins was the intended target. He felt the leverage of the defense in man coverage and stopped his route to curl back toward Jones, with the linebacker from the middle of the field flowing in that direction to keep tabs on Barkley in the backfield. Jones released the football as Hodgins entered the break. It’s difficult to say if this would have been completed, but the timing suggests there was a chance.
First quarter, 7:22, third-and-13: INC deep right to Slayton
The Giants use an EMPTY set on third-and-long, as the Vikings show a two-high defense presnap before BUZZING the weakside safety down to the boundary hash to obstruct any crossing routes from the field side. Minnesota ran Cover-1, which Donatell utilized at a 27 percent rate - the second-highest of the year for the Vikings.
There appeared to be a miscommunication between Slayton and Jones, with the latter doing an excellent job of shading the safety away from Slayton with his eyes:
Slayton ran the dig route where there was an underneath defender who passed James’ horizontal cross to the BUZZING safety. Jones diagnosed that and also positioned the centerfield safety between the hashes, which, in his mind, opened up a throwing window for a deep post. Unfortunately, Slayton didn’t appear to be on the same page.
However, I can’t say with full certainty if I’m correct with that miscommunication assessment of the play, although it does make sense. Jones typically doesn’t miss routes like this, but it could also have been Jones throwing the football away in a savvy manner with the twisting four-man pressure cranking up the heat on Jones. The Giants have to receive more consistent and reliable play from their rookie right tackle Evan Neal.
First quarter, 2:13, third-and-4: 6 yards to Hodgins
Hodgins was put into this situation a few too many times for my liking in this game, but some of that is a testament to the Vikings’ linebackers and their ability to diagnose and react. Hodgins does very well to win inside against a defender aligned in press. His burst out of the break is another underrated quality about the midseason addition.
The apex defender matched Bellinger at the No. 2 spot, meaning inside help for Shelley was the linebacker, and Hodgins made his break outside the numbers with Hicks just inside of the hashmark.
This is quick game, and Jones started turning toward Hodgins a micro-second too early. Once Bellinger (82) hit his third step, Jones’ eyes are on Hodgins, and this gave Jordan Hicks (58) an early indication to flow outside as Brian Asamoah (33) shaded more toward the boundary hash in the middle-hook areas.
The timing was slightly thrown off, prompting Jones to burp the baby right before releasing the football. Hodgins secured the catch in tight traffic and then absorbed a big hit. The sticks were moved, but Bellinger fumbled the football a few plays later to stop another promising New York drive.
Second quarter, :48, third-and-9: a missed opportunity
The Giants use a 2x2 set in the hurry-up with a field-side stack of Darius Slayton on the line of scrimmage, with Richie James just behind him. The Vikings align in Cover-6 with a five-man pressure and a T/E twist to the field side that allowed Za’Darius Smith (55) to defeat Ben Bredeson for pressure.
Stacks are lovely to create easier opportunities for separation by using the wide receiver on the line of scrimmage to create a diversion, traffic, or some kind of pick. In this play, Slayton and James both released outside, which caused the press cornerback to flip his hips and that allowed James to explode inward with a lot of separation.
Jones failed to see James as he was under pressure, but Kafka certainly took note of the play and would go back to the well in this game and a bunch of times against the Colts in the subsequent week. Here is the end zone copy of the pressure surrendered:
Third quarter, 11:28, third-and-3: Under pressure
The Vikings ran a lot of Cover-3 Match principles throughout the game, so Kafka dialed up a solid Cover-3 beater from a 3x1 set early in the third quarter. From the lone receiver side, Bellinger released outside the numbers and wheels toward the sideline, bringing Patrick Peterson (7) away from the numbers.
Barkley released into the flat to occupy Harrison Smith (22). The No. 3 receiver (Slayton, innermost) released vertically, with James releasing underneath him; this forced Kendricks to match James on the under and left Chandon Sullivan (39) in no man’s land as Hodgins ran an outward pivot outside the numbers to the three-receiver side.
James’ drag route drew the attention of both middle hook defenders; this, along with Bellinger’s wheel, allowed Slayton’s deep horizontal cross to come open against a middle-of-the-field safety in a backpedal. Slayton had some operating room, albeit Peterson flipped his eyes back around the 10-yard line, but Jones was under duress:
Another four-man pressure with a twist that was poorly executed by the Vikings. Rookie pass-rusher Esezi Otomewo (90) collided with Smith. The timing of the twist was off, but Otomewo also stepped on Jon Feliciano’s (76) foot, sending the center to the ground, which gave Jones an obstacle as he attempted to evade the pocket. Gano kicked his first field goal of the game on the next play - a 44-yard one.
Third quarter, 5:15, third-and-9: Jones sacked
The Vikings were starting to get home on third down. They narrowly missed a sack on the previous drive, but Danielle Hunter (99) and DJ Wonnum (98) split this sack on Jones.
New York used a 3x1 set with the running back to the closed side and the lone receiver in a plus-split of about three yards outside the numbers. The No. 1 WR ran a streak with James releasing to the flat and Bellinger on the stick; it’s a simple 3x1 stick concept with the lone receiver (Hodgins) running a sluggo route.
Donatell overloaded Neal’s side of the line of scrimmage. There were six rushers on the line of scrimmage, and four rushed. One of the two that dropped into coverage was over the top of Bellinger. Jones hesitated and went to run, but the pressure was too much for the Giants to handle. On the next play, Graham Gano kicked a 44-yard field goal.
Fourth quarter, 6:33, third-and-5: James drop
Great job by Kafka to position James in an advantageous manner off something he saw earlier in the game. He motioned James from a BUNCH 3x1 to a STACK 2x2 to the boundary. James aligned behind Bellinger against Donatell’s simulated pressure look. The boundary linebacker blitzed, creating another void for James, who was wide open after his initial outward stem behind Bellinger. Jones read it well and found James, but the receiver failed to secure the catch.
James’ motion forced Smith down toward the line of scrimmage to defend the stack. Both of the initial outside releases swayed Smith to the outside hip of Bellinger, which made his path inside to James virtually impossible, and Peterson was in no position to defend the slant. A missed opportunity, but Graham Gano was able to convert a 55-yard field goal on the next play.
Fourth quarter, 4:14, third-and-4: Great play by Hicks
Look familiar? Bellinger ran the dig with Hodgins winning inside against press to the field with a flat and a 9 route to the field. Hicks anticipated the play again and read Jones’ eyes. Great individual play by Hicks, but Jones threw Hodgins right into the hit.
Just like the last play, Jones confirmed the apex defender was removed and thought he could squeeze the football into the tight window; he could, but his receiver took a huge hit that led to the fourth down and the eventual blocked punt.
Jones trusted his wide receiver to win inside and made the quick game decision. I’m not faulting him for that necessarily, but I did want to applaud Slayton for cleanly defeating Peterson at the line of scrimmage from the No. 1 spot to the boundary against this Cover-1 middle-of-the-field closed look.
Fourth quarter, 2:31, third-and-2: Darius Slayton for 32 yards
This play was the impetus to the Giants’ seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to tie the game up with two minutes left. A 2x2 boundary stack with Bellinger releasing inside of two defensive backs and Slayton releasing underneath Bellinger. This created a problem for the Minnesota secondary, for Harrison Smith made a push call to Jordan Hicks, a linebacker. Barkley also released to the field side, which was quickly matched by the field side linebacker, Eric Kendricks.
A linebacker against Slayton is not a fair matchup. To the field side, James cleared out the apex defender, and Hodgins took his cornerback deep, so no one could assist Hicks with Slayton. It was an exploitable mismatch for Jones, and exploit Jones did.
This play was just what the Giants needed after a poor overall third-down performance on the day. There was still one third down in the game left for New York, and it’s one where Daniel Jones displayed one of the many traits that tend to galvanize his teammates.
Fourth quarter, 2:15, third-and-10: Daniel Jones’ toughness
Ideally, no one wants their starting quarterback to lower his shoulder into contact, but it certainly does send a message about one’s competitive nature, which for Jones, was never in question. Jones picked up eight yards on this rush to set up Barkley’s 27-yard touchdown.
Donatell used dime personnel (six defensive backs) to combat the Giants on this obvious passing situation. New York had a stack to the field with Barkley to the boundary side. Barkley ran a wheel route against 2-Man Under. Barkley looked for the wheel, but Kendricks got into phase quickly with Smith over the top, and Peterson was in excellent coverage on Slayton’s curl.
The coverage was tight, and the Vikings ran double twists upfront that got into the face of Jones, who used his athletic ability to evade to his right. Jones rushed for eight yards before lowering his shoulder through Josh Metellus (44). That is an excellent individual effort from Jones.
The Giants had opportunities to convert more than just three third downs, but for one reason or another, they failed to execute. New York will look to rectify this error, and it’s certainly possible to build on this Week 16 passing performance, just as they did in Week 17 at home against the Colts.