The Giants will be going on the road for the third week in a row and facing the Eagles for the second time in that 14-day span. In fact, this is the third time the Giants and Eagles have faced off since Dec. 11 — 41 days.
The Giants played the Eagles in Philadelphia in the season finale, but that game might be of limited use to either team in game-planning for this one. The Giants rested most of their starters after securing a playoff berth in Week 17. The Eagles played their starters, as they needed a win to secure the top seed in the NFC, but they also clearly held much of their playbook in reserve.
What can the Giants’ offense learn from the first two games against Eagles, as well as their win over the Vikings to get here?
Daniel Jones, Mike Kafka, and the Giants’ offense in general has been on a hot streak over the last month or so. It started with a loss that felt like a win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16, pounding the hapless Colts in Week 17, the Giants’ backups giving the Eagles’ starters all they could handle in Week 18, and a very strong performance against the Vikings last week.
But it will take more than confidence to beat the Eagles’ talented defense.
Giants’ offensive coordinator Mike Kafka has emerged as one of the premier offensive minds in the NFL. His schemes, willingness to adjust, and ability identify and exploit defensive tendencies have been key to putting the Giants’ offense in position to succeed.
The Eagles’ defense is a bit of a mystery with respect to the playoffs.
By and large, Jonathan Gannon’s defense has used a multiple front with zone and zone-match coverage on the back end. That coverage can be effective, as it melds zone coverage with man coverage to. But zone-match coverage also requires tremendous communication to avoid coverage breakdowns.
The first time these two teams played, Kafka was able to exploit James Bradberry’s aggression in the Eagle’s coverage scheme. There were several instances throughout the game where Isaiah Hodgins used double-moves to force mistakes on Bradberry’s behalf. The Giants were unable to exploit those mistakes, but they were there and Kafka surely remembers.
Complicating matters somewhat is how the Eagles played in the season finale. They used more pure man coverage against the Giants’ backups than they had previously. Sitting here, we can’t know why they shifted philosophy. They may have simply not respected the Giants’ second- and third-string offense, or have been attempting to get the win while also hiding as many of their more advanced wrinkles for the playoffs.
The Eagles did use their zone-match scheme a few times in the season finale, and Kafka was sure to test it. In particular, his use of pre-snap motion, sending Saquon Barkley out of the backfield and to a receiver position and creating a 4x1 set stands out. Not only does the pre-snap motion help Daniel Jones identify the coverage, by motioning the running back to a receiver position the Giants are able to stress the Eagles’ coverage.
It also stresses the communication necessary to execute zone-match coverage. The Giants have thrived on opponents’ mistakes this year, and we should expect them to try and force the Eagles’ coverage players to make mistakes.
If the Eagles carry man coverage looks into the postseason, it offers some opportunities for the Giants to exploit.
First and foremost, the Giants have looked for teams using man coverage and middle of the field closed coverage shells (ie Cover-1), and used those as opportunities to call for deep shots. The Giants have a very risk-averse offense and don’t take many shots down the field, but those are the instances in which they believe the potential reward outweighs the potential risk. When the Giants get those matchups, they like to have Darius Slayton streak down the field on vertical routes in one-on-one situations.
The Giants have also made heavy use of route concepts to create natural rubs and picks to help scheme easy separation and reads. Those plays are among the best — and easiest — ways to attack man coverage. Man coverage also calls for the coverage players to follow their assignments throughout their routes. While it allows for faster and tighter coverage, it pulls eyes out of the backfield, creating opportunities for mobile quarterbacks. We saw Kafka create space for Jones as a runner by using the Giants’ running backs as receivers. Sending Barkley out on a route pulled the linebacker charged with covering him away as well, taking a defender out of the tackle box and creating a significant amount of running room
Finally, we should also pay attention to the schematic shift the Giants underwent over the course of the Wildcard game. The Giants opened the game by playing predominantly 21-personnel and incorporating deep shots into their offense. This is a tactic often used by Kyle Shanahan to facilitate his passing attack. Using heavier packages forces defenses to use base (or at least big nickel) packages allows the offense to get more favorable matchups from an athleticism stand-point, as well as more easily create natural traffic by condensing the defensive formation.
That was obviously effective early on against the Vikings, but their defense adjusted in the second quarter and into the second half. In the second half of the game we saw the Giants transition to a predominantly 11-personnel offense. They leaned into their quick-game offense, exploiting Ed Donnatell’s adjustments, his Cover-4 based scheme, and the Vikings’ overall lack of defense in defending run-after-catch opportunities.
The Eagles’ defense is, of course, whole different beast from what the Giants saw from the Vikings and Colts. However, the fact that this is the third time Kafka has seen the Eagles’ starting defense should allow him to have a pretty good read on what to expect — and how to manipulate it.
Blocking up front
The Giants’ offensive line has been an adventure in 2022. Andrew Thomas has been the great constant, while everything to his right has been in flux. But things have definitely improved down the stretch. Jon Feliciano has joined Thomas in the top 10 of ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate for his position. Ben Bredeson took the majority of the snaps at left guard against the Vikings and has improved significantly this year.
The right side of the line has been considerably rougher. Evan Neal is going through rookie growing pains at right tackle, while Mark Glowinski has been something of a disappointment as a veteran signing to stabilize right guard. The Giants will be facing the best pass rush in the NFL this weekend, as the Eagles lead the NFL in sacks with 70 and pressure rate (25.5 percent). Neal was the only Giants’ starter to play in the Week 18 game against the Eagles’ defensive starters, and he struggled mightily with a pair of false start penalties and pressures in his 32 snaps.
The Eagles could have their healthiest pass rush this season (more on that in a bit) this year, and the Giants will likely need to help out their blocking on the right side.
We’ve talked before about ways in which the Giants can help out their pass protection. The first is to keep their running back and (or) tight end back as pass protectors outright, have them deliver chips as they release into routes. The Giants can also use play-action to force the Eagles to honor their run fits. We talked about the impact of 21 personnel on a defense above, and it also tends to make play-action more effective as well.
If the Eagles use their zone coverage schemes against the Giants, that should allow their quick-game passing plays to get the ball out of Daniel Jones’ hand before pass rushers can get to him. That can lead to short gains and the offense can struggle to gain traction, but even a short gain is better than a loss.
The Giants could also use Jones’ legs to slow down the Eagles’ pass rush. As mentioned above, Kafka has designed a number of passing plays to use a receiver (usually Saquon Barkley) to clear out defenders and create space over the middle of the field. The Giants’ pass blocking schemes also help create running lanes when Jones pulls the ball down and scrambles.
Often times we see the Giants’ linemen shunt blockers around the pocket and toward the line of scrimmage. When it works, that creates an opening at the peak of the pocket through which Jones can run and pick up yardage where the defender covering the Giants’ running back has been removed. When edge defenders loop inside and don’t keep outside contain, the Giants’ tackles take outside leverage on them and seal the edge. Even though Neal still struggled some against the Vikings’ pass rushers, he did a good job of securing scrambling lanes. Seven of Jones’ 17 runs came outside of the right tackle, leading to 51 yards on the ground.
Ideally, the Giants won’t need to go to great lengths to help their pass protection. However, Eagles’ pass rush is formidable and they’re one of the few teams that truly can send waves of pass rushers after quarterbacks and stress every gap.
This game could hinge on whether or not the Giants can keep the Eagles’ defense from asserting itself and dictating the flow of the game.
Eyes on the injury reports
Health has played a major role throughout the Giants’ season. The coaches have had to navigate a constantly shifting roster and while putting depth players in position to succeed. For the most part, they’ve done so brilliantly, but the playoffs against a formidable opponent aren’t the time when you want to be dealing with injuries.
Most of the Giants’ injury report is on the defensive side of the ball, and while something to be aware of, they aren’t relevant to our purposes here.
But Isaiah Hodgins popping up on the injury report has to get our attention. Hodgins has emerged as a key cog in the Giants’ passing offense. As mentioned above, his route running, catch radius, and reliable hands have made him Daniel Jones’ most reliable receiving option.
Hodgins has become a — or perhaps “the” — focal point of the Giants’ passing attack, and he was excellent in the first meeting between these two teams.
Hodgins’ ability to run routes with precision, executing precise breaks despite his size and using those to sell double-moves, has made him a threat to even elite cornerbacks. The first time these the Giants played the Eagles, Hodgins repeatedly burned James Bradberry.
The Giants will need to put up points to pressure — or keep up with — the Eagles’ offense in this game. Hodgins making himself available quickly to Jones in the quick game, as well as down the field for explosive plays will likely be key to that. Likewise, Hodgins had several key blocks on the edge in the running game. If Hodgins’ ankle injury is limiting, that could not only impact his route running and ability in the passing game, but also his blocking on off-tackle, outside zone runs, or screen plays.
On the flip side, the Giants need to monitor several (potentially) key injuries on the Eagles’ defense.
The most notable of them is edge defender Josh Sweat. Sweat suffered a scary neck injury in the first quarter of the Eagles’ Week 17 loss to the New Orleans Saints. That injury saw him taken off the field on a stretcher and to a local hospital. Fortunately the injury looked worse than it actually was, and he was released later that night. Sweat returned to practice last week and currently isn’t on the injury report — however, we don’t know whether he will be on a snap count or a full-go for the game.
Likewise, veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn is dealing with a back injury and was (projected as) limited on Tuesday. Quinn played in the season finale after being activated off of the injured reserve, but he only played 18 snaps. He had a couple explosive rushes, but he was also playing against the Giants’ second and third-string linemen. Like Sweat, Quinn is expected to play, but if he and Sweat are both limited in how many snaps they’re able to play, that will put more on Haason Reddick and Brandon Graham against the Giants’ starting offensive line.
Finally we have Avonte Maddox, who has popped up in each of these previews of the Eagles’ defense. Maddox is one of the better slot corners in the NFL, but has missed eight games this year with injuries. Most recently, he suffered a “significant” toe injury against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 26 and was considered to be out indefinitely. He was listed as “did not practice” in the Eagles’ Tuesday walkthrough. It’s reportedly a “longshot” that Maddox will play, likely forcing Josiah Scott into the starting lineup as slot corner.
Scott has given up 68.8 percent completion, 13.6 yards per completion (9.6 per target) and three touchdowns despite playing just 37 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps. There are few enough weaknesses in Philly’s defense, but Scott presents a potential target for Daboll, Kafka, and Jones to try and isolate and attack.
The loss of Maddox might be minimized by the return of safety C.J. Gardener-Johnson from the injured reserve. Gardner-Johnson returned to the field for the season-finale and played all 63 defensive snaps against the Giants’ reserve offense. The combination of safeties Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Epps, and Reed Blankenship could allow the Eagles supplement Scott in the slot. However, the presence of a reserve corner or safety in the slot presents an opportunity that Mike Kafka won’t hesitate to exploit.