The New York Giants coaching staff always spends a good portion of the bye week in self-study.What has worked for the Giants? What hasn't? What tendencies need to be broken? What adjustments can they make, personnel-wise or schematically, to improve the team's chance of success?
One area the Giants looked hard at was the red zone, where they are 25th in the league (16-of-34, 44.4 percent) in touchdown efficiency on offense. That's well below the league average of 55.09 touchdowns in the red zone.
"Tremendous amount of time spent on it and a tremendous amount of thoughts based on it," head coach Tom Coughlin said Monday when players returned to work.
We touched on some ideas for red zone improvement earlier this week. Let's expand on some of those.
Get Shane Vereen more involved
Pro Football Focus recently pointed out that Vereen has run only five pass routes all season with the Giants within four yards of a touchdown. He has been targeted three times, and all three have resulted in touchdowns. How about a little more of that?
Vereen is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield and a matchup nightmare for teams, especially with their goal line packages on the field. The Giants need to find ways to take advantage of that more often.
More Orleans Darkwa (and less Andre Williams)
I recently made the case for Darkwa, the second-year back from Tulane who has been excellent this season in limited opportunities, to get more playing time. I wrote that "giving Darkwa an expanded opportunity seems like the best option" for boosting the team's struggling running game.
It might also be a way to add some play-making capability to the red zone attack. It seems like I'm picking on Williams here, and while I probably am this is really meant to advocate for Darkwa rather than be critical of Williams. Fact is, Darkwa is more versatile than Williams. Remember that at the end of last season the Giants were beginning to use Darkwa as their pass-catching third-down back -- the role Vereen now has. Darkwa offers the Giants more options to involve him by either running or passing, whereas if Williams is in the game in goal line situations you can be almost certain he is there so the Giants can hand him the ball and send him crashing up the middle.
Dig a little deeper into the playbook
A year ago, the Giants had success early in the season by throwing fade routes for touchdowns. Then, unfortunately, Ben McAdoo and Eli Manning seemed to get fixated on them. It seems like every goal line series included one -- or several -- fade routes.
This year, the play du jour seems to be the pick route. Usually involving Dwayne Harris as either the intended target or the "rub" receiver trying to free a teammate, the play has been a staple of the Giants near the goal line this season. They are good at it and have used the play successfully a number of times. You can only go to the well so many times, however. When the Giants tried the play late in their game against the New England Patriots, the Pats corners were all over it. They had seen it enough times to know it was coming based on formation, etc.
The Giants would be well served to put the pick route in their pocket for a while and try something else. Maybe even a fade route.
Run the football
This is easier said than done at this point in the season. The Giants average 3.77 yards per carry (28th) and 95.0 yards per game (26th) overall. The struggles to run the ball show up in the red zone. The Giants have just three rushing touchdowns, and only the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers (two) and Jacksonville Jaguars (one) have fewer. By extension, the Giants are 27th in the league in rushing first down percentage at 22.49 percent.
So, can they improve that? It won't be easy, especially with the possibility that starting guard Justin Pugh (concussion) and starting center Weston Richburg (high ankle sprain) could be sidelined this week.
The Giants don't have a true blocking tight end. They have an inexperienced fullback. They have an offensive line, even at full strength, that seems to run block better when Pugh and Richburg can pull and lead rather than drive block straight ahead, which is what happens on the goal line.
More Darkwa is one option we have discussed. Another option has to be more use of an additional offensive lineman in place of a tight end. This is not an easy fix with the personnel the Giants have, and I'm not sure how many other options the Giants have. They need, however, to figure out some way to get a yard or two running the ball when they need it.
There is a general theme throughout all of these points. More options, more versatility, less predictability. Darkwa presents more things for a defense to worry about than Williams, who is only going to see a pass come his way as an absolute last resort. He also has a bit more ability to find a tiny crease. Williams excels when he can get north and south, get to the second level and punish defenders, which isn't how things generally work in the red zone.
Use Vereen more. With Larry Donnell returning, make sure Donnell and Will Tye are involved as red zone targets. Use the size of Rueben Randle and even newly-signed Hakeem Nicks.
Coughlin and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo don't need me to tell them they need to be better in the red zone if they want to win the NFC East and reach the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles they add to the offense as they try to accomplish that.