A lot of things have gone right for the New York Giants in 2016. Running the ball was not one of them. During the regular season, the Giants had the 26th-ranked rushing offense by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). But there’s been a bit of a resurgence on the ground over the last few weeks of the regular season.
In the past three weeks, the Giants have put up three of their top five games of the season in total rushing yards. Now total rushing yards -- or total yards in any sense -- isn’t the best way to judge performance, but in a season when the rushing yards haven’t been there at all, it’s a positive sign to see them show up in some way. The three opponents the Giants faced also weren’t the toughest run defenses in the league. By DVOA, the three teams ranked 23rd, 14th, and 25th. But even given the quality of opponent, there were positives signs to take away.
The start of this run coincides with the return of Justin Pugh at left guard. Pugh’s return as one of the better guards in the league certainly upgrades that position on the field, but his return to the lineup has not been a magical cure-all for the run game. Running directly behind Pugh over the past three weeks has actually been one of the least efficient parts of the offense on the ground and well below the production during the weeks he was out. On 17 run plays directionally labeled “left guard” from Week 15-17 the Giants have averaged just 2.88 yards per carry. During Weeks 10-14 when Pugh was out of the lineup, the Giants ran for 4.89 yards per carry on 27 attempts.
This isn’t to say Pugh isn’t an upgrade to the line or that the blocking is better without him -- far from it. But there is more to upgrading the run game than putting back one piece of the offensive line. It also shows how random and non-predictive yards per carry can be.
The offensive line, in general, has struggled this season. It ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns weighted responsibility to the line for each rushing attempt. Where the line exceeded expectations was in power situations -- runs on third and fourth down with two yards or less to go. The Giants ranked 14th there and ninth in Stuffed Rate -- the ability to keep the running back from being stopped behind the line.
While the running game didn’t feature a lot of negative plays, it didn’t produce many big plays, either. The Giants ranked 29th in both second-level and open field yards, which measures how often a back can get past the linebackers and beyond. Some of that has to do with how well the line blocks, some has to do with how well a back can create on his own. That second part has been one of the biggest parts in propelling the running game over the past few weeks.
In this regard, there’s been a significant difference in the play between Paul Perkins and Rashad Jennings in the backfield. Perkins is coming off his first 100-yard rushing day against Washington and just the second game this season in which he’s out-carried Jennings. Though there’s been a fairly even split of carries between the two over the past few weeks, the production gap hasn’t been close. Over the past three games, Jennings has carried the ball 45 times for 134 yards (2.98 yards per carry), while Perkins has 47 carries for 226 yards (4.81 yards per carry). Production over the full season hasn’t been much different. Among 42 running backs with at least 100 carries this year, Perkins ranks 26th in DVOA, while Jennings is 39th.
Jennings has been a solid back for the Giants, but with him in the backfield, what’s given is typically what’s gotten. The vet rarely shows the ability to create yards on his own and with the current play of the offensive line, that can be a problem.
On the first play of the game against the Detroit Lions in Week 15, the Giants called a run behind the returning Pugh. Before the snap, Will Tye motioned into the backfield to a typical fullback’s position and served as the lead blocker for Jennings. At the snap, Pugh and Weston Richburg double-teamed the defensive tackle as Tye moved into the gap to take on the linebacker. Jennings hit the small hole and was able to gain six yards on his first carry of the game, but it would be his longest run of the day.
Many other plays for Jennings that day looked like the following. Jennings took the handoff and was assigned to hit the gap between the right tackle and right guard. The blocking pushed those two linemen to the left as Pugh, the left guard, pulled to take out linebacker DeAndre Levy (54). Jennings saw this unfold yet stayed disciplined to a fault by hitting that gap. With a bounce outside, Jennings could have had some running room to the right of Pugh, but instead he found himself right in Levy’s grasp for a gain of only two yards.
It’s hard to fault Jennings for following the design of the play, but it’s instances like that which show the differences between him and Perkins.
Take this run from Perkins in the same game. The Giants line up in shotgun and at the snap, Perkins is supposed to hit a hole between John Jerry and Bobby Hart. But when Perkins arrives, both defenders are filling the hole Perkins intended to hit. Rather than brace for impact, Perkins cut to his right and continued his run outside as the next hole filled up with defenders, too. Perkins created a little space on his own and gained 10 yards on a run that otherwise could have been stopped immediately.
Against Philadelphia in Week 16 both backs had big runs during the game, but they came in different ways. On Philadelphia’s 45, Jennings lined up as the single back. At the snap, Pugh moved right to take on one of the two linebackers in the middle of the field, while Jerry pulled across left to take the defensive tackle. Left tackle Ereck Flowers also moved up to a linebacker, which created a hole that allowed Jennings to run straight downhill before he’s stopped 22 yards downfield by a safety.
Perkins’s play came from the Giants’ own five-yard line. The play is designed so the offensive line draws the defenders to the right, while opening up a cutback lane for Perkins on his left. The play works to perfection and as Perkins ran to the line, he was able to jump cut his way to the cutback lane and run for a gain of 20. While that cut was designed, it’s the exact skill that makes Perkins the most dangerous option in the backfield. It’s a skill that could make him special. It’s almost like unlocking a whole other subset of the playbook, if McAdoo’s diner menu of plays is possible to expand.
At the very least, that agility will allow Perkins to make something out of what otherwise could be nothing. Near the end zone against Detroit, Perkins took a handoff as the single back. He was assigned the gap between Pugh and Richburg, but A’Shawn Robinson forced his way through Pugh’s block. The guard recovered enough to get himself inside of Robinson, but Perkins’ side step allowed him to avoid contact with Robinson and hit the hole for a four-yard gain.
For another play deep in the Giants’ own territory against the Eagles, the Giants lined up in a full house formation with two tight ends in the backfield along with Perkins. With eight offensive players and the quarterback bunched so close together, it allows the defense to also get close to the line. Eight Eagles defenders are lined up in the box. Typically crammed formations like this are used on third- or fourth-and-short, and the offense tries to get all of its blockers as close as possible. But since the defense can do the same, there’s usually no advantage given to the offense and runs can be stopped almost immediately up the middle.
On this play, though, Perkins again used that jump step as he approached a line with no leverage. As he bounced outside, he was able to slip a tackle from Brandon Graham before being taken down following a gain of four yards.
That gain of four was followed by another and then a gain of nine, which put the Giants near their own 20 on three Perkins runs from the 2.
Perkins also has the ability to use that cut further down the field, which lets him gain some extra yards. He adds that to patience and vision to get the most out of his runs. In this next run against Washington in Week 17, Perkins took the handoff and his intended hole was immediately filled by a safety. But, Perkins noticed an opening on the opposite side of Pugh, who was already blocking downfield and the back lured the safety just long enough into the first hole so Perkins could bounce around Pugh and gain a few extra yards.
Even with this jump cut, Perkins is not otherworldly when breaking tackles. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Perkins averaged a broken tackle on 14.2 percent of his touches this season -- around the average for backs. But where that makes a difference is the advantage over Jennings. Jennings averaged a broken tackle on 7.4 percent of his touches, which was the second-worst among backs with at least 50 touches. Only San Diego’s Kenneth Farrow, the Chargers’ third running back to start this season, was worse at 7.1 percent.
With Jennings’ inability to make defenders miss, it’s hard to see him getting consistent production behind this line -- something that’s been the case all season. It’s clear he just doesn’t have the athleticism of Perkins, which is more about the rookie than a knock on Jennings.
Against Washington, Jennings tried a jump cut to bounce to the outside, but the play was stopped quickly for a gain of just two. Part of the play was Larry Donnell allowing his defender to get to the outside after the cut, but it was also the slow process in Jennings’ feet. Watch as he makes his cut and how many steps it takes for him to change direction -- three, maybe four. Now go back above and watch any of Perkins’ cuts and there’s a noticeable difference.
Let’s end here on what might be Perkins’s most impressive run of the season from Week 17. Perkins is lined up in shotgun, and again he has a first hole getting plugged by a safety. Like how a quarterback can manipulate a safety with his eyes, Perkins does the same thing on this run. He stared down the hole and the safety just long enough to make him commit, then bounced to the outside for a gain of 22.
If the Giants are going to make a deep playoff run, the offense is going to have to help the defense out a bit. That’s going to need to come both through the air and on the ground. The passing game has gotten bailed out at times thanks to big plays from Odell Beckham Jr. The best chance for that to happen on the ground comes with Paul Perkins on the field.