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Spotlight: Weston Richburg and the Giants’ running game

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Could the Giants’ center be the key to Sunday’s game vs. Philadelphia?

NFL: New York Giants at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Come down to it, the game of (American) football is a game of matchups. Sure size, strength, speed, and physicality are part of it; imposing your will on the other team.

But it doesn’t matter how overwhelming your physical talents are if they’re misused. If players are in the wrong spot or their talents aren’t put in the right place to succeed, it doesn’t matter how great they are. Numbers, matchups, and scheme all play a part in whether a team is ultimately successful or not.

Looking ahead to this Sunday when the New York Giants take on the Philadelphia Eagles, I can’t help but think that the game could hinge on a single matchup:

Weston Richburg vs. Fletcher Cox.

The Eagles’ defense has been talented up front for years, but they have been held back by a pair of factors. First was Chip Kelly’s hyper-active offense consistently ranking at the bottom of the league in time of possession. Opposing offenses simply got too many plays against them, and they played too many snaps. Second was the defensive scheme. Under Kelly the Eagles played a 3-4 base defense, forcing players like Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham to play linebacker while Fletcher Cox played defensive end (or nose tackle at times).

This year their offense is one of the league leaders in time of possession and the Eagles have switched to a 4-3 base defense. The 4-3 fits their personnel much better, allowing the explosively powerful Cox to play his natural defensive tackle position alongside Bennie Logan, as well as moving Graham and Curry up to their natural defensive end positions.

Schemed by Jim Schwartz, the Eagles employ a wrinkle of lining his defensive ends up at the 9-technique, or “Wide 9” alignment. It’s called that because both ends would line up outside of the tight end’s outside shoulder, much wider the the 7-technique (or between the offensive tackle and tight end) used by most 4-3 defenses.

As you can see, the Eagles’ defensive front is much more spread out than in previous years. The defensive ends are very wide, and they don’t employ a true nose tackle. Instead, they have shaded Cox (the red rectangle) to the inside shoulder of the guard, or the 2i-technique.

As former Giants’ offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz points out, playing 2i technique is a relatively new fad in the NFL. It is a more aggressive position than the more traditional 0 (nose tackle) or 1-technique. Instead of taking on blockers, the 2i is focused on getting up-field and disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage. It makes the defensive tackle more effective as a pass rusher (Cox is tied for most sacks on the Eagles’ defense with four), and makes it harder for teams to use outside zone runs.

As Schwartz mentions in his article, the 2i technique is better able to shoot the gap between the center and guard than a 0 or 1 technique, and has a much better chance of disrupting the play.

I wanted to know how this change in defensive philosophy would effect what I consider to be one of the key matchups of Sunday’s Giants-Eagles game. For my answer, I turned to offensive line specialist, friend of Big Blue View, and generally awesome guy, Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) for his insight.

Firs,t I asked Duke how Richburg’s matchup against Cox changes with the defender shading to the guard.

“It is very difficult for a center to be able to match up with a "Zero" that possesses the explosive-power, strength and athleticism that Cox has.

“In general with a head-up nose you have to attempt to set in a way that plays into your strength in terms of establishing a post foot and maintain half-man leverage.”

(Note: “Half-man leverage” sees the lineman attack one half of the defender turning him to the side, rather than trying to block him straight on.)

“You can't set and two-hand punch a Zero, so you have to always be in position to create space and have the leverage to use independent hands. Playing versus a "shade" or 2i will allow Richburg to create angles for himself in pass protection he will be able to get "back-and-over" a little cleaner than when he had Cox as a NT. In the run game it also creates better in-line angles for Richburg with Cox being a "shade" or 2i.

“That being said Richburg will need to prepare to see Logan and Allen as NTs. Both of those guys get after it as well.”

It seems as though shading Cox to one side will actually make life easier for Richburg, allowing him to use his mind, technique, and agility more effectively than he was able to do previously.

It won’t be that simple on game day.

Cox is a tremendous player on a talented line, and as Duke points out, the Eagles also have a pair of big, strong nose tackles that Richburg will have to contend with as well. The Eagles will also be sure to mix in enough blitzes and blitz looks to keep the Giants on their toes.

... And About The Running Game?

While the primary concern is pass protection for Eli Manning, the Giants need to get traction in their running game. Last in the league, which the Giants are running the ball, simply isn’t going to cut it. That puts too much pressure on Manning and the wide receivers.

On the Eagles’ side, while the “Wide 9” defensive front easily lends itself to creating havoc in the passing game, its width and aggressive nature makes it susceptible to rushing attacks. The wide spacing that gives the defensive ends such great angles to the quarterback can also create wide lanes for running backs. That is one reason why, despite their talent up front, the Eagles have the 20th-ranked run defense, giving up an average of 109.4 yards per game.

When the Giants have had success running the ball, it has been with a pulling guard in a one-back set. Some of these runs have been semi-traditional power runs (albeit without a fullback), with man blocking and the back-side guard pulling to the play side. But others have been what Schwartz called the “new fashion” in run blocking — using a pulling guard to counter the 2i technique on zone runs.

“As far as scheming in the run game ... The interior OL will need to come to play. (Justin) Pugh has to do a better job getting movement in 1-on-1 situations, that isn't a consistent strong suit for him. Jerry will [need to be] very physical at the point, Jerry is an adequate run blocker, but they need more out of him, especially v. Philly. The key will be to secure the LOS, especially on Zone!

“On Power they need to be physical at the point getting movement on their Deuce Block. Richburg has to execute the back-block for the vacating pulling guard. He has been beaten across his face a few times this year, trying to be too aggressive with that block, last year he was surgical in his execution of back-blocks.”

Final Thoughts

When the Giants have the football in their hands, pay attention to the matchups up front. The Giants will need their running game to show up to help chip away at the Eagles’ league leading time of possession.

It might seem as though the changes to the Eagles’ defensive philosophy actually play to the Giants’ strengths on offense and in blocking. However, nothing is ever as easy as it seems when the Giants and Eagles throw down.

But as Duke said, the Giants’ offensive line will need to come to play. The Eagles’ front is talented and well-coached, so this game within the game could decide the outcome of this divisional showdown.