It doesn’t take a football genius to see that the first seven games of the New York Giants 2017 season have fallen way below expectations.
But for those who believe that the Giants fall from grace after establishing an 11-5 regular-season record last year despite having a first-time head coach and a revamped defense was a result of strictly believing the preseason hype that had the Giants headed to the Super Bowl before they even played a down this season, it’s not quite that simple.
“I don’t think you can point to just one thing,” said head coach Ben McAdoo, when asked about general manager Jerry Reese’s comments made last week that the team might have bought into its preseason hype.
“Just like each and every game, there are a variety of things that happen in a game that puts you on a path to either winning or losing the ball game and the same can be said for a season. So, it’s difficult to point to just one thing and say it’s just one thing. We have to be careful of doing that.”
No, it’s not just one thing. You can point to the injury factor, particularly at receiver, though it does need to be noted that the Giants were winless before the great receiver wipe-out of 2017 occurred.
You also need to point to the continued struggles of the offense to score and sustain plays and the recent struggles of the defense to protect leads and close out games as other factors.
What about the hunger or lack thereof, which Reese suggested was part of the mix?
“Were we a hungry enough football team?” McAdoo asked. “You can make a case that we weren’t. But, that’s just part of it. It’s not just one thing.”
Now that’s out of the way, the question is what have McAdoo and the Giants done to fix the issues?
“We wanted to look at different things,” he said. “First thing was personnel–wanted to make sure we were using our players the right way. Is there an opportunity moving forward for us to interject maybe some younger players or even some veteran players into different roles that we haven’t been using them?
“Wanted to take a look at things schematically–the schemes that have been working, the things that haven’t been working and emphasizing what’s been working for us and the things that haven’t been working, either throw them out or is it a quick fix. Is it something we can fix over the second half of the year being smart with our time?”
After a careful study, McAdoo said there would be come changes made to personnel deployment and to scheme, but also added that at this point, any changes made wouldn’t necessarily be wholesale.
“There will be some subtle changes, but, again, our players are our players,” he said. “We have good players. We have to put them in a position to be successful on Sunday.”
As usual, McAdoo didn’t go into detail as to what changes might be coming. Based though on the first seven games of the season, here are a few possibilities for both scheme and personnel changes that might be worth a look moving forward.
Scheme Fix: Stick with the Running Game
Now that this team finally has something of a running game, you would think that they would strive to create more balance.
That hasn’t always been the case and it’s maddening, especially when the game is still close enough to where turning full-time to the passing game isn’t necessarily warranted.
What the Giants have in essence done by giving up on the run prematurely is make things easier for the opposing defense by making themselves one-dimensional.
There are a couple of examples worth citing here. The first is the Giants’ last game when they once again gave up on trying to run the ball in favor of the pass.
According to the final game stats, the Giants attempted 39 passes and just 17 runs, showing favoritism toward the passing game as early as the third quarter when they were only down by a field goal.
Want numbers? Of their 22 third-quarter plays, six were rushing attempts, again, this with the Giants down by three points in the game.
An earlier example of this came in Week 4 against the Bucs in which the Giants finished with 49 pass attempts and 28 rushing attempts.
After falling behind 13-0, the Giants started to shave points off the Bucs’ lead. In the second half of that game, despite the point leader never being up more than five points, the Giants ran just 12 times and passed 20 over the game’s final 30 minutes.
Balanced offenses usually win games. The Giants’ continued insistence on being a passing team, especially these days with an inexperienced receivier corps, some of whom probably won’t be on the roster next year, needs to be reconsidered.
Scheme Fix: Run More Rushing Plays to the Right
While on the topic of the Giants running game, let’s look at how it’s fared this season in terms of direction.
According to official league statistics, The Giants per carry averages when rushing to the left side of the formation are as follows: 2.56 yards (left end), 3.43 yards (left tackle), and 3.63 yards (left guard).
When rushing to the right side, the averages are as follows: 3.0 (right guard), 5.53 (right tackle) and 5.45 (right end).
(For those wondering, they are averaging 4.38 yards when rushing behind center.)
Now while these averages aren’t true representations of how the various offensive linemen are run blocking—for example, there might be a play or two in which current left guard John Jerry pulls over to the right side to open a hole for the running back—the point here is that the Giants have had far better success when running right.
Yet so far, they’ve attempted 57 rushing attempts to the left side of the formation versus just 34 to the right side (and 56 up the gut).
As mentioned in the previous section, there is the concern about becoming one-dimensional in the running game if they run most of their plays to one side, so I’m not necessarily advocating that. I am, however, suggesting they run a better balance that favors the right side as much as the middle given the success they’ve managed to have.
Scheme Fix: Use More 3 Safeties in Coverage
In 2016, the Giants pass defense allowed 251.1 passing yards per game, 10th in the NFL.
This year, the Giants are allowing an average of 7.6 more yards per game (258.7) which has them 27th in the league and a long, long way from the current holder of 10th place in the league, the Arizona Cardinals (246.9 yards per game).
The problems with the pass defense span from inside to out, but the biggest culprit from a statistical perspective has been the linebackers who, per Pro Football Focus, have allowed 48 of 65 pass targets to be completed for 561 yards and four touchdowns.
Injuries certainly haven’t helped in this instance as the Giants’ two best cover linebackers, Jonathan Casillas and Keenan Robinson have missed games.
Inside linebacker B.J. Goodson, who earlier in the year remained on the field during coverage situations when Robinson was recovering from a concussion, has also struggled with coverage.
Per Pro Football Focus, Goodson has allowed 19 receptions out of 28 pass targets (67.85 completion percentage and 10 yards per pass attempt) for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns, a 124.1 NFL Rating.
Given the struggles of the linebacker’s, one potential fix could be to incorporate more three-safety looks. Adding a third safety versus say a third cornerback gives the Giants protection as well, should the opponent switch to a running play.
It also gives the Giants defense more speed and instincts on the field than what they’ve been getting out of their linebackers in coverage.
Personnel Fix: Get Shane Vereen Back Involved on Third Down
If the Giants aren’t planning to trade running back Shane Vereen, who is in the final year of his contract (and we doubt that he is on the block regardless of how much it might make sense), they might want to consider getting him more involved on third-down.
Thus far, Vereen has only been entrusted with the ball in his hands nine times on third-down, rushing five times for 20 yards and catching four passes for 11 yards.
Going back to 2015—we’re tossing out 2016 since he spent most of the year on injured reserve with a torn triceps injury—Vereen handled the ball 27 times on third down, rushing 53 yards on 10 carries with 5 first-down conversions and catching 17 passes for 168 yards with 2 touchdown receptions.
With the Giants struggling to sustain drives, having Vereen contribute more on third down certainly can’t make things any worse.
Personnel Fix: Increase TE Rhett Ellison’s Role in the Passing Game
It’s all well and good that rookie tight end Evan Engram is exceeding expectations so far. But the Giants must be careful that they don’t put all their eggs in the rookie’s basket for the main reason that eventually, opposing defenses are going to figure out how to minimize Engram’s impact on the game, just as was the case in the past when teams figured out how to minimize Odell Beckham Jr’s impact when it became obvious that he was the go-to in the receiving game.
Since the Giants kept four tight ends on the roster, they might want to consider using another one of that group—veteran Rhett Ellison—to help in the passing game.
So far, Ellison has six receptions (out of eight pass targets) for 50 yards and 1 touchdown. Per Pro Football Focus, Ellison has run 87 pass routes this year. Given how infrequently he has been targeted when he does go out on a route, opposing defenses don’t’ have to devote as much attention to him.
That needs to change. No, Ellison doesn’t necessarily have to become the Giants leading receiver, but considering he is being targeted a little more than one time per game, maybe upping those targets to two or three times per game might make opposing defenses think twice about how they deploy their coverage against the Giants.
Over the last three years, Ellison, whom the Giants signed last offseason to a 4-year, $18 million contract, has averaged 13 receptions for 130 yards and 1 touchdown, while averaging 10 yards per reception. Last year with the Vikings, Ellison made his mark more so on first down, where he caught five balls for 47 yards, converting two into a first down.