New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan believes that despite the team’s winless start, the team’s offense has begun to turn the corner.
Speaking with reporters during his weekly press conference, Sullivan pointed to the offense’s resiliency and improvement in specific areas that were previously an issue as benchmarks for measuring improvement.
“I think two weeks in a row, we’ve had some early adversity and some early setbacks, often self-inflicted. And yet, have been able to re-group, come together and find ways to put ourselves in position to win,” he said.
A quick glance at some of the problematic areas for the Giants—scoring, third-down and more which we’ll cover in a moment, do indeed show progress.
However, there are a couple of caveats that need mentioning. The first, is the return to semi health by receiver Odell Beckham Jr., inactive in Week 1 and who was on a pitch count in the second game. Love him or hate him, Beckham really does make a difference in this offense.
The second caveat is that the Giants have played two defenses, the Eagles and the Bucs, who were banged up.
With all that said, a team still needs to get out there, lineup and snap the ball. Although the Giants are off to an 0-4 start, any progress is good progress, regardless of how it came about.
But has there really been progress? Yes and no–read on for the breakdown on where the offense has made strides and where it still has a lot of work to do.
This is probably the most obvious area of improvement. In their first two games the Giants scored 13 points, or 6.5 points per game.
In their last two, they have scored 47 points, or 23.5 points per game. None of these points, by the way, have come on special teams or defensive plays—it’s been all on the offense.
The Giants’ 23.5 points per game, by the way, isn’t too far off from the 26.2 points per game they scored in 2015, when they finished with the eighth-best scoring offense in the league that year.
Granted, it’s only been two games, a very small sample size for this year, but if they can somehow keep up the pace, they could get back to being a scoring machine.
Third Down Conversions
In their first two games, the Giants were 8 of 24 on third down (33.3 percent). In their last two games, they’ve converted 11 of 27 third-down attempts (40.7 percent).
What changed? Simply put, they did a better job on first and second down.
In their first two games, the Giants averaged 4.4 yards gained on first down and 4.5 yards gained on second down. In their last two, those numbers rose to 5.5 yards on first down and 6.6 yards on second. that meant on third down, the distance was a lot shorter, and left the Giants with more options on what pay to run.
As for third down, in the first two games, the Giants had 17 conversion attempts of six or more yards; in 10 of those attempts, they needed at least 10 yards to go.
In the last two games, the Giants have had just seven third-down conversion attempts of 6 or more yards, five of which required 10 or more yards.
They’ve Run the Ball Better
Although the Giants still haven’t run a balanced offensive attack, what they have done better the last two games is run the ball.
In their first two games, the Giants ran for 87 yards on 30 carries (2.9 yards per carry). To put that yardage into perspective, the 87 total yards is four yards shy of what they recorded last week alone. Add in Week 3’s rushing figures, and the Giants have 140 yards on the ground on 45 carries (3.1 yards per carry).
There are a couple of things which may or may not be at the root of the improvement, so here goes anyway.
First, the offensive line configuration changed thanks to the injury to right tackle Bobby Hart, who’s been out of the lineup Weeks 3 and 4. Justin Pugh has moved from left guard to right tackle, where he’s lined up alongside of John Jerry in Week 3 and D.J. Fluker last week.
As a result, the Giants more than doubled their rushing productivity on runs executed to the right side (right guard, right tackle and right end), jumping from 15 total yards in the first two games to 32 yards in the last two.
What about the left side, you ask? In the first two games, they racked up 57 yards running behind the left end, left tackle or left guard. In the last two games? Nine yards.
“From a run game standpoint, there is no doubt about it we got to get better,” Sullivan said. “We got a long way to go, but we made some strides.”
The other thing that has helped is the surge running backs like Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Gallman have provided that starter Paul Perkins has not.
People like to point at the offensive line for the reason the Giants running game has struggled, but they are at a loss to explain why or how Gallman (3.8 yards per carry) and Darkwa (4.1 yards per carry) are able to have better numbers than Perkins (1.9 yards per carry) despite working behind the same offensive line.
Perkins has looked hesitant back there, which has resulted in creases closing quickly. Darkwa and Gallman have better vision and both hit the holes a lot quicker and harder than Perkins.
They’ve also been harder to bring down. Per Pro Football Focus, Darkwa and Gallman are averaging 2.15 and 2.09 yards after contact per rushing attempt, respectively. Perkins is dead last in this category, at 1.28 yards after contact per rushing attempt.
Sullivan likes what Gallman has brought to the table.
“We saw things that he could do in the preseason, and he had some flashes. You had a sense that – often times it may not have necessarily been exactly how we wanted it done, he’s a rookie, he may make a few mistakes, but there was a spark,” he said.
“I think he had his opportunities last Sunday and did some very nice things for us. Has a great attitude, he’s had a very good week of practice and we’ll see how it transpires.”
Passing Game Improvement
In their first two games, the Giants completed 51 of 70 pass attempts (72.9 percent) for 406 yards.
In their last two, they are 65 of 96 (67.7 percent) for 654 yards, this thanks to a tweak made to the scheme by the coaching staff in which Eli Manning now gets rid of the ball almost as soon as it is delivered by the center.
The drawback of this approach is that Manning barely has time to drop back into a 5- or 7-step drop to allow for the deep stuff down the field to develop. As a result, this tends to make the passing offense a bit easier to defend because opposing defensive coordinators can eliminate certain pass routes from the Giants anticipated game plan.
Stay tuned for more on the offense’s “predictability” in a moment.
So Close and Yet So Far Away…
Despite all the improvements, there are still a number of things that are bringing the Giants offense down. These include…
Not Scoring in the First Quarter
This is perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of them all, a classic case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, or in this case, what’s to blame, the execution or the play calling or both?
First, a little history. The last time the Giants scored a touchdown in the first quarter of a game was on Dec. 8, 2016, when Eli Manning connected with receiver Sterling Shepard on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 9:23 left in the first quarter.
If you’re talking about the last time the Giants scored at all in the first quarter, you’d have to go back to the 2016 regular-season finale when then kicker Robbie Gould booted a 22-yard field goal.
Since then, the Giants have run 63 plays through four games in the first quarter, separated into 10 drives. Their first three drives of 2016 were three-and-outs, ending in a punt—four out of the 10 first-quarter drives ending in punts thus far.
“I think any coach would tell you that any play, or any series that’s a three-and-out, or there’s a turnover, or anything that sets you back, and failing to come away [with points] down their tight towards the red zone and not getting a touchdown, that’s all disappointing,” said Sullivan.
Except for last week against the Bucs, the Giants were grossly outmuscled in time of possession, where they averaged just a little more than six minutes of possession in the game’s first 15 minutes.
The causes behind the stalled drives have ranged from failure to execute to questionable coaching decisions, but Sullivan says that the slow start all has a common theme.
“I think a big part of it is the communication with the players and just shooting straight and just taking a look at ourselves and saying, ‘You know what? There’s been some difficult and challenging things we’ve been able to do later in games. Yet, early in the games, there’s some simple and routine things. Whether it’s catching the ball, throwing the ball, making a block, etc. that we haven’t done,’” he said.
How do they fix it?
“Make it that point of emphasis and really just discussing it and bringing it to light and just say, ‘Wow, if we can take what we do in the second half and get better at doing the easier things, that’s going to help us not have to be playing from behind.’”
Increase in Dropped Passes (and the Notion of Being Predictable)
If it looks like the Giants are dropping more balls than they did last year, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.
Using the dropped passes data from Pro Football Focus for the Giants running backs, tight ends and receivers and pulling that data from the first four games of 2016 to compare with the first four games of 2017, the Giants have dropped 10 percent of their catchable passes this year, an increase from the 8.1 percent combined drop rate from the first four games of last year.
Why the increase?
Take it away, Odell!
“I was talking to coach (Ben McAdoo) and the routes that we’re running and the DB’s – I talked to them after the game. They were like, ‘We know you’re running a certain route.’ So, it was just me putting extra onto a route, just trying to create more space and I kind of have to trust myself more in the sense that when I make my break, not everybody is going to be able to come out and close that little gap. So, there’s a split second where you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re coming on your back.’”
Both McAdoo and Sullivan downplayed the possibility that the offense was too predictable, instead giving credit to the scouting work done by the opponent in figuring things out.
Sullivan even went so far as to take a back-handed swipe at Hargreaves for suggesting the Giants offense was predictable by saying, “I know that we were able to get almost 400 yards of offense in the game, and no turnovers and a couple touchdown passes, one that put us ahead near the end of the game.
“And also, the player that [Beckham] was talking to was actually the same player that Odell beat on a 42-yard double move. So, I don’t know how much stock I would take in those type of accusations, if you will, as far as what opponents would say.”
Let’s spend a few minutes on the notion of the Giants offense being too predictable.
According to data provided for this analysis by Pro Football Focus, there has been a lack of balance in the routes each receiver is asked to run. For example, of Brandon Marshall’s 29 pass targets so far, 10 have been the hitch route. Of Beckham’s 33 targets, he’s run 9 slants, 9 hitches, and 6 go-routes.
The most frequently run route on which a Giants receiver was targeted? Again, through four games and using PFF’s data for just the receivers alone, it breaks down as follows: 98 pass targets, 26 hitches (26.5 percent of the pass targets), 19 slants (19.4 percent of the pass targets) and 14 go routes (14.3 percent of the pass targets).
Maybe that’s not “predictable” in the true sense of the word, but given those stats, it would be easy to see why an opponent would opine that the Giants passing game is easy to prepare for.
What about the dropped passes? In reviewing some of the drops, it looks as though those guilty of having butter fingers have made the same mistake, and that is they failed to look the ball all the way in before trying to make a move up field.
Receivers coach Adam Henry agreed, saying, “It’s a little concentration. Also, you know, trying to do too much, trying to make a play before you secure the catch.”
How do you fix that?
“Go back to basics,” he said. “You have to work on those things. Just not pressing–just let the plays come to you.”
The Offensive Line
We can’t have a breakdown of the Giant offense without discussing the offensive line.
This unit, remember, was all set to hang its hat on continuity, a concept that went out the window when injuries started popping up. We were also fed optimism from management and the coaching staff that the starting tackles, Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, would be improved given their decision to spend time in the weight room over the offseason.
Moreover, the depth across the board was supposed to be better this year, only for that notion to go out the window when it became necessary for the coaching staff to move multiple players around when an injury occurred.
Earlier in this analysis, I mentioned the running game and the effect of the offensive line on that part of the offense. Let’s now focus on the passing game.
Per PFF, the Giants offensive line has allowed 49 pressures (sacks, hits and hurries), the 11th most in the league thus far, and a total that amounts to a 78.2 pass-blocking efficiency.
In the first two weeks, the Giants were ranked sixth by PFF as having surrendered 29 quarterback pressures, seven of which were sacks.
Since the coaching staff decided to expedite Eli Manning’s delivery of the ball, things have gotten a little better–the Giants have allowed just 20 total pressures, none of which have been sacks over these last two games.
At this point, it would be a major surprise if the Giants make a trade for an offensive lineman, and that includes holdout Duane Brown of the Texans.
For starters, a trade for Brown would likely require giving up premium draft picks that this Giants team cannot afford to give up, not unless they were one player away from making a run, which they are not.
Secondly, Brown is reportedly seeking a pay raise that would put him somewhere in the $10-$100 million range., a tight squeeze to fit into this year’s cap considering all the contracts of the guys who made the 53-man roster are locked in and whatever cap money left is needed for emergencies such as filling roster holes that result due to injuries (of which the Giants have quite a few more than they did last year).
While I don’t want to get too deep into setting up the cap situation for next year just yet, there are at least three moves I could see the Giants making that would open up over $14 million in space in addition to whatever ends up being left from the current cap space amount (listed as $9,514,471 by the NFLPA), a total that will be adjusted once all the year-end accounting–roster bonuses, incentives, etc.–are all calculated and applied toward whatever space ends up being left when the regular season ends.
Even if the Giants do create more cap space next year with an eye on landing a premium offensive lineman, will it be enough to take care of Beckham, Pugh, Richburg and Kennard, just to name a few and address some of these glaring holes via free agency?
The Calvary isn’t coming to rescue this team, nor does it look as though the head coach is planning to relinquish his play calling duties any time soon.
So where does that leave the league’s 19th ranked offense? Like the rest of the team, hopeful that the coaches’ decision to simplify things, which McAdoo said Friday includes “playing faster, tackling better, blocking better, (and) catching better” start yielding the desired results.
“I think we ramped up the effort, the accountability from players to coaches and coaches to players, holding each other accountable has been a big part of it,” McAdoo said. “And the intensity has gone up, for sure.”
It’s time to put up or shut up.