Pat Shurmur and the Giants: Simple Complexity and Changing the Conversation

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]New head coach Pat Shurmur brings a lot to the historic organization of the New York Giants. On the offensive side of the ball, the conversation starts with two time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning. His career is nearing its end, and he is coming off a disastrous 2017 season. Without diving into the drama of the past, the future with an offensive mind like Shurmur and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula is bright. This is not because Shurmur will reproduce his 2017 Minnesota offense or Shula will mold personnel into what he had in Carolina or Jacksonville. Rather, these are two coaches that have a history of making the most of their personnel.

They do this with supportive play design that exacerbates key players’ strengths and ignores weaknesses. Shurmur really stands out in this regard, particularly from his recent time in Minnesota. He has a history (Sam Bradford in two locations, Case Keenum in Minnesota, Nick Foles in Philadelphia, among others) of instrumenting successful passing attacks under differing offensive styles. Although not a Hall of Fame coach by any stretch at this point and under much different timelines, it is somewhat reminiscent of Don Shula (Mike’s dad) and his 30 year tenure with the Dolphins winning with different styles of play each decade.

This look will be a deep dive into what elements Shurmur will probably bring to the 2018 Giants, and what did not work for quarterback Eli Manning in the previous system. Coaches and their systems evolve and we simply do not know what the future holds, hence the emphasis on probably in the previous sentence. With the second pick overall in the draft coming up in late April, we have little clue yet who the Giants will take, and quite frankly the analysis can still be made without that knowledge. By the conclusion, the reader will see that although a quarterback may be taken with that pick, it is still the judgement that 2018 will be Eli Manning’s’ year in a very positive way.

Running a balanced offensive attack is paramount in this NFL era of flexible and talented defensive personnel who athletically can equal or out match many of even the best offensive players. Coach Shurmur’s media quotes so far have centered on this theme and it’s not just lip service. Last year the Vikings ran the ball 45.9% of the time (5th highest in the NFL), an increase from 37.7% in 2016. These runs were mostly zone based (very focused on inside zone or outside zone with early cuts by the running back to the backside, 60% of their rushes went through the mid-guard area, according to FOA).

Here’s one example of running back Latavius Murray cutting back an outside zone run for a big gain, from Week 7 against the Ravens:

Shurmur frequently started off games with a series of these runs, and sprinkled in “easy” passes for the quarterback: such as RB swing passes and screens, often coming off of play action. Before jumping into that fun topic, Shurmur will also employ a fair amount of delay draws to prey on certain aggressive defensive lines. No better example of this came in the NFC Championship game, where running back Jerick McKinnon took a draw hand off for a substantial gain. It is probably one of the most successful running plays this season where Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Fletcher Cox was single blocked and the run direction was in between the B gaps.

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The passing game really starts with play action and is the most stark difference between Shurmur and past Giant offenses. Last year Minnesota ran play action 26% of the time (2nd in the league) with yards per play on play action of 8.7 (6th). New York, on the other hand, ran it 16% of the time (28th) for 5.9 yards per play (30th).

Some will expect this piece to go on and say Shurmur “established the run to set up play action,” ( the effects of Chris Collinsworth’s broadcasts are widespread). Although examples do exist where this “establishment” happens sequentially on a drive, the NFL is much more rampant with teams that use play action successfully (like the Vikings, and even better New England) independent of that game’s rushing attack. This is not easy to conceptualize, but as always, details emerge when watching the film. Looking at a play from Week 13 against the Falcons, out of 11 personnel, the Vikings used a split-zone type play action design to run a delay screen to the same running back.

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Keenum controlled his body through the play action fake and wide receiver Stefon Diggs’ movement across to fake the split-zone look led to a longer processing time for those on the defense. The effect is a group of second level defenders not playing with speed, and then reacting too quickly, like middle linebacker Deion Jones did, retreating to pick up a fake drag pattern from the backside wide receiver. This almost simple complexity left play side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell as the lone defender to take on three lineman and the ball carrier.

These screens can take on many shapes and sizes. In the same matchup against the Falcons, out of 20 personnel, the Vikings run a real spread look with the receivers, and Shurmur called a double screen:

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This play had multiple options with two sets of players executing screens on both sides of the field. Getting back to pure play action, it can lead to many simple reads and throws to the intermediate level of the field. This is a very misunderstood part of the passing game, and one where Shurmur led his quarterback Case Keenum along very slowly. This is not to diminish the skill set of Keenum, he excelled at many things within Shurmur’s designs. But being a straight drop back passer in this league is very difficult so offensive coordinator’s often bridge the gap to buy space and time for their quarterbacks. The below example, after play action, was a textbook sail concept where the backside crosser or drag routes were combined with a play side deep route. The result was that Eagles right corner back Ronald Darby was made to choose between defending the deepest player in his third of the Cover 3 zone, or the drag route (not much of a choice really). Keenum had the time from play action and made a solid throw to wide receiver Jarius Wright for 33 yards:

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Instead of droning on with more examples of the Vikings successful passing attack, how does all of this apply to the Giants and Eli Manning? Again, we simply do not know what the future holds, but there is a lot that seemed to bother Manning over the past few years that Shurmur could immediately alleviate.

When now ex-head coach Ben McAdoo was hired as offensive coordinator for the 2014 season, many analysts (including this author) thought it would be a real rebirth for Manning. McAdoo, bringing West Coast elements to New York, was seen on the same footing as Mike McCoy bringing Denver’s system to Phillip Rivers in 2013. The result in San Diego was Rivers and the Chargers improving dramatically over the course of the season. The perception of this offense is and was shorter passing routes executed in a rhythmic way with a premium placed on accuracy. This can slow down pass rushes and open up playmakers to do what they do best. In reality yes this is often the result. But, for one thing, all West Coast offenses are not the same. Additionally, like any system, it demands the right coaching and packaging to really fit with given personnel. The Giants saw success offensively since 2014, and as recently as 2016 enjoyed an 11-5 season and a playoff berth. But the film evidence from 2017 showed a quarterback seemingly still not comfortable in the structure and the designs / play calls leaving much to be desired.

So again, starting with the perception of the West Coast quick game, Eli Manning spent 2.5 seconds or less in the pocket on a league high 66.1% of his dropbacks in 2017. Box checked, right? On those throws he completed 67% of them, with 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and a QBR of 86.5. With the injuries this year on the offensive side, that can really be considered a win.

On the drop backs lasting 2.6 seconds or more (33.9% of the time) he dropped off substantially to 48.9% completions, 7 TDs, 5 interceptions an a QBR of 67.5. The key to remember here is that although the quick game does exist in the West Coast, a quarterback going through his whole progression will obviously lead to pocket times longer than 2.5 seconds. The QB’s footwork should drive the timing, and as familiarity increases their pocket presence should grow, meaning Manning should be getting more comfortable in a clean pocket, not less. Looking at all of Manning’s sacks and interceptions this year, this negative statistic really showed itself. The first example came against Dallas in Week 14 on a 3rd and 6 late in the game when McAdoo dialed up an almost ghost concept out of a 2×2 receiver set versus quarters coverage.

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Manning had a very clean pocket and against quarters he was going to have the deep route available, but he stared down that side of the field so much so that the backside safety made the interception. His timing of the throw was fine, not perfect, but with most of his intermediate and deep throws having so much air time (makes them very catchable), his coaching staff needed to be honing in on this head work. These problems also stemmed from his often sluggishness in coming off his first read. This often occurs in younger quarterbacks who are not comfortable yet in the offensive structure, and it leads to many mistakes. Manning was in his fourth year with McAdoo, and from a clean pocket he should be going through all his reads and excelling in the technical ins and outs of the position.

This next example is from the Arizona game in Week 16 showed what happens when aggressive defensive coordinators (James Bettcher, who is now with the Giants) honed in on this weakness. If Manning rarely came off his first look effectively on intermediate and deep balls, deep safeties got jumps like the one below:

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This simple smash concept was jumped almost immediately by deep safety Antoine Bethea. Part of this certainly was film study and while the slot fade of the smash concept jumps out visually to the defender, this should not happen. Even if Bethea did not make the interception, he still could have laid a big hit on tight end Evan Engram. These poor habits not only make interceptions, but hold back big gains from being touchdowns and small gains from being first downs.

This is not to meant to be an indictment of Manning, or somehow saying that after four years any professional quarterback should master the system they’re play in. The bigger point is that not all West Coast offenses are the same. Like the spread offense, the intricacies of each are often too generalized and many times the same concepts come down to details for good execution. Both Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur like to to run slant-out combinations out of two receiver sets on the same side of the field. This concept has the outside receiver run a slant and the slot receiver, TE, or RB running an out. See the below example from the Giants in Week 3 versus the Eagles, out of a 2×1 receiver set vs Cover 3 zone:

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Notice the depth that the receiver drives north before cutting into the slant route, as well as the distance outside the field numbers where he lined up. This allowed time for the underneath zone linebacker Mychal Kendricks to fan out and break up the pass. The Eagles secondary at this point in the season was not proven by any stretch and played a lot of zone, so was this the right type of call in the third quarter without any real success in manipulating underneath defenders? This concept against zone is often a “bang bang” play, as seen in the below example from the NFC Championship game, where Shurmur’s Vikings ran it successfully versus the Eagles Cover 3:

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Astute observers immediately notice that this play was run to the lone X wide receiver, and the running back was used on the out route. Even with the favorable formation, the regular speed of the video shows the demanding accuracy and quickness that was needed to complete this route against zone coverage. So yes it is not exactly the same, but for good reason, as Shurmur wisely chose to execute this concept from a more advantageous position.

Ben McAdoo was fired by the Giants after his Week 13 loss to the Raiders, with his team sporting a 2-10 record after benching Hall of Famer Eli Manning. In the wake of this, they faced the Eagles again in Week 15, and interim offensive play-caller Mike Sullivan may have learned something from the first go around. The Giants preyed on the Eagles Cover 3 with larger corner back cushions on the first drive on the game, with almost exclusively lone X receiver or slot receiver short slants (no out combos). Later in the third quarter, Philadelphia adjusted with more man coverages, sometimes starting from a press coverage set up. See the below example of X receiver Tavarres King taking a slant / out combo for a 57 yard touchdown against corner Ronald Darby:

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This play was nicely set up against the press, something that Darby struggled with this past season. The read was easy for Manning to identify pre snap, as there was little else it could be other than Cover 1. The depth of the receivers drive was shorter, decreasing the overall time. The tight end this time ran the out, and coming from the depth behind the line of scrimmage it helped solidify the throwing lane.

The above slant-out example is a microcosm of the Giants experience the last four years; seemingly good on paper but just a little off in the details, leading to negative results. Manning’s time in the pocket was a big factor, and it is interesting that last season the Vikings Case Keenum had 50.8% of his drop backs at 2.5 seconds or less, and 49.2% at 2.6 seconds or more, yet in many ways was decidedly more effective in the quick game and overall short routes.

This balanced approach often leads to success as the defense has to defend a wider range of potential outcomes. Certain aspects of the Giants offense were left out above, such as the weakness in pass protection at the tackle positions, and Manning’s lack of pocket awareness to even front side pressure. Both aspects and more require a lot of attention by Shurmur and Shula.

But the above examples show ways where, to steal a line from Don Draper, “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” If Manning is having trouble coming off his first read, simplify the structure. If the pocket can not hold because of Manning or others, move it with bootlegs after play action. If it is a big ask for him to win games throwing it over 40 times, build the rushing attack to compliment him.

The conversation last year ended up with the Giants dead last in time of possession per drive (2:24) and 29th in yards per drive (26.09). Compare that with Minnesota’s time of possession per drive of 7th (2:53) and points being 8th (32.7). Giants fans are going to enjoy this year’s different conversation.

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