Big Blue’s Big Red Zone Issues

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What’s Wrong in the red zone for the G-Men?

The New York Giants are 1-5 and as is typical for teams with poor records, many things have gone wrong on both sides of the ball. In the wake of last Thursday Night’s Massacre versus the rival Philadelphia Eagles, many fans are looking for answers to some of these problems. The Giants have not been in the red zone that often, only averaging 2.7 trips per game (ranks 26th according to www.teamrankings.com). Overall in that area their DVOA over at Football Outsiders is -18.9 percent (ranks 23rd). This stands in stark contrast with the 2017 Minnesota Vikings, where now Giants Head Coach Pat Shurmur was offensive coordinator, who ranked fourth overall in DVOA. So what is the deal?

The Running Game

The Giants red-zone run game is the easy target for criticism. According to FO, the Giants’ red zone rushing DVOA of -29.3 percent ranks 28th in the league. Excluding a 2-point conversion and Manning scrambles, there have been 16 rushes in the red zone so far this season. All but three featured Barkley as the rusher, and 10 out of the 16 runs have been Inside Zone or Duo Runs. On those 10 runs, the Giants are averaging only 1.9 yards per carry, and that number includes a Barkley 15-yard touchdown run. For those wondering, the majority of those 16 have been out of 11 personnel. Looking at play design, Inside Zone and Duo are different (one a zone-blocking scheme, the other a gap scheme), but both involve the RB taking an initial path in between the C Gaps. Execution in all parts of the field in the running game has been an issue for the Giants, so this really is not acute. Please see below vs. the Carolina Panthers:

Play-calling critics can easily say, “run something else,” but outside of these two runs the variations have been both limited or when they have gone more exotic, the execution has failed. One of the plays noticeably absent is Power, where a guard is pulling to the second tier as other lineman down block. Power in short yardage goal-line situations can be problematic, but could be utilized outside of the 5 yard line. The other angle that is noticeably absent from the Giants repertoire is power or zone toss runs with elements like pin-pull on the edge that get the runner to the perimeter in space. Pat Shurmur featured this last year in Minnesota, there has to be a reason why these type runs have been neglected. Please see below:

To reiterate again, the answer is not just, “run those other plays.” Football does not happen in a void, and the Giants are still trying to find their identity as an offensive rushing unit. But if the Giants wanted a “multiple” running game as talked about in the weeks leading up to the season, at Week 7 that goal is not accomplished yet. The absence of those plays coupled with the execution issues leads one to conclude that either more time or further personnel changes are needed. There is no mystery to executing in the red zone, but a lack of a counter punch in the ground game is making the Giants schematically one dimensional despite having perhaps the most dynamically skilled young running back in the game.

Screen Game

The Giants have only run three screens this year in the red zone, 2 running back screens and one Jailbreak screen. They use the Jailbreak screen a good amount from the plus-20 to the the plus-40 yard line (much to the dismay of fans wanting more down the field “shot” plays). As the field shrinks, the effectiveness of screens can wear off (or leave your quarterback exposed). They do remain effective in the “far” red zone, the area from the 11 to the 20 yard line. The one running back screen the Giants did run from the far red zone was out of a 3×1 set where the trips side ran the secondary off with a Sticks-2 Verts Combo and the lone X wide receiver side ran a screen for Saquon Barkley (#26). The defense was in the feared Cover 2 Tampa. See below:

The play design above worked well for the annoyingly difficult red zone first down, as Barkley was isolated in some space versus the boundary safety. This type of Tampa coverage gave the Giants trouble all game, but as shown there are schemes that can take advantage of the backside. Even with the reduced overall ground that defenders have to cover, Barkley does not need that much space to be effective; close to or at the line of scrimmage, he can prove effective when isolated against a single defender. The quick screen game could help alleviate many issues and get Barkley into favorable matchups.

The Passing Game

With that idea of isolating Barkley against a single defender, a play from Week 2 aptly encapsulates the red zone passing game. Before diving in, the disclaimer must be stated that reads are very sped up in the red zone and windows can be small. There is less space to account for, zone defenders can rely on their twitch, and man coverage can take away the underneath space (often with over the top help) forcing a quarterback to have near perfect placement and timing. Difficult is not impossible, however.

Back to the play mentioned, the Cowboys come out in a two-high safety look pre-snap that becomes Cover 2. Manning correctly goes to the Cover 2 beater side of the formation, a Corner-Angle route combination. Please see below:

Manning looks off the first route in the read, the corner, which draws the cornerback and free safety deeper, leaving Saquon Barkley on LB Sean Lee in zone coverage. Manning then has to avoid an out of control rush from Demarcus Lawrence, but while doing so he loses eye discipline and never resets to Barkley as he runs open in the end zone. This was not an easy play, but an example of the play calling having the right answer to a coverage (Pat Shurmur’s half-field designs most often do), yet a disruption can not be overcome and they cant convert the matchup opportunity. Too many opportunities are passing them by. Barkley is an interesting because of his flexibility across the formation and his ability to make any defender miss, there needs to be more of this in coming weeks.

To take a step back from the film, Manning and the Giants have completed 13 of 31 pass attempts (excluding two 2-point conversions, 2 sacks and two scrambles) in the red zone with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Of the 31 attempts, only three come from 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), the other 28 came from 11 personnel. Part of this can be attributed to the Giants trailing in so many games (by my count on 22 of those 31 the Giants were trailing, and 18 of them they were trailing by more than double digits). Situational factors are probably influencing the play calling and thus potentially skewing results. Tape study can help bridge that gap somewhat, certainly in regards to scheme.

The specific play calling is the easiest target for the media and fans to jump at. Quite frankly, the play calling can always be better. As your author has stated on both the interwebs and usual pieces over at Cover.net, the majority of Pat Shurmur’s drop-back passing plays incorporate both man and zone beaters on either side of the formation in the form of half-field reads. The QB’s job is to make a pre-snap read/judgement as to which side to execute. Of the 33 passes attempted, only 7 were not in the half-field read structure (screens and other concepts). This simplistic complexity of the reads have the goal of distributing the ball to its playmakers in space via timing and rhythmic passing. Let’s look at one of those playmakers.

Beckham’s Red-Zone Targets

This is not some attempt for click bait or to somehow stoke the fires of the Odell Beckham Jr. (#13) “drama”, but Manning is 1-for-8 for -2 yards when targeting Beckham in the red zone. The sample size is small, but one third of all passes inside the opponent’s 20 yardline are going to someone other than Beckham successfully. In contrast to the media narrative, this is a more appropriate targeting than one would originally think. Of the seven incompletions to Beckham, five of them were routes in isolation, away from other players where Beckham must create separation on his own. Please see the below incomplete pass from the Carolina game, where Beckham can not gain separation against the Panthers corner Bradberry:

The initial move of the sluggo does not get Bradberry to bite from his deep cushion, and Beckham’s acceleration on the 2nd half of the route can not win the vertical space. Beckham this year is simply not that precise a route runner and his raw talent is not freeing him from defenders. Also, at the catch point, Beckham often does not flash optimum body control or an ability to high point contested catches. Please see the below example from last Thursday (albeit in garbage time late in the game) against CB Jalen Mills:

Mills has been targeted by opposing teams on various doubles and deep balls this season, but he remains the same physically competitive corner who can hold his own versus the play strength of Beckham. Beckham’s technique, as well going for the one handed grab, is thwarted as Mills only needs to deflect the ball (not catch it). No one is questioning his catching ability in space, but the results are not there in 2018.

These examples do not mean that Beckham’s targets should fall off the map, and part of this issue is certainly the role of the high precision standards for placement within the red zone. It should give some context though to the validity of his role as a “decoy” within the scheme itself. He was featured on orbit motions that traverse through the backfield in the Red Zone. Although this type of “candy” seemed to be ineffective at the time, there are other ways where he can be just as effective.

Going back to the one victory this year for the Giants on a touchdown that proved to be the game-sealing score. On a third and goal from the 7, Pat Shurmur calls a Levels Concept with a Corner route attached out of the same 3×1 set. This play call has become very popular way to attack 2 deep safeties pre-snap and whatever their coverage morphs into after the snap. The Giants themselves have called it three times this year, putting it in the top-three or so most called concepts. Please see below:

The above example shows that Beckham, spread out as the lone X in a 3×1 set, can help an offense break down the coverage formation on the other side of the field. The coverage options that stem from two deep safeties are not some impenetrable fortress. Like all coverages and elements of defense (or offense for that matter), it has its strengths and weaknesses. The windows created are small but as the touchdown showed, it is more than possible to take advantage of.

Conclusion

Teams with a 1-5 record in the NFL often have many mistakes to point fingers at. Sports media can take this blame game to a whole other level, or attempt to suggest quick fixes that are unrealistic. This investigation does not want to achieve either, but rather give workable context for fans. The red zone is just one aspect of the team’s play that is under a microscope, others such as the offensive line play and third down are very concerning. The play calling can always be better, and understanding opponent’s tendencies and the games within this great game will always be a battleground for coaches. The Giants need to improve their rush attack in their opponents territory but coaching can only take that so far. The passing game needs to find the small windows (or Saquon Barkley) more often in the red zone. However, we must not fall victim to simply judging a play call because of its result. See the below 2 plays: one from the 2018 Giants, and the other from the 2017 Vikings, both obviously Shurmur play calls:

Giants and Vikings Run 2 Man Mesh in the RZ from Nicholas Turchyn on Vimeo.

These plays are exactly the same, with the only real difference is one being run successfully against man coverage as it was intended and the other being run against zone. The application and execution of the playbook by existing or future personnel will be their redemption. Poor football has put the Giants into this position, and good football in the red zone may help lead them out.

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