Barkley could be season-saver
Giants’ run game valuable in quest for good season
A dominant running game could save the Giants’ 2019 season.
An NFL coach who watched the Giants play this preseason told believes New York’s offensive line is “night and day” from last year’s Week 1 starting five.
And fullback Eli Penny nodded his head excitedly Wednesday as he discussed the two key additions: right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Mike Remmers.
“I love it,” Penny said. “I love it! Remmers and Zeitler. Man, that’s what you want in your linemen. Two crazy guys who love to block. We get excited in the running back room whenever we see Kevin make big blocks in the preseason. Mike had a huge block where he ran someone over. That gives a running back confidence.”
There’s one problem, of course: Every defense knows that stopping Saquon Barkley will stop this team.
That might not matter, for two reasons. The Giants often were most successful running the ball last year when their formations gave away the run, and they’re going to face much worse run defenses this year. Throw Remmers and Zeitler into that mix?
Maybe Barkley said it best on the first day of camp when he heard fans chanting “MVP!”
“MVP? Yeah,” he said with a smile. “I think anything is possible.”
It is if last year’s stats hold up and Zeitler and Remmers push this line to new heights.
A successful run by Warren Sharp’s definition doesn’t necessarily gain a lot of yards. Context matters; a 3rd-and-1 rush for two yards and a first down is successful.
According to Sharp’s research, the Giants were 70% successful running the ball in 10 snaps out of 13 personnel (one RB, three TEs, one WR). In heavy 21 (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) and 12 (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) formations, the Giants had 53% and 43% success rates, respectively.
These stood clearly above the 38% success rate when three wide receivers were on the field (11 personnel) and the 27% success rate of 22 personnel in 22 snaps, when having two backs and tight ends each may have been too great a play-calling giveaway.
Pat Shurmur and the Giants’ offensive coaches are aware of their success in these situations, and this in some way explains why they think they can succeed without a star like Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. By improving their line, padding their tight end group with run blockers surrounding pass-catcher Evan Engram, and keeping the wideout position hard-nosed and veteran, they believe it can work.
Remmers’ sitting out Wednesday’s practice due to his surgically repaired back and an illness is discouraging, but hopefully he doesn’t miss the opener and compromise the plan before it’s in motion.
Pro Football Focus provides further evidence that Shurmur may be onto something.
The Giants ran the ball for 5.1 yards per carry out of 12 and 13 personnel last season, and they averaged 2.1 yards before first contact per attempt in those formations, which ranked second-best in the entire NFL, per PFF.
In these heavy personnel packages the Giants also averaged .0077 expected points added (EPA), third-best EPA in these formations of any team in the league.
Penny’s impact is clear, too, in 21 personnel when he teamed with Barkley and two wideouts. In 43 attempts, the Giants averaged 4.5 yards per carry out of that formation, including 1.7 yards before contact, ranking top 10 in the league.
“When we’re in those situations where people know it’s coming, they know our personnel, 12, 22, and they know it’s a run-heavy formation, if you can be an efficient runner and team, gain four yards even three yards a carry, that’s good football,” Penny said.
“When you normally do that, it typically doesn’t look as sexy because it’s 3rd-and-1 and when you got to get 1 yard, you get only two yards and you look at the stats and say whatever,” Penny added. “But for me as a fullback I have to show my value every time I get on the field … So when we go to our bread and butter plays, I tell Saquon before every snap I’m in, ‘Let’s make this work, it’s gotta work, ain’t no ifs ands or butts about it, it’s gotta work.”
The Giants improvements will pay off even more because the level of competition might dip.
Sharp ranked defenses the Giants faced last season the NFL’s hardest in explosive rush defense and the league’s second-hardest in rush efficiency defense. For the 2019 Giant opponents, he forecasts those numbers to drop to 18th-toughest and 16-toughest.
Shurmur’s theory will be put to the test on Sunday at Dallas. In their last two games at the Cowboys, the Giants have been unable to run the ball and score. In Week 2 of last season, Barkley rushed 11 times for 28 yards and the Giants had three points with two minutes to play in a 20-13 loss.
The line on paper looks more formidable with Zeitler and Remmers alongside left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Will Hernandez and center Jon Halapio. But no one will know who or what they are until kickoff Sunday.
“There’s some good stuff. We have a hardworking room,” Zeitler, a no-nonsense worker with an icy glare, said Monday of the line coming together. “We have a lot of actual football snaps in the room, with starters and the guys who are the backups. That’s valuable. We’ve been getting a lot of work in. But this one’s really gonna show us OK, where the heck are we, this weekend.”
Penny explained the simple truth, though. If the Giants’ offensive line is dominant in 2019, “everything changes.”
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” the fullback said. “That’s how I feel.”
“MVP? Yeah. I think anything is possible.” —Giants running back Saquon Barkley
Relying more on the running game, led by Saquon Barkley, may be the key to success the Giants in 2019.