The conundrum that is the Giants’ offense goes something like this: After two straight seasons of dramatically improved production from Eli Manning, and with a significant upgrade in talent at the receiver position coming into the season, how in the world do you explain the fact that the Giants that are significantly worse off?
The simple answer: It’s complicated.
First, the numbers. Entering Thursday night’s game against the Eagles — with the Giants (10-4) hoping to clinch a playoff spot by beating a team that had lost nine of its last 11 games — the Giants’ offense was ranked 27th overall in the 32-team NFL, including 30th in the running game and 17th in the passing game. They were 24th in scoring, averaging only 19.4 points per game a year after scoring 420 points and averaging 26.2 per game — nearly a full touchdown’s worth more than this season.
With mostly the same offensive line last year and an upgrade at receiver with the return of Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz as well as the drafting of second-round slot receiver Sterling Shepard, it stands to reason that things would have gotten better, not worse. But with Manning’s production dipping from the previous two seasons, when he threw a combined 65 touchdown passes, and with Cruz having a muted season statistically (29 catches for 495 yards and one touchdown, which he scored in the opener), the vibrancy of this offense has taken a major hit.
A year after the Giants scored at least 30 points seven times, they hadn’t hit 30 points once entering Thursday night, and they had scored a total of 41 points in their previous three games.
Perhaps the biggest reason is how opposing teams have decided to defend the Giants’ attack. With Beckham being one of the most effective big-play receivers in the game, and with the passing attack the clear strength of the offense roster-wise, defensive coordinators have opted to play it much safer by using a heavy dose of two-deep zone coverage. Rather than dedicate more resources to blitzing Manning, teams have chosen to keep two safeties in coverage to avoid giving up the big play.
That has forced Manning into some difficult choices as he scans the line of scrimmage before plays. With teams not willing to blitz or devote extra defenders to stopping the running game, Manning can either check out of passing plays and go to the run, or settle for more intermediate-range passes. Neither option is his preference, because he’d much rather take more deep shots down the field.
And with the running game not as effective as it needs to be, the offense has nearly ground to a halt in recent weeks. In back-to-back wins over the Cowboys and Lions, the Giants scored a total of only 27 points.
“[Opposing teams] do a good job of taking away a lot of the throws,” Manning said. “Everything is going to be contested underneath. There are opportunities to get the ball down the field into some zones, but you have to hold the ball also. You should be able to run the ball [with the defensive looks teams are showing].”
But the lack of an effective running game has opposing teams sticking to a conservative approach in the secondary, leaving Manning to throw more quick routes to his receivers than he’d prefer. The best-case scenario is the one he faced against the Cowboys, when he hit Beckham on a slant over the middle and saw Beckham turn it into the game-winning 61-yard touchdown. Most other times, the results are far more meager.
Deeper seam routes by the tight end are another way to break the two-deep zone, but the Giants haven’t gotten much production from that position. Larry Donnell probably runs the best seam routes of any tight end on the roster, but fumbling problems led to his benching earlier in the season. Will Tye has good speed but hasn’t been used extensively on seam routes.
“That’s probably the hardest part,” Beckham said of the strategy defenses have used this season. “You can ask any receiver in the NFL, everyone wants to catch a bomb or make big plays. But teams are doing a great job of eliminating that. Just keeping a safety high and over the top, just trapping and bracketing, doubling or doing whatever. There hasn’t really been too much man-to-man.”
Beckham hoped that might change against the Eagles, who often use a more pressure-oriented attack under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Blitzing often leaves defensive backs with man-to-man coverage, which gives Manning at least the chance to throw deep.
“That’s how they play,” Beckham said of the Eagles’ aggressiveness. “You just have to find ways to take advantage of that.”
Coach Ben McAdoo, who continues to call the plays after two years as the offensive coordinator, said the offense continues to be a work in progress.
“I think you go into each game and you plan for each game the way it looks on film,” he said. “When you get to the game, you have to be able to adjust and improvise, and at the end of the day, you can’t go broke taking a profit. If it’s a two-high shell game all game, you have to find ways to complete the ball, find ways to run the ball and adjust as you go.”
In other words, settle for the easy stuff unless teams give you a chance to go for broke. The Giants were hoping the Eagles would do more of the latter.