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Separation yards by Giants' receivers not the only cause of offense's struggles

Cleveland Browns' Kevin Johnson, left, defends New York

Cleveland Browns' Kevin Johnson, left, defends New York Giants' Golden Tate on Dec. 20, 2020. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

When it comes to discussing the Giants, there is a rule about as hard and fast as any in the NFL. It is this: If you have to go back to the 1970s to make a comparison, it’s not good.

That’s the case with the current state of the Giants’ offense. In the past two games, both at home, both with a chance to keep or regain their top spot in the NFC East standings, they scored a total of 13 points. That’s one touchdown, one extra point and two field goals.

When’s the last time they were that bad in back-to-back home games? When they were shut out by Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1976.

Back then it was somewhat easier to figure out the culpability for the incompetence: Everybody was awful.

These days, we have NextGen stats to help us point fingers. And one group getting the brunt of the blame from the number-crunchers are the wide receivers, who, according to the data, just aren’t getting open as much as other teams’ targets are.

Their response to those stats? Don’t blame us!

"I don’t know where people are getting that from, to be honest," Sterling Shepard said of the Giants’ new-found reputation for not getting open after Sunday’s 20-6 loss to the Browns. "Is that what you’re saying, that we’re getting, what, two yards of separation? In the NFL, that’s open. I don’t know what the analytics say, but you can go off that if you want to. I know what I see on film, and for those of them who think that way, go look at the film."

The Giants did improve in that area against the Browns. They had three receivers targeted at least five times in the game (the benchmark to be included in the league’s digit-churning). Darius Slayton had 2.9 yards of separation, Evan Engram 2.6 and Shepard 2.1. That’s a pretty good improvement from the loss to the Cardinals, when Shepard was at 1.9 and Slayton was at 1.4.  

Shepard has the best separation numbers for the season at 3.0 yards per target. Among the NFL players with a minimum of 38 targets, that’s tied for 53rd. Engram is right behind him at 2.9 for the season, followed by Slayton (2.3) and Golden Tate (2.1).

Giants wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert has a mantra he tells his players all the time, especially when they grouse about getting opportunities in the passing game. "Keep getting open," he says to them, "and we’ll find you."

He believes that his guys are getting open.

"There were plays where we were open and didn’t get the ball thrown to us," he said last week after the Cardinals game. "I wouldn’t say I’m discouraged on the lack of quote-unquote not getting open. When I looked at the tape, the way I hear people talk about it, I would think that the receivers and the DBs are Siamese twins, and they’re not. They’re out there, they’re running routes, they’re getting open a lot of times . . . We’ve done a pretty good job with that up to this point when given the opportunity."

Separation isn’t the only way to predict success for a receiver. Shepard’s 3.0 for the season is the same as Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (who has 1,318 receiving yards) and Las Vegas’ Darren Waller (967), two of the top receiving tight ends. It’s better than Seattle’s DK Metcalf, who has 1,223 receiving yards.

So why are the Giants struggling to score? Why are they averaging 17.4 points per game and, over the past four weeks, 12.3 per game? Why was Joe Judge so desperate for points that he tried a fake field goal from the 8 on Sunday night, thinking that a pass from holder/punter Riley Dixon had a better chance of working than having his offense on the field?

Why are the numbers from the 1970s being dredged up to illustrate the futility of the team?

Maybe it’s the same reason they stunk in 1976. They’re just not good.

If you have watched the Giants play offense over the past month, you don’t need analytics to tell you that.

Two Giants make Pro Bowl

Tight end Engram and cornerback James Bradberry were named to the NFC Pro Bowl team Monday night. It was the first selection for both players. There won’t be a game played this season because of the pandemic, but the league will have other activities planned for those honored.

"When they announced that, I was like, ‘That would be crazy if I made the Pro Bowl and we don’t even play the Pro Bowl,’ " Engram said. "But I think they’re doing some Madden tournament. I’ve been playing a lot of Madden lately, so hopefully I can go win that."

New York Sports