Two things happened. First, the Giants did not look anything like themselves last night (for instance, they won). Second, head coach Ben McAdoo finally surrendered play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. He did so quietly, with most of his players not even aware of the fact until after the game. You tell me if those two things are related.
“I need to do what is best for the team, just like we ask the players and just like we ask the coaches,” McAdoo said. “I thought the team needed me, and the whole locker room needed me this week. I needed to be at my best for these players and coaches this week.”
How selfless! The offensively challenged Giants were 0-5 and fighting in the locker room and down three wide receivers to season-ending injuries and facing a fantastic Broncos defense, so you had to figure this one wouldn’t be close. (And, cynically, maybe McAdoo figured getting blown out after handing off play-calling would show that he wasn’t the issue.) Well, it wasn’t close. The Giants dominated the Broncos in every facet, taking an early lead and never looking back for the 23-10 win.
Most shockingly, the Giants, coming in with the 30th ranked rushing offense, ran all over the Broncos, who had the NFL’s top rushing defense. New York ran 32 times for 148 yards, including 21 carries and a career-high 117 yards from Orleans Darkwa (who, by the way, Giants fans have been clamoring to get more touches for about a year now).
Darkwa, who along with just about every player besides Eli Manning only found in the locker room after the game that that Sullivan had been calling the plays, was obviously a fan.
“Obviously if we have success with something, we want to keep doing it. I think that’s how we always operate,” Darkwa said. “We had some success with the runs early and we were able to keep capitalizing off that. They did a great job with the play calling. When you have a lead, you’re able to do a lot of things and switch things up.”
Sticking with the run is something McAdoo’s Giants have never really done, but it paid off in spades. Through the first five weeks, the Giants were 70:30 in passes to rushes; last night, the ratio was 57:43. That allowed them to win the time-of-possession battle despite running 19 fewer plays than did Denver.
Everything flowed from the Giants’ use of the 12 personnel package, which features one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers. The vast majority of the NFL, including the Giants up to this point, primarily uses the 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three WRs). But last night, the Giants trotted out the 12 personnel on 72 percent of snaps. As ESPN’s Jordan Raanan notes, the NFL average is around 19 percent.
The change was born out of necessity. With Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard injured, their top receivers are now Roger Lewis and Tavarres King. Three-WR sets would be a stretch.
But going with two tight ends also plays to one of the Giants’ offensive strengths. They have in Rhett Ellison one of the league’s better blocking TEs, and in first-round pick Evan Engram a real pass-catching threat. Playing the two at the same time avoids telegraphing; opponents can’t stack the box against the run as they might when only Ellison is out there, and they’re constantly forced to cover Engram as they would a receiver. It paid off: the Giants never had to abandon the run game, while Engram led the giants with five catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. It might’ve been fun to see this personnel grouping back when the Giants actually had healthy wideouts.
This is not really sustainable; the Giants completed just two passes to wide receivers. But man is it refreshing to see McAdoo give up the playbook and the Giants’ offense immediately become effective. It’s also promising to see Engram, who could be a real star in this league, emerge as the No. 1 option this early in his career, even if by default. New York just has to try not to win too many games this year, or it’ll be tougher to find the one skill position long-term replacement they need most of all: quarterback.