For the third time of the night, John Madden predicted the play moments before it transpired. With 1:39 remaining in the first half in a battle for the top seed in the NFC with the Carolina Panthers in December, the Giants lined up in a shotgun formation with three wide receivers. The scoreboard read, Panthers 21 Giants 10, 1st and 10 from the Giants 45-yard line. Madden turned to partner Al Michaels and said “this is the perfect time for the Giants to run a draw.”
On the sidelines, Giants coach Tom Couglin had a similar train of thought. With Domenik Hixon to his right on the outside, Steve Smith to the left on the outside, and Amani Toomer in the slot, quarterback Eli Manning handed the ball to running back Derrick Ward on an inside handoff. Right guard Chris Snee pulled to the left and delivered a key block five yards down the field.
When the play was finally whistled dead, Ward had gained 34 yards and put his team in field goal range.
The run was one of the five most effective plays utilized by the Giants in 2008. It was also the set in which the team predominantly used Ward, a backup running back who ran for more than 1,000 yards last season. With Ward off to Tampa Bay for the 2009-2010 season, the role will likely be assumed by Ahmad Bradshaw, last year’s third back on the depth chart. Still, the formation is not the team’s primary set.
The presence of Madison Hedgecock, one of the top fullbacks in the league, enables the Giants to run its offense primarily through a power-I set. In this formation the Giants use two running backs, two wide receivers, and a tight end. Hedgecock typically lines up just behind Manning and in front of 6'4'', 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs.
The formation also has a number of variations. From the base set, the Giants can run a Strong I, with Jacobs positioned to the side of the tight end, a Weak I, with Jacobs positioned away from the tight end, a Big I, with two tight ends, and a Power I, with three backs in the backfield.
Along with the Panthers, the Giants are the only team in the league to use the set as their primary formation, according to Greg Cosell, a senior producer with NFL Films. One reason the team depends heavily on the run, he said, is because of its quick, dominant offensive line. The ability of guards Rich Seubert and Snee to quickly emerge off the line and block downfield allows the Giants to use the run as a foundation for nearly every play in its playbook.
“The Giants are a team that runs a lot of counter and a lot of misdirection,” Cosell said in a mid-May phone interview. “Not a lot of teams have centers and guards that are very good on the move on the perimeter, so that limits what they can do in the run game. The Giants are able to do that because their O-line is very versatile and very athletic.”
It is difficult to identify a team’s five most effective plays, Cosell said, because there are a multitude of factors that influence a team’s play-calling pattern. In the week before a game, a head coach can spend in excess of 70 hours breaking down film and determining the tendencies of his opponent. Through such preparations, a coach might factor anything from personnel packages to defensive alignments to down, distance, and field position when selecting a play.
Still, the Giants found success in 2008 with a diverse playbook that defenses found difficult to decipher. A handful of the team’s top plays on the season came from a wide range of formations and distinct play-calls. It might explain why the team finished third in the league with an average of 26.7 points per game.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 21, Toomer hauled in a critical 31-yard pass from Manning in overtime that helped the Giants prevail 26-23. Toomer lined up to the left of the quarterback and faked a Bengals defensive back with a slant-and-go route along the left sidelines. More than two months later against the Redskins, Manning connected with Toomer on a 40-yard fly route for a touchdown down the right sidelines.
The play contrasted starkly with Toomer’s overtime catch against the Bengals. This time, Manning drew the Washington defense in with a play-fake to Jacobs, as Boss went in motion from left to right. The Giants ran the former from a single-back set, but the latter from the I-formation.
More than any other team in the league, the Giants’ coaching staff excels at varying the direction and type of running plays it calls.
Last season, the Giants ran the ball 178 times to the left, 84 times down the middle, and 222 times to the right according to statistics compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau. The team also does a masterful job at spreading its run distribution. Of more than 80 running plays KC Joyner, the author of the book Scientific Football 2009, analyzed in the first month of last season, the Giants called 12 different types of runs. The team ran 19 counters, 14 slants and went off tackle 11 times en route to a 4-0 start.
“This is impressive on multiple levels,” Joyner wrote in the New York Times blog The Fifth Down. “The 12 run types are atypical not only because of their volume but also because each play was run more than once. I should also point out that very few teams ever try to run an inside counter draw (which the Giants ran twice), as it requires very coordinated blocking that can easily be screwed up if the blockers aren’t in total synchronicity.”
The offense can also confuse defenses with its three-wide, shotgun alignment. In the first quarter of the Panthers game, Manning eluded a probable sack and connected with Hixon on a 40-yard deep route. But on four separate occasions against Carolina, Ward completed substantial gains from the same formation. In overtime, he set up the winning touchdown with a 51-yard run.
Instead of reacting to the defensive alignment presented, the Giants attempt to force defenses to adjust to its offensive sets. When New York faced the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 16 the offense did not abandon the run, even though the Ravens had one of the top run defenses in the league. Operating mostly under the I-set, three backs combined for 207 yards rushing. Entering the contest, the Ravens had surrendered just 65.4 yards on the ground per game.
Jacobs set the tone on the first drive when he spun left to break a tackle and powered 36 yards up the middle for a first down. In the process, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis nearly tripped over himself.
The reliance on the formation was present in nearly every Giants game plan. Against Carolina, the Giants ran nearly half of its plays, 33 of 68, from the I-set. On such plays, the team ran the ball more than two-thirds of the time, 21 of 33. The formation also allows the Giants to run play action and throw downfield.
“There is a domino effect to all this,” Cosell said. “The Giants have a very simple pass game, if you’re able to run the ball well and you’re able to run strong side well in particular that forces the defense to defend your tendency to run. They have to bring down a safety to the strong side – their strong safety. Now what happens is the weak safety drops into the deep middle and on the weak side, you get your X receiver (the weak side receiver) in one-on-one coverage.”
Another necessity for a successful strong side running attack, according to Cosell, is the tight end’s ability to block a defensive end one-on-one. Cosell believes Boss, the Giants starting tight end, has become a superior run blocker. He points to several occasions during the 2008-09 season when Boss dominated the opposing defensive end on the line.
“He handled Trent Cole in one of the games against the Eagles and he manhandled Chris Long against the Rams,” Cosell said. “The bottom line is if you want to have a good strong side run game your tight end has to block defensive ends one-on-one.”
The departure of Burress and Toomer could alter the Giants’ offensive attack drastically. Without Burress, the Giants might struggle to establish a deep threat. This also might affect their play-calling before the snap.
“I think because the receiving corps is average they’ll probably have to do more things with motion and movement – maybe some more shifting,” Cosell said. “They might have to create and dictate some matchups with motion and shifting because their receivers will not be able to win matchups on the outside."