Cover-3: Pillar of Giants
by Doug Farrar
It was the best performance of the season, by one of the best offensive lines in the league. When the New York Giants welcomed the Baltimore Ravens to the Meadowlands on Sunday, November 16, they were putting up their power running game against a defense that had not given up 100 yards on the ground to any single back in 28 straight games (and still didn't in this one). When this game was over, New York had put up 207 total rushing yards, shocking their opponents. The Ravens led the NFL with an average of 65.4 rushing yards allowed per game, and had given up 186 yards on the ground -- total! -- in their previous three contests. Each of three Giants running backs -- Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw -- gained more yardage (73, 41, and 96 yards, respectively) than entire teams could amass against this swarming, fitful, 3-4 monster.
This is a defense used to having its way on the ground. Baltimore hasn’t ranked lower than fifth in Run Defense DVOA since 2003. The Ravens ranked first last year; they rank first now. But on one incredible afternoon, this great defense met a ground game that bulldozed them in a way they were not at all prepared to counter.
The post-game quotes from the Baltimore players were almost as fascinating as the Giants’ performance. “I expected them to test us,” Ray Lewis said, “but maybe they tested us more than we expected.” Fellow linebacker Jarret Johnson had something interesting to add: “The backs have three different styles, but it’s more than that because they adjust the blocking schemes for each one,” he told the New York Times. “It creates pressure on the defense because each back is opportunistic but in a different way. So if you make one mistake, any of those backs can be gone.”
The Giants’ offensive line ranks second in Adjusted Line Yards, behind only the Broncos. This front five is starting to get the attention it has deserved at least since the team’s improbable Super Bowl run last year. This year’s far less improbable run has been driven above all by that line. I wrote about them once already this season when they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers -- another killer 3-4 beast -- and came away suitably impressed. But Johnson’s quote about different blocking schemes for different backs had me thinking that maybe I needed to return to the scene and get a little more forensic. It makes sense to use different blocking tactics for different running backs, but given the equal spread of carries among the three backs in this game, perhaps there are revealing facets of the Giants’ “line intelligence,” and how these linemen adjust to different circumstances.
Jacobs, Ward, and Bradshaw totaled 31 carries on the day, which is a lot of game DVD to watch, so let’s get started. We’ll detail as many of the plays as time permits and blocking trends are revealed. Your stars are the same as they were last time -- left tackle David Diehl, left guard Rich Seubert, center Shaun O’Hara, right guard Chris Snee, right tackle Kareem McKenzie, fullback Madison Hedgecock, and tight ends Kevin Boss and Michael Matthews.
Brandon Jacobs: 11 carries, 73 yards, 76.6% DVOA, 48 DYAR, 55% success rate
New York’s first drive of the day, second-and-10 from their own 32. The Giants lined up single-back, three-wide, with Jacobs eight yards behind the line of scrimmage. Tight end 88 Michael Matthews on McKenzie’s right. Boss was lined up to the right as a receiver, but leaned in closer to Matthews as Terrell Suggs came up to the line. Boss and McKenzie double-teamed Suggs as Jacobs went to the right with the handoff. Instead of bulling his way through defenders as you might expect, Jacobs bounced off of McKenzie and cut back left, across the field, past Haloti Ngata and Suggs, through an unprotected backside, for a 36-yard gain.
The idea here was obviously to get the Ravens defense going to the Giants’ right-hand side, which worked and was why Jacobs had such an easy go to the other side. This is what makes him so dangerous -- 265-pound running backs are not supposed to have such agility! The Giants are very skilled with this kind of slide protection. This was New York’s 16th run of 20 or more yards on the season, good for the NFL lead.
"When you do that against our defense, you have some confidence,” Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said after the game. “It makes things easier. The way it happened was a fluke when we had him, but he bounced and went all the way to the other side. You don't think that a big back can run that fast, but he does."
Second-and-20 from the Baltimore 42 after a holding penalty on Snee; 11:53 left in the first quarter. The Giants were looking for a little more power here, with Matthews to Diehl’s left, Madison Hedgecock in front of Jacobs, and Boss in motion from left to half-right, then back left outside of Matthews. Jacobs bulled ahead left behind more straight-ahead blocking, pushing Lewis back, and gaining five yards.
First-and-10 from the Baltimore 16; 10:45 left in the first quarter. Three-wide, single-back, Matthews to the right. Another haul to the right as the line went that way, and Snee pulled to chip and double-team Suggs. This left a one-on-one between Jacobs, turning the corner outside, and Scott, who was closing in. Scott won this one, as Jacobs only gained a yard. However, Ngata was called for defensive offside, and the G-Men had first-and-5 from the Baltimore 11.
Next play, from the 11. Three-wide, Jacobs as the single back, Matthews to the left. Once again, the line pushed to the right, as Jacobs blew through the right A-gap between O'Hara (who was blocking tackle Justin Bannan) and the combination of Snee and McKenzie (double-teaming Ngata before looking for stuff downfield as Jacobs hit the second level). Of course, when Jacobs gets past that first line, he’s a real problem. He rumbled for 10 yards to the 1 before strong safety Jim Leonhard took him down.
First-and-goal from the 1; 9:28 left in the first quarter. Goal-line set with Boss motioning right to left, I-formation with Jacobs the main man. Jacobs tried to leap over the pile behind a straight-on blocking lead, but Lewis and Ngata got penetration and stopped him for no gain.
Next play. Same formation with Boss right to left again, but Jacobs headed left instead of straight ahead. Diehl and Seubert sealed the inside, Hedgecock chipped Lewis inside, and Boss dealt with Leonhard outside. Jacobs had the hole, and he scored only the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Ravens all year to that point; a mark that was going to get a serious workout in short order. The difference in this play was that Scott started inside, anticipating a run up the gut. The Giants were simply a move ahead in this particular chess match.
First-and-ten on the Baltimore 18; 2:42 left in the first quarter. The Giants lined up in a max-protect with Matthews on the right and Boss on the left. At the snap, Boss took out Suggs, Seubert pulled left and neutralized linebacker Nick Griesen, while Hedgecock clamped down on Scott in the backfield. Jacobs got up a head of steam to the left and went 15 yards before Bannan caught up to him. Jacobs scored again two plays later. Somewhere up in Heaven, Vince Lombardi was smiling.
With Jacobs in the backfield, the Giants seem to like a lot of motion blocking, either slides or pulls. This makes sense, because unless you’re tacking Jacobs head on with all your momentum working in your favor, you’re not going to get very far. The long run early in the first quarter was a great example of this. The Giants dictated the motion of the Ravens’ defensive line with slide protection, and Jacobs took it to the next level when he was able to cut back and extend the play. And if Jacobs has blockers at the second level? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Ahmad Bradshaw: 9 carries, 96 yards, 41.3% DVOA, 21 DYAR, 44% success rate
Bradshaw’s first carry, his only one of the first half, came with 12:01 left in the second quarter. The Giants lined up in an offset I for what looked like the first time all day, and Boss on the right side. This time, everybody blocked inside, with a small inside shift to the left, and Ray Lewis blew through to drop Bradshaw for a two-yard gain on a run to the right.
The knee injury that took Jacobs out of the game after two carries in the second half certainly changed the Giants’ strategy and circumstances. They went with a 6-3 pass-run count in the third quarter after those two carries and lost the time of possession battle by four minutes. Bradshaw was worked in at the start of the fourth quarter, and this proved to be a wise move.
Cut to 14:31 left in the game, the Giants at their own 21. I-formation, Boss on the left. This is a favorite play of the Giants, At the snap, both guards pulled left, as Manning and Hedgecock gave a counter look. Manning started back to the right-side handoff from the snap, and Hedgecock blocked right. This gave the Giants the personnel advantage they needed to the left, which was where Bradshaw was going. Seubert sealed the left edge, while Snee swept left. Bradshaw cut back inside on Leonhard and Lewis, getting an open seam and shooting up the middle for 77 yards. Only a late tackle from Fabian Washington kept Bradshaw from putting up the third rushing touchdown of the day against the Ravens.
Through the end of the fourth quarter, as they were up 30-10 and running out the clock, it’s difficult to say that the blocking schemes here would be indicative of plays in which the team relied more on Bradshaw to make necessary plays. However, they did use more motion blocking with Bradshaw, relying on his quickness with any seams that would open up. He seems to be the best of the three runners at cutting back, which made the pulling guards such a neat idea on the long run.
Derrick Ward: 11 carries, 41 yards, -0.8% DVOA, 5 DYAR, 36% success rate
On second-and-10 from the Baltimore 32 with three minutes gone in the first quarter, the Giants lined up shotgun, right slot, three-wide. No additional blockers, and Ward to Manning’s right. At the snap, O’Hara got to the second level as quickly as possible, though Ward started straight ahead on a draw and went right instead. Bart Scott blew through the gap and took him down. Snee was busted for holding Ngata, and Ward went down after a yard. It looked as if Ward was supposed to shoot the gap that O’Hara created. The idea seemed to be taking the ball up the middle with good speed and bad intentions. There was much more blocking up front.
First play of the Giants’ second drive, with 4:26 left in the first quarter and the ball at the Baltimore 33. I-formation, Boss to Diehl’s left, Amani Toomer in motion from left to right. Ward took the handoff to the right behind some straight-on blocking, simply looking to blow through a seam. The Ravens’ five-man line allowed no seam, and Ward gained a yard before Scott and Ngata took him down.
First-and-10 from the Giants’ 10; 13:54 left in the first half. I-formation with Boss on the left. Eli Manning ran a little counter pitch to Ward, who headed right and tried to cut back inside just before Leonhard took him down. The interesting thing here was that once again, with Ward in the backfield, O’Hara got past the line and onto the inside linebackers as quickly as possible, while he stayed in to block for Jacobs.
The next rushing play was Ward’s biggest of the day. First-and-10 from the Giants’ 31 and 12:46 left in the first half. New York lined up with seven blockers -- Matthews right and Boss left. Ward, who had just gained a first down on a screen, shot right up the middle with the handoff out of a single-back set. O’Hara stayed home this time, pushing Bannan out of the play to the right, and Ward cut inside to follow that seam through the line and into the backfield. He had clean air for 22 yards before Leonhard took him down.
With Jacobs, the Giants want to get things going one way and use his power to plow through for serious gains. The schemes with Ward in the backfield were far more straight-ahead, with the notable difference of either the center or one of the guards getting a downfield release out in the open as soon as possible so that Ward can use his cutback ability to find a quick seam and get things going upfield with help. It’s a good theory that didn’t really work in this case. With teams like the Steelers and Ravens, you have to be so conscious of gap responsibility that I wonder if anything fancy off the line really makes sense (Bradshaw's long run being the exception, not the rule). Again, Ward’s longest run of the day happened when the blockers stayed home.
Three different schemes for three different backs? It would seem so; certainly the difference in the blocking for Jacobs was pretty graphic. Still, with all the drawing up and game-planning, it’s worth noting that none of this stuff is going to work against a force like the Ravens unless the execution is near-perfect, and that’s what I took away from this game.
This is, without question, the most fundamentally sound offensive line I have seen in the NFL this year. They come off the ball in running plays in perfect unison, their advanced blocking plays seem to have been drawn up by Lombardi himself, and it’s only through this kind of consistency that a team can afford the conceit of different blocking strategies for different backs -- especially to the extent that the Giants had it going. Against the Ravens, most teams are just trying to survive.