If the primary defensive objective was to stop running back Saquon Barkley, the Jacksonville Jaguars would have had to have gone into the locker room at halftime last Sunday more than satisfied with their first 30 minutes. In 9 carries, Barkley had accounted for but 18 yards. He had 15 more on 2 catches. If the perception that the NY Giant offense runs through Barkley is true, then the Jaguars and their third-ranked run defense seemed to be in good shape.
Through the first 6 weeks of their season, the 5-1 New York team had leaned on its running attack. It’s a somewhat surprising departure in approach, given that their new head coach Brian Daboll had spent the previous four years over-seeing an offense in Buffalo that was all but completely indifferent to the run.
But life is very different in East Rutherford, New Jersey. As the Bills offensive coordinator, his offense ran through the electric talents of his star quarterback, Josh Allen. His quarterback in New York – Daniel Jones – undertakes a very different role. Daniel is not asked to necessarily win games for the Giants. As the one-time sixth-overall pick in the draft is being re-programed to be a system quarterback, his primary job is not to lose games.
Jones took the field against the Jaguars having completes 67.3% of his passes (the fourth highest percentage in the NFL), but for just 9.5 yards per completion (the second lowest in the NFL). He had thrown just 2 interceptions through his first 6 games, while taking 19 sacks. Jones’ sack rate of 10.7% of his pass attempts was the second highest such figure in football.
Here, the heavy lifting is done by the fourth-ranked running game that averaged 163 yards per game and 5.0 yards per rush. Through six games, they had more rushing touchdowns (8) than passing touchdowns (5). And Barkley, of course, was the hub of that running attack. His 119 carries were the most in the league, and his 616 yards placed him second. So, muffling Saquon was a very big deal.
The raspberry seed in Jacksonville’s collective wisdom teeth was that even without Saquon having much of an impact, the Giants had still controlled the clock for the first half (16:24 of the 30 minutes), had still amassed 61 rushing yards (already more than two-thirds of the ground yardage that the Jags usually allow for an entire game), and took a 13-11 lead into the locker room.
It’s usually a bad sign when, in spite of achieving one of your principal goals, your team is trailing at half time.
Along Came Jones
So, if it wasn’t Barkley, where was the Giant offense coming from? Well, that would be Jones, the sometimes overlooked and frequently embattled quarterback. Taking full advantage of Jacksonville’s concentration on stopping the run, Daniel picked them apart, completing 15 of 22 passes (68.2%) for 168 yards and a touchdown. Almost as significant, though, was his contribution with his legs. Daniel – who came into the game as New York’s second leading rusher (although his 236 rushing yards were far removed from Barkley’s total) – added 37 rushing yards in the first half and a couple of important first downs.
Those running yards were to be a preview of coming attractions.
The Big Finish
In a second half, Jones would throw just 8 more passes, as the dominant New York run game would chew up 175 ground yards on 25 rushing attempts. By the fourth quarter, they weren’t even bothering with the cute, mis-direction-based running game that had so befuddled the Jags for most of the half. By the fourth quarter (when New York rang up 130 of those rushing yards), they were lining blocking tight end Chris Myarick up in the backfield, and pulling backup guard Joshua Ezeudu, and simply collapsing the left side of the Jacksonville defense.
At this point, as you might imagine, Saquon was no longer a bystander. Riding a 92-yard second half, Barkley surged to a 110-yard rushing day, adding 25 more on 4 pass receptions.
But the X-factor continued to be quarterback Jones. Not Daniel the passer (he was only 4 for 8 for 34 yards after the break), but Daniel the runner. Building on his first half, Jones add 70 more rushing yards (including a touchdown among 5 more first downs) on 7 carries to eclipse 100 yards rushing (he finished with 107) for the first time in his career.
It’s an impressive number, but how it happened is, perhaps, even more illuminating. Thirty-eight of those yards came on two scrambles when Jacksonville sent extra-rushers, but didn’t stay in their rush lanes. Forty-one of the remaining 69 yards came on 4 read-option plays that the Jags badly misplayed.
Longtime football watchers are familiar with the read-option. The quarterback sticks the ball in the belly of the running back and watches the reaction of an unblocked end. If the end stays wide, the quarterback releases the ball, and the back exploits the opening caused by the un-blocked end’s delay. If the end charges the back, the quarterback deftly pulls the ball back and races into the void left by the on-rushing end. This play has been around for several seasons, now – and is still largely effective. Most teams, by this point, are playing it better than when the concept was new.
But not Jacksonville. Not on this afternoon. Focus riveted on Barkley, Jacksonville’s ends kept gifting Jones the unguarded edges of their defense.
With 8:22 left in the game, Jacksonville still ahead 17-13 at this point, the Giants lined up, first-and-ten on the Jags’ 40 yards line. Even though New York had been gashing them with this play all day, the un-blocked end (Arden Key) fired himself into the backfield, chasing Barkley down from behind, oblivious to the fact that Saquon never had the ball. Daniel didn’t even have to make some athletic move to dart in behind Key. He simply waited for Arden to go sailing by, and then almost casually rambled for 9 yards through the vacated left side.
At times, it truly was too easy.
That play was the inflection point of a 79-yard drive (with all the yardage coming on the ground) that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown in what would eventually be a 23-17 New York win (gamebook) (summary).
Now 6-1, the Giants have thrust themselves into the middle of a compelling three-team scramble for supremacy in the NFC East. No longer the NFC “Least,” the Giants are doing battle with the 6-0 Eagles and the 5-2 Cowboys. With their success based on the running game, and that running game now including the growing danger of Jones as a runner, the Giants’ plan appears to be sustainable. As long as they can keep Jones playing within himself.
My Favorite Drive of the Season
It wasn’t just the drive itself. It was the circumstances surrounding it.
Last Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Falcons ran into a buzzsaw in Cincinnati. The aroused Bengal offense scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions, on drives of 84, 71 and 75 yards. In the booth, announcers Brandon Gaudin and Robert Smith agreed that – at this point – the run-first Falcons had little option other than to start throwing the ball. It’s that prevalent knee-jerk reaction. Son, you’re down by 21 points. Even though the second quarter was only 5 seconds old, it was still time to trash your game plan and throw, throw, throw.
Instead, the Falcons responded with a glorious 16-play, 75-yard drive that chewed 10:09 off the clock and resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run from Tyler Allgeier. Only 3 of the plays were passes.
Make no mistake about it. Of all the run-first offenses in the NFL, the Falcons are as adamant about their run game as anyone. They entered the game ranked second in football in rush attempts (202) and were third in yards per game (165.2). On a day where they trailed by double-digits for most of the game, and by as many as 21 points on a couple of occasions, the Falcons still ran the ball 29 times.
A drive like that almost always flips the momentum of the game. For one thing, an extended drive like this (which was made even longer by a replay review) almost always cools down the other offense.
Without missing a beat, the Bengal offense subsequently moved 84 yards on 7 plays (taking just 3:57) to answer the Atlanta touchdown with another of their own, on their way to an eventual 35-17 win (gamebook) (summary).
Even in defeat, though, the Falcons have shown themselves to be a dangerous running team. But there’s another side to both the 16-play drive and the 29 rushing attempts for the day. When you run the ball like that, in these circumstances, it’s half design and half desperation.
By design, this team believes in the good things that will happen if they keep running the ball. But this kind of running is also an admission that they don’t have the passing game that can bring them back from this kind of deficit.
Over his last two games, quarterback Marcus Mariota has been statistically spectacular. He has completed 21 of his last 27 passes (77.8%) for 253 yards and 3 touchdowns, without interception – a 142.7 rate. But don’t be deceived by that. Mariota’s passing success has come as a kind of change-up off the running game. This is evidenced by the paucity of passes thrown over the last two games.
By contrast, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow threw the ball almost as many times in the first half on Sunday (25) as Marcus has over the last two games. And Burrow threw for more yards (344) and as many touchdowns (3) in that one half (on his way to a 481-yard game) than Mariota has managed in the two games combined.
The Falcons are a team that bears watching, but this is the piece that’s holding them back. Until they find the quarterback that makes their passing game dangerous, they will continue to be sorely disadvantaged when they fall behind.