The New York Giants are not a particularly good football team — at least going by most surface-level analysis that goes beyond their win-loss record.
Before defeating the Detroit Lions 17-6 on Sunday, the Giants ranked 27th in yardage offense, 14th in yardage defense, average in takeaways and pass rush, and were outscoring opponents by less than a point per game and had a minus-five turnover differential. Quarterback Eli Manning was the NFL’s 22nd-rated passer, and the running game had the third-fewest yards in the league.
After their impressive win over the Lions, though, the Giants are 8-1 in their last nine games — including their second of two wins over the Dallas Cowboys, the NFC’s current No. 1 seed. If the Giants aren’t better than average-to-middling at passing the ball, running the ball, stopping other teams from gaining yards or making disruptive plays, how are they winning all these games?
The short answer: Their defense is built to stop modern NFL offenses.
In today’s NFL, short passes have replaced power runs as a NFL offense’s bread and butter. Per ESPN Stats & Information Group, 66.7 percent of this season’s pass attempts — and 38.8 percent of all offensive snaps — have been throws that traveled less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
As Neil Paine wrote for FiveThirtyEight back in 2014, the Giants’ offensive coaches were targeting a 70 percent completion rate for Manning in the 2014-15 season. He didn’t come close (63.1 percent), but what seemed like a historically high target in 2014 is today a plain reality: Both Minnesota’s Sam Bradford and New Orleans’ Drew Brees have completed more than 70 percent of their passes on the season so far, and several more are within striking distance.
With a leaguewide average completion rate of 63.1 percent, per Pro Football Reference, the coaches’ canard about the three things that can happen when you throw the ball has been upended: Now the one good thing happens nearly two out of three times.
The Lions are a useful example: Over the past season and a half, Matthew Stafford has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league, largely on the strength of short passes under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. On the season, 47.7 percent of the Lions’ passes have been thrown less than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which ranks ninth in the NFL. Detroit runs the ball less than any other team but the Cleveland Browns, per Pro Football Reference, and came into Week 15 as the league leader in both average plays per drive and average length of drive. It’s a Woody Hayes-approved three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, except when Stafford drops back it’s 7.4 yards and the cloud is a vapor trail.
But in Week 15 he ran into the New York Giants.
Stafford quickly discovered his array of screens to backs, tight ends and receivers weren’t going anywhere, as New York sniffed them out and schemed them away. Though pass rushers Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul have drawn well-deserved attention for their work up front, it’s the back seven’s outstanding coverage that has suffocated pass-happy offenses such as the Lions’. On Sunday, the Giants defensive backs flew to the ball and wrapped up: Safety Landon Collins, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, corner Eli Apple and safety Andrew Adams each were among the leaders in solo tackles for the day.
The Lions abandoned the short pass and tried to establish the run. It didn’t work.
Per Tim Twentyman of the team’s official site, nine first-down runs by the Lions gained a total of just 19 yards. And while Stafford has thrown nearly half of his attempts less than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season, against the Giants that figure was just 35.9 percent.
Forced to throw fewer, deeper passes, Stafford’s effectiveness numbers were down across the board: He completed just 61.5 percent of his passes, per ESPN.com, posted an NFL passer efficiency rating of 71.8 and a QBR of 69.2. These numbers were all down from his season averages to that point of 66.7 percent completion rate, 97.8 rating and 72.5 QBR. His usual method of moving the chains denied, a quarterback under serious MVP consideration led his team to just two field goals.
Over the course of the season, the Giants defense has allowed the second-lowest completion rate, and second-lowest passer efficiency rating, of any in the league, per Pro Football Reference.
It’s little wonder ball-control teams such as the Lions, the Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles have done so poorly against them. Pass-reliant, hurry-up offenses such as the New Orleans Saints’ haven’t fared well, either; the Saints scored less than half their season average in Week 2.
Offenses that go downfield more aggressively and more often, like Washington’s and Pittsburgh’s, have fared better against New York. But it’s impossible to argue with the results: The Giants defense has now allowed an average of just 17.9 points over their first 14 games — and they’re getting trending stingier at the best possible time.
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