EAST RUTHERFORD — You didn’t need a PHD from the Defensive School of Bill Belichick. The key to shutting down the Giants offense was simple: Load the box, shut down all-world running back Saquon Barkley, and make New York beat you through the air.
The teams that successfully did that fared much better against the Giants (3-4-1 record when Barkley has less than 100 total yards) compared to those who did not (6-2 record when Barkley eclipses 100 total yards).
But something’s changed over the last few weeks. Barkley is still the heart and soul of this Giants offense, but it’s no longer just him.
You want to stack the box? For the first time all year, that’s fine.
The Giants will go to the air.
“We’re becoming a more balanced attack,” Barkley said.
Lamenting the Giants talent issues throughout this season has often been a feather placed in the cap of coach Brian Daboll. His Coach of the Year candidacy was largely based upon his ability to get so much (a playoff appearance and wild-card victory over the Vikings) out of so little. But that’s not the only one hanging from Daboll’s brim. He and his staff have done a remarkable job developing those players at his disposal.
No, the Giants likely rank eighth on the talent chart of the remaining teams in the playoffs, but the players they’re working with are, for the first time this year, providing legitimate production — especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Barkley is magnificent. He finished this season with a career-high 1,312 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He added 57 catches for 338 yards. But now he’s not alone. In the Giants’ last four games (excluding a Week 18 game against the Eagles where they played largely backups), Isaiah Hodgins has 24 catches for 273 yards and three touchdowns. Darius Slayton has 15 catches for 204. Richie James has 23 for 243 and a score.
Those numbers look impressive. They’re even more noteworthy when you expand the month’s production over the course of a 17-game season. Hodgins (102 catches, 1,160 yards, 12 touchdowns) and James (97 catches, 1,032 yards, four touchdowns) would be on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards. Slayton would be right behind them (63 catches, 867 yards).
Those numbers indicate the Giants have a trio of legitimate playmakers at their disposal.
So does their play.
“I think we’re playing great football right now,” said Hodgins, whom the Giants claimed off the waiver wire in early November. “I think the coaching staff has done a great job of just putting us in the right position. The players have done a great job of putting in that extra overtime work just knowing, ‘Hey, this is week-by-week. Next week isn’t promised. So, put in all the work this week, and we’ll go execute on Saturday and see what happens.’”
The emergence of Hodgins, Slayton and James is a big reason the Giants are where they are now. There’s no denying Saturday’s game against the Eagles is their toughest test, though. Those numbers, while impressive, weren’t exactly compiled against the league’s best. The Giants faced Washington, Minnesota, Indianapolis and Minnesota again. The Vikings were the only of the three to make the playoffs, and they hold the NFL’s 26th ranked pass defense via Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
The Eagles have a dynamic pass rush (70 team sacks) and arguably the NFL’s best cornerback tandem in Darius Slay and old-friend James Bradberry. It’s one thing to get open against the Vikings. It’s another to break free against Philadelphia. But the Giants are going to need that to happen if they want to upset the conference’s top seed.
“I think the first thing starts with they’re really talented players,” offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said. “They have a really talented group, their depth is super talented. It’s not just like the front four, they got backups, guys that are perennial All-Pros and Pro Bowlers.
“They’re well-coached, right. They have a good scheme and they’re sound with their scheme. They do a lot of good stuff on defense. We got to have a good week of prep.”
The Giants offenses were built similarly in their last two Super Bowl runs. In 2007, they had a rushing attack of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, then a three-headed receiving trio with Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Steve Smith. Jacobs and Bradshaw were both still there four years later, but the wideouts were now Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz.
Most fans might have preferred any combination of those six wideouts, at their current ages, earlier this season as the Giants struggled to get anything going outside Barkley. Instead, Daboll and his staff kept what they had, worked and developed them.
They’re now reaping the rewards.
The Giants were just Barkley.
They’re not anymore.