Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the New York Giants, who have found many effective ways to get the ball to sensational rookie running back Saquon Barkley, including a short pass that can turn into a big gain.
NEW YORK GIANTS' SIGNATURE PLAY: SAQUON BARKLEY FLAT ROUTE
The Giants used the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Penn State star Saquon Barkley – and notably not on a quarterback, to detractors of the selection – and wherever one stands on the wisdom of selecting a running back that high there's little doubt that Barkley is supremely talented and perfectly suited to today's NFL.
Through his first nine games, Barkley has rushed for 586 yards and caught 62 passes for 530 yards, which puts him on pace for final season totals of 1,041 yards on the ground and 942 through the air. If Barkley can pick up the pace a bit in that second category he could join the Rams' Marshall Faulk (1999) and the 49ers' Roger Craig (1985) as the only players in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
The Giants have many ways to get Barkley the ball in the passing game, from screens to swing passes to simply lining him up in the slot and letting him beat a linebacker one-on-one. When it works to perfection, the route and the pass get Barkley out in space with a chance to get up to top speed before he starts encountering – and often frustrating – would-be tacklers. The Giants have been able to do that on occasion this year with a simple flat route out of a shot-gun, one-back formation. In a wild back-and-forth road game against the Carolina Panthers in Week Five, New York pulled out this play at a critical moment and it created the best possible result.
The Giants had to rally twice in this game, first from a 17-3 deficit in the second quarter and then from a 27-16 hole in the fourth period. Eli Manning's 33-yard touchdown passes to Odell Beckham made it a three-point game midway through that quarter, before Carolina kicker Graham Gano pushed it back to six with a 39-yard field goal.
Gano would end up being the hero of the day, but not before Manning and Barkley teamed up to give the visiting team its first lead since it went up 3-0 in the first quarter. New York's final drive began at its own 25-yard line with 2:16 left in regulation but quickly got into scoring territory when Manning hit former Buccaneer (and former Panther) Russell Shepard on a 40-yard pass down the right side. Shepard was initially given credit for a 55-yard touchdown but the play was reviewed and he was ruled down at the Carolina 15. All that did was give Barkley a chance for some heroics on the next snap.
On first down, the Giants line up with Manning in the shotgun and Barkley to his right. They are in "11" personnel, meaning there is also one tight end on the field along with three wideouts. New York originally sets up in a three-by-one alignment, with tight end Rhett Ellison (#85) flanking the left tackle and joining wide receivers Russell Shepard (#81) and Sterling Shepard (#87) on the left side. Wideout Odell Beckham (#13) is split to the right.
Before the snap, however, Ellison goes in motion and switches to the right side, making it a two-by-two alignment, as seen above. Strong safety Mike Adams (#29) travels with Ellison, giving Manning a strong indication that his targets will be facing man coverage. Carolina has responded to the Giants' 11 personnel by going to a nickel and leaving Eric Reid (#25) as a single-high safety in the deep middle. Reid lines up with his heels on the goal line.
The nickel package leaves just two linebackers on the field, but Luke Kuechly (#59) and Thomas Davis (#54) are one of the best nickel-LB tandems in the NFL. Unfortunately, the call the Giants have on top will prove to be the perfect one against Carolina's defensive call. In the image above, you can see Carolina's four down linemen split to the right and left, leaving the middle of New York's line uncovered. Even before the snap, in the image above you can see Kuechly and Davis starting to creep up towards that uncovered middle. Since this is man coverage, it is Davis who is responsible for covering Barkley if he goes out on a route, and the defensive call is going to put him at an immediate disadvantage.
Barkley does indeed leave the backfield, running a simple flat route that basically takes him to the line of scrimmage, running out towards the right sideline and looking back over his right shoulder for the ball.
Kuechly and Davis have come all the way up to the line of scrimmage to "mug the A gaps" on either side of the center. That doesn't necessarily mean they are going to blitz – they could show the blitz but then drop back into coverage, but in this case they do come after the quarterback. Defensive end Efe Obada (#94), playing the right end, knows that the linebackers are going to blitz and that it is now his responsibility to cover the running back if he runs a route to the right. That's exactly what happens, but it is an extremely tough assignment for Obada. Barkley is already running past him as he pulls up on his rush and peels out to his left in pursuit. In the image above, you can see that Barkley has quickly put a good amount of distance between him and the defender, and that Davis, while he has reacted to the play, is also too far away to catch up before the ball arrives.
Manning buys time and gives himself a better angle to make the throw by rolling out to his right as soon as he gets the snap. Meanwhile Ellison and Beckham are running their routes deep enough to pull their defenders – who, again, are in man coverage and must stay with them – away from the right flat and give Barkley room in which to operate. Beckham, in particular, has the attention of cornerback James Bradberry (#24) because he is one of the Giants' biggest threats in the red zone. Reid, the only defender not with a man assignment, sees the direction of the play and heads to his left hoping to at least prevent the touchdown.
Manning's throw is timely and mostly on target, but a little bit behind Barkley, but at only allows the rookie back to show off more of his talents. He spins to his right to make the catch while facing the football, then continues spinning into a 270-degree turn that has him facing the goal line. The move is done so smoothly that by the time Barkley gets both feet back onto the ground he will already be in ballcarrier mode and will be able to get up to full speed quickly.
Ellison's in-and-out route has brought Adams back into the picture as a defender who might be able to keep Barkley from the end zone, but the tight end will alertly turn into a blocker after the catch and attempt to wall off the safety to create a path to the end zone.
Ellison mostly succeeds in that effort, though he can't keep Adams' momentum from pushing both players almost to the sideline to cut off Barkley's lane. Neither Obada nor Davis was ever able to catch up from Barkley from behind, due to that smooth catch-and-run transition, and Reid also does not arrive in time.
Barkley, seeing that he will probably be pushed out of bounds shy of his target by the combination of Adams and Ellison, chooses to cover the last bit of field in the air, taking off from the four yard line and crossing over the pylon before landing. That final leap results in the touchdown the Giants needed, and the extra point puts them up, 31-30 with 1:08 to play.
Unfortunately for the Giants – and the Panthers' foes in the NFC South – that was not the game's final score. A 20-yard completion by Cam Newton to rookie wideout D.J. Moore would get the ball close to midfield, and a one-yard run by Christian McCaffrey would convert a third-and-one at the Giants' 45. The Panthers were out of timeouts so Newton had to spike the ball on first down to stop the clock with 11 seconds left. One more downfield pass fell incomplete and, with six seconds left, the Panthers decided their best bet was to let Gano try a 63-yard field goal. Amazingly, they were right and Gano nailed it to give Carolina a two-point win.