The 2021 season is underway, and we’ve got mere hours before the Broncos face off against the New York Giants. With that in mind, I thought it time to dig into what the advanced numbers say about the matchup. Obviously the vast majority of the stats come from the 2020 season, so their impact will vary. What follows are the metrics I found most interesting, along with my thoughts on why I care about them, as well as what they could mean for the season opener.
Unless I mention otherwise, charting stats and EPA is from Sports Info Solutions. DVOA, DYAR, and Adjusted Line Yard stats are per Football Outsiders. Run/Pass splits by personnel is from Warren Sharp.
Starting a new series of posts— “Football Made Easy”. Combining my love of football, stats and communication work to breakdown football and/or sports analytics terminology for the everyday fan. First up, EPA. pic.twitter.com/GofpAh16af— Nicole Tucker (@StatswithNicole) July 16, 2021
Giants offense vs. Broncos defense
- The 2020 Giants finished as the 26th best offense in football by DVOA. Believe it or not, they did this with the 11th best rushing offense.
- The Giants used 11 personnel (1 TE, 3 WRs) on 55% of their plays. They ran the ball 29% of the time.
- New York used 12 personnel (2 TEs, 2 WR) on 27% of their plays. They ran the ball 12 52% of the time.
- The G-men used 13 personnel (3 TEs, 1 WR) on 11% of their plays. They ran the ball 13 61% of the time.
- The Broncos used nickel+ on 75% of their snaps in 2020.
- New York did not use motion on 70% of their offensive snaps.
- By DVOA, the Giants finished 2020 as the 19th ranked offense on 1st down, the worse offense in football on 2nd down, and the 13th best 3rd/4th down offense.
- By DVOA, the Broncos defense ranked as the 19th best in football on 1st down, 23rd on 2nd down, 9th on 3rd/4th down.
- By DVOA, The Giants were the worst team at passing in the redzone in 2020.
- By DVOA, the Broncos redzone defense was the second best in football. They had the best pass defense.
I’m a huge nerd about personnel, and smart teams use it to their advantage. Before Evan Engram’s injury, I’d long thought one way the Giants could try to neutralize the Broncos’ strength in the secondary is by utilizing more sets with two or even three tight ends. Missing Engram means we could still see Kyle Rudolph and Kaden Smith a decent bit, but it hurts the ways Jason Garrett could create mismatches against Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell.
It’s worth sharing that I do expect New York to try to rush more often this year. Part of this will be an effort to protect a weak offensive line and shaky starting quarterback. Saquon Barkley’s health will also be a big factor. He was hurt early in the Giants’ second game of the 2020 season and in his absence, it fell on Wayne Gallman to lead the team in rushing.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett on Saquon Barkley: “A lot of confidence in him as a player. I think he’s done a great job to get himself back healthy and 100%.”— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) September 9, 2021
100% it is!
How will the trench warfare impact the matchup?
- The Giants OL ranked 20th in power situations.
- They allowed stuffs less often than the average team.
- New York was below average at generating yards on the second and third level, which isn’t a surprise considering their running back situation after Barkley’s injury.
- The Giants were just about average running between the guards, they were subpar to downright bad the farther out you go, which isn’t a surprise if you watch their tackle play.
- The Broncos’ DL ranked 28th in power situations and really fell off after Mike Purcell got hurt.
- Denver stuffed opposing running backs less often than the average defense.
- The Broncos finished as one of the ten best teams in the league at defending the second level, but finished as one of the six worst teams in football at stopping runs once they broke into the open field.
- Denver was league average at defending runs between the guards, and to the offense’s right, they were below average against runs to the offensive left.
- New York was the 6th best rushing offense in the redzone by DVOA, but the Broncos’ defense was weak here, finishing 2020 as the 29th ranked redzone rushing D in the league.
- Giants used gap runs on 53% of their plays last year, 2nd most in football.
- The Broncos defense was one of the three worst in football against gap runs last season.
Take most of the defensive numbers above with a grain or two of salt. Von Miller’s absence as well as the way the Broncos’ defensive line hollowed out over the course of 2020 impacted the numbers. Before Mike Purcell’s injury in week seven, the Broncos run defense was among the best in football.
While a healthier roster should help the Broncos defense overall, there are a couple stats above that leave me intrigued. Bradley Chubb’s potential absence would mean Malik Reed returns as a starter, and throughout my time studying him he has had a notable issue against lines that excel at gap blocking, as his size and play strength give him some issues against down blocks. New York’s running game could provide us a glimpse into how much Reed himself has improved at the point of attack, which could be huge further into the Broncos’ schedule.
New York’s Adjusted Line Yard rankings should also look different this year. Barkley’s return should create more explosive plays into the second and third level, but he’s notorious for his boom/bust running style, which means the Giants probably allow more stuffs.
The way the Broncos defensive system is built is geared towards baiting teams into running the ball too often, so I am keeping an eye on how the Giants dial up rushing attempts. Denver playing out of two high shells could leave them at a disadvantage against concepts designed to get offensive linemen lead blocking downfield. The Giants do this quite a bit, and if Saquon Barkley is healthy enough to make hay in the open field, it could be a problem.
What about the passing matchups?
- Daniel Jones ranked 32nd in the league by DYAR. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Jones was only better than Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith, Sam Darnold, and Carson Wentz.
- Only 64.7% of Jones’ passes were deemed on target. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Jones was only better than Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, and Carson Wentz.
- By DVOA, the Broncos were a top five defense against passes to running backs, a top ten defense against primary receivers in 2020, right about league average against secondary receivers, and ranked 18th against tight ends. They were below average against tertiary receivers.
- By DVOA, the Broncos were the best defense in football against passes to the middle of the field in 2020. They were also a top 13 defense against short and deep passes, as well as throws to the offense’s left. They were atrocious at defending passes to the right, ranking 29th in the league.
- By EPA per play, the Giants offense ranked 30th in the NFL against the blitz.
- In 2020 the Broncos sent 5+ rushers on 27% of their defensive snaps. They were among the 10 best teams in football when blitzing.
- The 2020 Broncos defense ranked 30th in takeaways per drive, a number that should improve this season.
A rebuilt secondary and the return of Von Miller means the Broncos pass defense should look better than it did a season ago. That should be a scary thought for Daniel Jones, as his supporting cast rarely had the opportunity to practice in the preseason because of injuries and look set to try to play through pain.
Given the Giants shaky offensive line, Jones issues with sensing pressure, and the Broncos matchups in coverage, I’m curious to see if Fangio’s willing to send extra rushers as often as he was in 2020. One of the adjustments the Broncos made to adjust to life without Von Miller is to send 5+ rushers more often; Fangio sent 5+ on 22.9% of the 2019 Broncos snaps per Football Outsiders’ charting.
One other aspect of the passing game matchups that can’t go overlooked is how much Jones struggled against Cover 6 shells in 2020, since the Fangio system uses it a ton. I also expect Fangio to lean into more Cover 1 now that he has four strong corners in Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan and Patrick Surtain II.
Will the Broncos defense or Giants offense have an advantage on Sunday?
This week I had the opportunity to speak with USA Today and Big Blue View’s Mark Schofield on Cover2Broncos. When the conversation turned to Daniel Jones, Schofield confirmed something I noticed when I re-watched the 2020 Giants game against the Los Angeles Rams: Jones is prone to mistakes when a defense changes the look from pre-snap to post-snap. The Broncos defense is built to do this on a regular basis: no one spun their safeties more often than Fangio in 2020.
Bradley Chubb’s status and the news that Fangio plans to manage Von Miller’s snaps gives me a little pause, but the Broncos should have a rather large advantage. If Fangio can keep Jones from getting into a rhythm, the talent disparity up front and in the secondary should be obvious. If Denver doesn’t allow Saquon Barkley to run wild, they should have the upper hand.
Broncos offense vs. Giants defense
- The 2020 Broncos finished as the third worst offense in football by DVOA. Washington was the only team with a worse passing game, and the running game ranked 26th in the league.
- The Broncos used 11 personnel (1 TE, 3 WRs) on 67% of their plays. They ran the ball 35% of the time.
- Denver used 12 personnel (2 TEs, 2 WR) on 21% of their plays. They ran the ball 12 51% of the time.
- The Broncos used 13 personnel (3 TEs, 1 WR) on 4% of their plays. They ran the ball 13 76% of the time.
- Giants ran nickel+ on 80% of their defensive snaps in 2020.
- The Broncos used motion on 38% of their snaps in 2020.
- By DVOA, The Broncos were the 30th best team in the NFL on 1st down, 30th on 2nd down, and 20th on 3rd/4th down.
- By DVOA, Giants defense ranked as the 17th best in football on 1st down, 16th on 2nd down, 15th on 3rd/4th down.
- By DVOA, the Broncos had the 17th best redzone offense in football and finished with a league average passing and rushing game there.
- By DVOA, the Giants had the 17th best redzone defense in football due in part because their pass defense was better than average.
The way Shurmur used personnel in the preseason has me extremely curious about how things will look in week one. The Broncos offensive coordinator made liberal use of heavier sets. In Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, and Andrew Beck, the Broncos have a versatile tight end room that could allow for more 12, 21, 22, and 13 personnel this year. If that’s the way Shurmur takes the offense, I hope he’s open to passing out of those looks more than he did a season ago. As defenses go big to match the Broncos, they’d leave themselves susceptible to athletic mismatches with linebackers on Fant and Okwuegbunam. Heavy sets also tend to create opportunities for play action.
It’s hard to ignore how the return of Courtland Sutton and Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback should make the offense more efficient in 2021. Sutton was a Pro Bowl receiver with Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and rookie Drew Lock throwing him the ball in 2019, while Bridgewater’s Panthers finished with the 17th best offense last year.
How will the trench warfare impact the matchup?
- The Broncos OL ranked 3rd in power situations.
- No team allowed stuffs more often than the Broncos’ offense in 2020.
- The Broncos’ running backs did an admirable job once they made it into the second and third level. Denver ranked 14th in second level yards and 8th in the open field.
- Broncos were the worst team in football running between the guards. They were also below average on runs towards the left, but finished as a top 12 team rushing to the right.
- The Giants DL ranked 29th in power situations last season.
- New York stuffed opposing running backs at about a league average rate. They were also right around average at defending the second level and open field.
- The Giants were a little better than average at defending runs between the guards and very good at stopping runs off right tackle. They were right around average against runs in every other direction.
- Denver had a league average rushing offense in the redzone by DVOA, while the Giants had one of the five worst redzone run defenses in the league.
- The Broncos dialed up gap concepts on 43% of their run plays in 2020.
- The Giants defense was weak against gap runs.
When I spoke with Big Blue Views’ Nick Falato, he shared with me that the Giants’ opponents rushed between the guards on only 41.9% of all the rushes New York faced. Football Outsiders found this is the lowest rate in the NFL since 2017. I’m curious if it continues now that Dalvin Tomlinson is a Minnesota Viking. The Giants still have Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, but Tomlinson was a key part of New York’s tite front and his departure means undrafted free agent Austin Johnson or free agent Danny Shelton will need to take over his role as the nose tackle.
While the Broncos ran gap concepts at the 5th highest rate in the league, they utilized more power and deemphasized outside zone over the last eight games of the season and especially Miami week onwards. Javonte Williams also showed at North Carolina that he’s a far better runner on gap concepts than zone. Long story short, I expect to see more gap in 2021.
What about the passing matchups?
- 73.6% of Bridgewater’s 2020 passes were on target by SIS.
- 65% of Lock’s 2020 passes were on target by SIS charting. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Lock was only better than Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Sam Darnold, and Carson Wentz.
- Bridgewater ranked 18th by DYAR, Lock ranked 30th. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Lock was better than Daniel Jones, Cam Newton, Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith, Sam Darnold, and Carson Wentz.
- By DVOA, the Giants were better than average against primary receivers and running backs, they were below average against every other type of receiver and Chicago was the only defense that had more trouble with tertiary receivers.
- By DVOA, the Giants were right around league average against passes to the middle of the field. They were also just about league average against deep passes. They were below average on passes to the left and bad against passes to the right. They also had issues defending short passes, finishing as the 4th worst team in football against them.
- By EPA per play, the Broncos were the worst offense in football against the blitz.
- Patrick Graham sent five or more rushers on just 16% of the Giants snaps last season.
With months to tinker and adjust various parts of the system in addition to the new players who joined the roster over the offseason, there’s no guarantee this year’s Giants look like last year’s Giants, obviously. There is good reason to believe certain tendencies remain, however, as New York didn’t replace their defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Over the course of 2020 he showed a clear preference for Cover 2 and Cover 3 shells. While I suspect he’d like to run more Cover 1, looking at the breakdown of what he used most often paints a pretty clear picture that the Giants will typically have a single high safety post snap if they aren’t running C2 or C2 man.
One topic I had to pick Schofield’s brain on when we spoke on Cover2Broncos was which route concepts made sense against the coverage shells Graham would dial up, as Schofield participated in Sports Info Solutions’ Data Challenge alongside a team that included Dr. Bud Davis, Keegan Abdoo, and Joey Ferraiola.
It sounds like Pat Shurmur should dial up a heavy dose of verticals, Go/Flat, and spacing. If the Giants wind up running Cover 3 as much as last year hints at, that last concept could be sneaky good, as it’s a relatively easy play for the quarterback and still offers receivers a chance to create yards after the catch if the ball is thrown on time.
Will the Giants defense or Broncos offense have an advantage on Sunday?
New York looks like they could have a rather large edge on special teams, which makes this matchup the biggest question hanging over the season opener. There’s no real way around the fact Denver’s 2020 offense was a tire fire. The way Covid-19 ruined the offseason for a new coordinator, Courtland Sutton’s injury, and young players in key roles obviously played a factor. None of those excuses should be a factor on Sunday, and when you add to that a quarterback who has hovered around league average during his playing career, I’m optimistic the offense should be at least decent.
Only time will tell if that’s enough against a sneaky good Giants defense.
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