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Eagle Eye: The Saquon Barkley Effect

Subscribe to the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast fueled by Gatorade for a preview of Thursday's matchup with the Giants.

I enjoy watching other teams go through transitions with new coaches and new players. There are just so many layers to it and when you have wholesale changes like what the New York Giants went through this year, it makes it even more intriguing.

The Giants are ushering in new schemes on offense and defense, and are doing so with new players all over the field. Let’s start offensively, where there are still some familiar faces. Eli Manning remains the quarterback. We know what Eli brings to the table. He’s decisive. He’s not going to extend the play. He’s going to drop back and, especially against this defense, get the ball out quickly. The Giants haven’t pushed the ball downfield a whole lot (at least not before last week), and I expect that to hold true on Thursday night.

Manning is completing 80 percent of his passes on third down, and a lot of that is because they’re able to matriculate the football down the field and pick up small chunks, creating third-and-manageable situations. The Giants are tied for first in the NFL in five-minute drives (10) and tied for third in 10-play drives (11). Manning is completing 71.8 percent of his passes, the third-highest rate in the NFL. This is an efficient scheme that gets the ball out quickly.

Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the most dynamic playmakers in football. He’s a surgical route runner who can carve defenders up at every level of the field and boasts one of the best pairs of hands in the world. He makes things look so easy at the catch point, and he’s going to get his share of targets at every level.

Sterling Shepard is so effective in the middle of the field. The Giants love him on third down – especially on rub and pick routes – and his ability to win both one-on-one against man coverage as well as by settling into the soft spots of zone coverage makes him one of the best slot receivers in football.

Rookie running back Saquon Barkley is the new dimension in this offense. His presence gives this unit a bit of a different identity on a weekly basis.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

The Giants are only averaging 3.86 yards per carry (23rd in the NFL) and 75.6 rushing yards per game (28th). Barkley has had far too many of his runs end behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s a big play waiting to happen. At over 230 pounds with 4.3 speed, he’s a load to bring down and an absolute monster in the open field. Barkley has rare lateral agility for a man his size, and his balance is bewildering as a runner. He gets caught looking for the big play too often, much like how LeSean McCoy was early in his career here in Philadelphia, but make no mistake about it, he’s going to get his share of chunk runs. He has every week. And it’s not just in the run game, because he’ll impact the passing game as well.

A completely revamped offensive line also shapes this new identity. Nate Solder was the big-ticket free agent signing from New England and he’s a solid left tackle. Will Hernandez is a top-40 draft pick from UTEP. He’s a big, physical mauler who gets great movement in the run game. He pairs well with free agent signee John Greco on double teams. Patrick Omameh also came over in free agency and he’s been decent at right guard. Former undrafted free agent Chad Wheeler took over for recently waived Ereck Flowers and has been solid as well. Wheeler would have been a relatively high pick in the NFL Draft a couple of years ago had it not been for medical and off-the-field issues. He’s a big kid with light feet and he has talent. This is a physical offensive line in the run game, though they do still have some issues in pass protection. The use of not only the run game, but also play-action, has helped keep Eli upright.

Play-action has become a big part of what the Giants do. Whether it’s with quick throws over the middle (called "bang" play-action by some) to players like Odell and Shepard, or deep shots down the field to stretch the defense, Manning will drop back and get rid of the ball at the top of his drop more often than not. He’s not going to hold the ball all that long, and when he does the Giants often keep in extra help in protection to assist the offensive line.

The Giants also mix in some Run Pass Options (RPOs), last week in particular, to attack defenses at the second level in the passing game. I expect that to continue on Thursday night as they try and put the Eagles' linebackers in run-pass conflicts to create confusion. These plays help the offensive line, the running back, and the quarterback.

With all of these playmakers on offense, the Giants have been good at spreading people out in "empty" formations, putting Manning in the backfield by himself and allowing him to feast on defenses.

When you line up in an empty set with Beckham, Barkley, and Shepard on the field, defenses have two choices. First is to match up and tip its hand by declaring man coverage and then trust the players to WIN in space against those playmakers. The other is to not match up, which means zone coverage, and give Manning a clue as to where to attack. There’s no getting around it ... it’s a tough deal to try and defend. The Giants have hit all of their playmakers in empty sets this year, and I don’t think that will change.

Defensively, the Giants are ushering in a new scheme as well with former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher. With Arizona, Bettcher’s M.O. was heavy man coverage with a high-volume pressure 3-4 scheme that lined up mainly in subpackages. Now, the personnel in New York isn’t quite what he had in Arizona, so some of those things are tweaked a bit, but that’s still in his DNA. Things start up front in this defensive group.

The Giants have a tough defensive line. It’s a stout three-man front with Damon "Snacks" Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson, and B.J. Hill. All three guys are stout, they’re active, and they can collapse the pocket both against the run and the pass. Olivier Vernon, their primary pass rusher, will make his season debut tonight. They signed former Eagle Connor Barwin this summer to help replace him and signed Kareem Martin in the spring to start opposite him. They’re not getting a great pass rush off the edge, but those guys can operate in their pressure packages and they’re good for some hustle sacks as well. Rookie third-round pick Lorenzo Carter is still kind of learning on the job, but he’s a freak athlete off the edge with potential to get home in their blitz packages.

The Giants like to send pressure, but they’ll also feign pressure and drop back into coverage as well. Not only does this change the look for the quarterback from pre-snap to post-snap, but it also helps create favorable matchups and one-on-one situations for pass rushers on the outside. This is a smart move by Bettcher to rely on these tactics as they wait to get guys back from injury and get through the year with the personnel they have at this point.

At linebacker, the Giants start offseason acquisition Alec Ogletree inside. He is their lone three-down linebacker. Ogletree, who was traded by the Rams to New York early this spring, is one of the most athletic linebackers in football, and his movement skills help to overcome some of his other flaws. In their base defense and in their primary nickel package, second-year linebacker B.J. Goodson starts next to Ogletree. Goodson is a physical, active player who impressed me as a rookie. Ray Ray Armstrong, another former Los Angeles Ram, comes on for Goodson in their "light" nickel package. The former college safety has a bit more sideline-to-sideline range, and he plays a good amount for Bettcher on the inside.

In the secondary, Landon Collins is a versatile playmaker for the Giants. Used as a blitzer, in man coverage over tight ends, and in zone both high and underneath, Collins is a player who must be accounted for at all times. Veteran corner Janoris Jenkins – another former Ram – is the top cover man and he shadows opposing No. 1 receivers. I expect to see him lined up against Alshon Jeffery throughout the night. Former first-round pick Eli Apple starts on the opposite side, and he’s got all the physical gifts in the world. He’s missed some time with injury, but Apple has improved in his third season.

As Greg Cosell points out above, the Giants like to mix in the use of combination coverages on the back end. Carson Wentz may think he has man coverage, but it’s in fact zone. He and his receivers have to be on the same page in this game. Bettcher will disguise some things, offer a variety of looks up front and on the back end, and try to confuse the Eagles at every turn. It’s a subpackage defense that wants speed on the field at the second and third levels so that their strong front can clog things up inside. It should be noted Wentz had one of the best games of his career last year against the Cardinals, throwing four touchdown passes (three in the first quarter alone). This will be a fun matchup to watch on film on Friday morning.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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