Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's Injury Sank the Giants Against the Packers
It was supposed to be the prize fight of the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers -- one of the most efficient quarterbacks in league history -- was squaring off with the vaunted New York Giants' secondary, which had been scorching souls the final 10 games of the season.
It was supposed to be a battle of the ages that would decide who would advance to the divisional round and who would watch from afar.
Instead, Rodgers dropped a death hammer on their behinds to the tune of 362 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Green Bay Packers cruised to a 38-13 victory. The melee we had all wanted was just a straight thrashing.
How did this all go down? How did our most-coveted matchup in a weekend largely devoid of intrigue simply flame out?
It's possible that the Giants were a tad overrated, but that seems unlikely. They had numberFire's fifth-ranked pass defense (and second overall) for the season, and they were even better when you narrow the scope to the second half of the season.
It could just be that Rodgers is that good, where he can dismantle even the best unit in the league at will. While he is on a normal day, Rodgers was missing his best weapon, Jordy Nelson, for the entire second half due to a rib injury early on. With Nelson on the sidelines, Rodgers' odds of unleashing this type of performance should have been even lower.
The most plausible explanation here has nothing to do with Rodgers, an over-hyping of the Giants' secondary as a whole, or the Giants' receivers getting their T-Pain on during their off day.
Instead, it may just be about a crippling injury early on that sealed the Giants' fate.
Injury Update: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (thigh) is questionable to return. #NYGvsGB
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 8, 2017
Just two snaps into the game, Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie went down with an injury. He was able to play some special teams snaps later on, but that was the end of his night defensively, and the Packers took full advantage.
Let's take a look at the effect Rodgers-Cromartie's injury may have had on the outcome of this game using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. This tracks the expected points a team adds to their current drive on each play, giving us a read on how efficiently they're operating.
It can also tell us areas in which a team may have lagged, and that's where Rodgers-Cromartie's importance really stands out.
Gashed Through the Slot
One of Rodgers-Cromartie's big talents is his ability to cover both in the slot and outside. He had more success on the outside, according to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, but this was a versatile defender who was no longer available. The Packers took full advantage.
With the best slot corner out of the lineup, the middle of the field was particularly vulnerable for the Giants' defense. Of Rodgers' 40 attempts for the night, 15 were to the middle of the field. Here are his splits when going there versus when he threw outside. Passing NEP is the expected points Rodgers added on throws to that part of the field, and Success Rate is the percentage of plays that increased the team's expected points for the drive.
|Direction||Attempts||Passing NEP||Passing NEP per
Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple were able to hold down the fort outside, and Rodgers didn't do much when going there. The middle of the field, though, was a gold mine for the Packers' offense. If you're looking for the main culprit here, you need not look further.
Of course, that middle grouping does include the 42-yard Hail Mary at the end of the first half, and that likely had nothing to do with the Giants' inability to cover the slot receiver. Still, even when you omit that, Rodgers still averaged 0.99 Passing NEP per attempt to the middle of the field. This wasn't just a one-play phenomenon.
In order to back this claim up fully, we should dig back into the regular season to see how the Giants fared against passes over the middle when Rodgers-Cromartie was healthy.
They struggled mightily against tight ends and slot receivers in 2015, so it's possible this has just been a constant shortcoming for the team and Rodgers-Cromartie's injury had little to do with their demise. The table below -- which compares their regular-season performance to what happened Sunday night -- would seem to dispute that.
|Direction||Attempts||Passing NEP||Passing NEP per
The Giants allowed almost as many Passing NEP up the middle on Sunday as they did the entire 16-game regular season. That regular-season sample does include a matchup with Rodgers back in Week 5, as well. He attempted 13 passes to the middle, and they resulted in -1.41 Passing NEP and a 23.08% Success Rate.
This secondary was not the same one we saw in the regular season, and Rodgers-Cromartie was the missing link.
Obviously, none of this is going to erase the loss for the Giants, and it's not going to stop the public from blaming their boat escapade. However, it does mean we should still hold the Giants' secondary in high regard despite what happened on Sunday. When at full health, this is still one of the league's most frightening units.
Both Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins are under contract for next season, and Apple will be entering his second season in the league. They've got a full offseason to rest up, and they should return to being a dominant force in Week 1 of 2017. But that one injury was enough to sink them against Rodgers and the Packers.
The Giants had largely thrived against passes to the middle of the field this year, including in their first meeting with Rodgers in Week 5. However, with Rodgers-Cromartie on the sidelines and gimpy, they couldn't duplicate that performance in the playoffs. Rodgers and the Packers exploited this newfound weakness with great success, and it helped lead them to a decisive victory.
It's impossible to say what would have happened had Rodgers-Cromartie not gotten hurt early on. After all, they were still facing one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the Giants' offense didn't do much to inspire confidence for an alternative outcome. But it's clear that Rodgers-Cromartie's injury had a major impact on the other side of the ball, and the Giants will be left with a boatload of "what ifs" sailing through their heads the entire offseason.