Small Ball is shorter pass routes on 1st and 2nd down which help an OL and QB to get better rhythm and control on pass protection. Obviously it does not have to be done to the EXCLUSION of deeper routes. In fact, small ball helps compliment deeper routes because it puts you in 2nd and shorts and 3rd and shorts so that you CAN have the flexibility to go with bigger plays WITHOUT the defense knowing what is coming. Why the emphasis on small ball as opposed to just running the ball to set up these same situations? The answer is the rules changes (or lack of enforcement of holding inside the shoulders), which gives the OL an advantage over the DL, all else equal. This is why teams pass more these days than they used to.
Follow the progression:
1) Rules changes make it easier for OLmen to hold >
2) This protects QBs and incentivizes passing (which is what the NFL wants) >
3) Teams throw the ball more >
4) Defenses put extra emphasis on pass rush to disrupt the timing of the passing game >
5) OFFENSES must respond to (4) by mixing up pass plays with smaller stuff beyond the line (Slants, TE midscreens), and to the side of the line (flares, RB screens, intentional RB dumpoffs).
5a) This is why you see more draws being called today than in yesteryear. Since offenses are passing more, they are in shotgun and pass packages more often. So if you run the ball, you may as well run the (delayed) draw and take advantage of the DL blowing past the line of scrimmage so that your offense once again punishes the pass rush when the DL's ears are pinned back.
Separately, play action, although not small ball, has the same effect. It freezes the pass rush at the line of scrimmage, allowing the OL some respite from the marauding pass rush.
Before the beginning of the Philadelphia game, Eli is interviewed by the sideline reporter about what the Giants need to do to break the Eagles' success, and Eli responds that they need to avoid 2nd and longs & 3rd and longs... could it be any clearer how there is an acute need for small ball, especially against a team with aggressive pressure and pass rush?!
The offense was out of rhythm in the first 28 minutes of H1. Collinsworth remarked how his "worst fear" for the two offensive lines was them not being able to handle the pressure of both DLs. On the very first play from scrimmage, Gilbride makes a good playcall- he intentionally has Eli roll out of the pocket to buy him time. But here is where the failure occurs- it is Hixon on a comeback route and he cannot make the grab. I like Hixon on comeback routes better than vertical balls that he needs to go up and get. Hixon has better success with the former than the latter. Yet here is the the problem- this is not small ball. The QB designed roll out of the pocket is a good mixup on 3rd down when you absolutely need time and long/er distance. Using it 3-4X per game vs the Eagles is good, but on 1st down it is less valuable.
Another playcall is a deep post to the TE on 1st down, incomplete. Not small ball. Well, that one set up a 2nd and long. It turns out that the Giants converted it, but that is hiding the fact that it puts extra pressure on your OL to hold their blocks longer for the lengthier routes. What small ball does is it frustrates the pass rush because the mixed up duration of quicker releases makes it harder for DLinemen to pin their ears back. Gilbride calls a shovel pass, which happens to be incomplete... but it is behind the line of scrimmage and does nothing to help this. Better is to get the RB or TE slightly to the side or above the line of scrimmage.
This is not to imply that there were not any small ball playcalls during those 1st 28 minutes vs the Eagles. A classic was one of the rare RB screens that was thrown, done together with play action in Q2. The result? A 20 yard scamper by Ahmad Bradshaw. On the play, there are 7 DL+LBers at the line of scrimmage. But that pressure is negated by screen. The immediate effect was to slow down the pass rush on subsequent plays. On the very next play, as an example, Gilbride calls play action again and the protection is good enough for almost 5 full seconds of Eli back in the pocket and stepping up for a bomb to Hixon.
The mistake? Not using MORE of this sprinkled in during the game to give the Offense balance and the (Eagles) pass rush less venom.
In the second half, there is a simple and innocent slant/in by Victor Cruz for 4 yards. But Manning hits Cruz perfectly in stride and Cruz breaks a tackle. The next thing you know, there are 26 yards after the catch for a 30 yard pass play. High percentage, Eli is in shotgun w a 1-2 step backdrop, quick release, the pass rush is made irrelevant and AT WORST the Giants have a second and ~four. In this case, there was obviously much more, but the point is that the offense was in rhythm and the defense (rush) was kept off balance. Eli makes a big mistake on the ensuing play with an INT in the end zone, but you can easily see how small ball is going to set up and sustain drives.
Today the Giants face a Redskins defense that does not have the same pressure that the Eagles have. The Skins are in last place in the NFL vs the pass. But that statistic is misleading. The Redskins have been thrown at the most attempts this season, so the yardage is certainly there. On yards per pass attempt, the Redskins are not as bad, and in fact their number is 0.7 yds per attempt BETTER than the Giants defense. So get it out of your head that the Giants can just sit back and throw long every down. You still need small ball to set up the big pass plays. Make your long ball easier with small ball.