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Subtle changes on way for Giants in final six games

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A week of introspection could do a football team good. It provides an opportunity to take a step back, locate weaknesses and make changes. As coach Pat Shurmur noted Monday following the New York Giants' Week 11 bye, this isn't the offseason.

There aren't going to be any overarching changes.

The team worked early last week to correct errors after a 34-27 loss to the New York Jets. The players then had four days off, and now they're preparing for Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against the Chicago Bears.

"My point is there is not as much time as everybody thinks to make these wholesale changes that sometimes people think may happen," Shurmur said.

There is, however, enough time to make some tweaks down the home stretch of the season. One would think Shurmur and the Giants have something in their back pockets.

Here are some potential changes to watch for in the final six weeks:

Full collection of weapons

This is beyond the coaching staff's control, but at some point it seems the Giants will have a full arsenal of weapons for the first time this season. That means having rookie quarterback Daniel Jones working with running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Evan Engram and wide receivers Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate.

Incredibly, they haven't all played together yet, whether it be because of Tate's suspension for the first four games or Shepard's concussion or Barkley's ankle or Engram's foot. But at last, it appears close to happening.

Engram ditched the boot on his injured foot on Monday. He sees an "upward trend" and considers himself ahead of schedule, with the timeline for his return originally estimated at two to four weeks. Engram thinks he could get to running and cutting by the end of this week. He considers it "definitely possible" for him to return against the Bears.

Shepard also has a chance to return this week from a concussion that forced him to miss the past five games. Shepard and Engram should be back by Week 13 against the Green Bay Packers, barring any setbacks, and Barkley is getting healthier as he puts the high-ankle sprain that forced him to miss three games behind him.

It is important for the Giants to get a look at what this group can be moving forward because they could be the future. It's not a bad core ... if the players can stay healthy.

"It's definitely something you'd love to see pan out and see what you got," Engram said.

Saquon's usage

The Giants haven't been able to get Barkley the football nearly as much as they did last season. And he hasn't been as effective. Barkley mentioned entering the bye that he would focus on his "inside running." He hasn't excelled in that category this season, a problem considering that is where he gets the ball most in the Giants' power running game.

Barkley is averaging 2.65 yards per carry on runs up the middle, per ESPN Stats & Information. He averaged 4.03 yards on runs up the middle last season after making an adjustment to get out of his college habit of dancing and trying to hit a home run rather than taking a 3- or 4-yard gain by hitting the hole hard.

"I would say that inside running would be the first big thing that I would look at ... running between the tackles," Barkley said.

That isn't the only way he gets the ball, though. Barkley touched the ball on 43% of his snaps last season, when he led the league with more than 2,000 total yards. He's seeing the ball on 38% of his offensive plays this season. The downtick is in the passing game.

Barkley has already adamantly explained that he isn't going to shut it down late in the season if he isn't seriously injured. Right now, he's healthy enough to play, so where we could see an increase in his usage is in the passing game.

The Giants seem intent on involving their star running back in that aspect. He has seen 19 targets the past three games. Barkley ran four routes against the Jets from out wide, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That is more than he did in any other game this season. He ran 12 in the previous seven games combined.

With two of the Giants' next three opponents (Chicago and Philadelphia) among the top 10 in run defense, getting the most from Barkley's pass-catching ability and athleticism against inferior safeties and linebackers seems to fit the kind of changes Shurmur expects.

"You never just keep rolling. You're always trying to do the things your players do well and do more of that and less of the other," he said. "As you watch trends in the league or [are] watching opponents who you're going to play that next week, you can start to see the things that trend, that are good against that opponent. And then you just got to try to do the things that your team matches up well with what that opponent is doing."

The Giants' opponent on Sunday, Chicago, has allowed the second-most receptions to running backs this season.

O-line movement

Shurmur said Monday that if everyone is healthy, those players will return to their starting spots on the offensive line. That means Nate Solder at left tackle, Jon Halapio at center and Mike Remmers at right tackle.

That would leave Nick Gates out of the mix. Gates, 23, filled in admirably for Remmers against the Jets, and it would seem to make sense for him to start in that spot again at some point. Remmers, 30, is on a one-year deal.

In the meantime, Solder is in the concussion protocol, and Remmers is still dealing with a back injury, even though he participated to some degree in Monday's practice. That makes Gates the top option at both tackle spots if either can't go against the Bears.

"Yeah, [Gates] did a good job [vs. the Jets]. We anticipated he would go in and battle," Shurmur said. "He may get a shot. Let's just wait and see what the week brings."

More aggressive defense

The Giants are pretty much out of personnel moves. Rookie cornerbacks DeAndre Baker and Corey Ballentine are already starting, and safety Julian Love showed this summer that he is not ready for a bigger defensive role.

Maybe second-year cornerback Sam Beal (recently activated from injured reserve) will be sprinkled into the mix. Certainly, the Giants will have Leonard Williams for the final six games. Williams is already tied for the team lead among defensive linemen with five quarterbacks hits, and he has done that in two games with his new team.

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher isn't going to magically sprout a dominant pass-rusher, but he matched his highest blitz percentage of the season (43.8% per NFL Next Gen Stats) against the Jets. That produced a season-best seven pressures and two sacks.

Bettcher was known for his aggressiveness prior to coming to the Giants. But he has been hurt by a defensive backfield that can't seem to remember assignments for 60 minutes and avoid explosive plays. The Giants have allowed an NFL-worst 12 pass plays of more than 40 yards.

With five of their six remaining games against offenses ranked 23rd or worse and facing quarterbacks who are struggling, it would hardly be surprising to see a more aggressive and effective Giants defense down the stretch.