What is going on with the New York Giants' run defense? The Giants have gone playing the run well in their first two games and having their secondary get torched to the complete opposite -- playing well against the pass while being gashed by the running game.
In the Giants first two games -- against Washington and St. Louis -- they gave up up a total of just 119 yards rushing on 45 attempts. That is an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Against Philadelphia and Arizona the Giants surrendered 333 rushing yards on 72 attempts, 4.6 yards per carry. They were, basically, defenseless against LeSean McCoy of the Eagles and Beanie Wells of the Cardinals.
"That has to stop. We talked about that this morning. We talked about it last night. We've got to sure this thing up and deny that part of the game," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "We weren't able to run it and they were. That's not a good formula. We're going to have to take some extraordinary means to try to solve that issue."
Let's take a look at the reasons for the issues with the run defense, and what Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell might be able to do about it.
What Is Going On
Here are my thoughts on some of the reasons for the difficulties defending the run.
Injuries: Terrell Thomas and Jonathan Goff were two of the Giants' best run defenders. Losing them has to affect how, and how well, the Giants play the run. Thomas was very possibly the best run defending cornerback in the league, and was surely one of the best tackling corners. Goff graded out in 2010 as one of the league's better middle linebackers in run defense. At the corners, Aaron Ross and Corey Webster are simply not as physical as Thomas out on the edges. Greg Jones is doing the best he can in Goff's place, and has done an admirable job. There are times, though, when Jones just doesn't get there. Whether that is a lack of speed, lack of experience or both I'm not sure. Reality is, though, the Giants miss these two guys when it comes to playing the run.
Osi Umenyiora: OK, so we have to talk about Umenyiora and run defense. Make no mistake, the Giants are certainly glad to see Umenyiora back on the field. As he showed Sunday in his return, he is still an extraordinary pass rusher capable of making game-changing plays. As the Cardinals showed Sunday, though, he can be abused if you run directly at him. Almost all of Arizona's success running in the second half came running to Umenyiora's side. Reality is, the run is generally an after-thought for Umenyiora. He plays his own version of Philly's 'wide nine' and sells out for the sack on nearly every play. The Giants aren't going to change him, so they have to find a way to fill the gaps that he leaves.
The Opponents: Face it, Washington and St. Louis are not the same as Philadelphia and Arizona. The priority the past two weeks has been preventing the big play. That means deeper safeties and fewer eight men in the box type sets. It also means fewer snaps for Jones and the base defense. It has worked to the extent that the Giants did not allow Philly or Arizona to complete huge pass plays. Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips were critical parts to the success of the run defense early on, though, and you can't support the run from 20 or 25 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Justin Tuck: Jason Pierre-Paul is an emerging monster. Umenyiora is still Umenyiora. Dave Tollefson plays with tons of energy. Tuck, though, is still the Giants best all-around defensive end -- and unquestionably their best run defender. Neck and groin injuries kept him off the field Sunday and limited his effectiveness (one tackle) against the Eagles. A limited or unavailable Tuck punches another hole in the run defense.
Mistakes: How many times did we see linebackers or corners jump inside on Sunday only to have Wells jump outside and take off? We also saw linebackers and defensive ends come crashing upfield, leaving huge gaps inside. It comes back to being disciplined and playing assignments properly.
What Can Be Done
Here are a couple of thoughts on what the Giants can do.
Personnel: The Giants have experimented in the past with a 'heavy' package that lines up Chris Canty at defensive end. I have rarely seen them use it in games, but it might be time to bring it out of mothballs. Especially if Tuck is not going to play, or is limited, why not put Canty at one end with Tuck or JPP at the other end on running downs? Or, at least in short yardage? Linval Joseph, Rocky Bernard and even Jimmy Kennedy have been playing well and can man the inside. This package would, really, give you three defensive tackles on the field and would be the best defensive line the Giants could play vs. the run. Of course, I understand that it limits the pass rush.
Alignment: Two points about this.
- When Umenyiora and Michael Boley are on the field together, and lined up with Boley next to Umenyiora, that has always been a soft spot in the defense that teams could run at. Both are terrific players, but neither is a dominant point of attack guy when the play comes straight at them. They can be pushed out of the hole. So, here's a thought. Flip-flop Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka. Put Kiwanuka, who has been playing pretty well and is the team's biggest, most physical linebacker, next to Umenyiora. That should help solidify the edge, and could also be a devastating pass-rush combination.
- Get a safety involved in the run support. Truth is, I think the Giants are already trying to do this as much as possible. It is a role Phillips seems to thrive in. The last two weeks, though, facing players like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Larry Fitzgerald the priority has been different. That probably changes the next few weeks.
Of course, the Giants could also do nothing. They could pray that Tuck magically heals. They could cross their fingers that Greg Jones continues to learn and starts making some of those plays he is just missing. They could hope that Umenyiora has an epiphany and realizes he is also getting paid when the opposition runs the ball.