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Football Outsiders Almanac, New York Giants, Part II: The rest of the defense

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Here is Part II of my look through the 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac comments on our New York Giants. We have already looked at the defensive line. Let's look at what FOA said about the rest of the defense.

Writing for FO, Bill Barnwell expresses concern about the secondary.

While Corey Webster built on his 2007 playoff performance and had a huge 2008 campaign, the rest of the secondary was unimpressive. Aaron Ross looked lost for most of the year, taking too many false steps and failing to make tackles downfield. Nickel corner Terrell Thomas looked very good as a rookie, and might end up taking Ross’ job if the former Texas star continues to struggle, but the Giants would be much better off if Ross could hold up in coverage and Thomas could stay in the nickel. There’s also uncertainty at safety, where 2008 first-round pick Kenny Phillips takes over at strong safety from James Butler, with no depth behind either him or free starter Michael Johnson. The organization’s failure to address depth issues before the sixth round of this year’s draft — the team signed only mediocre Texans safety C.C. Brown in free agency — could very well come back to bite them if Webster or Phillips goes down with an injury.

My take: Barnwell's criticism of Ross is a bit harsh. Ross spent too much of 2008, his second season, in trail mode running down receivers from behind. He is too athletic, though, to be a long-term liability. He should take a big step forward in 2009.

Barnwell's concern about the depth at safety is justified. Phillips and Johnson give the Giants an athletic, play-making pair of starters. Brown is nothing special, and Travonti Johnson, Sha'reef Rashad and Vince Anderson are undrafted guys with a lot to learn. An injury to Johnson or Phillips could be a huge problem.

Barnwell summarizes the Giants' linebackers this way.

Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is the heart and soul of the defense, and while he’s still an effective run
blitzer, he struggled mightily in coverage last year. He is sometimes victimized solely because he’s the one guy left in a hook zone when the blitz doesn’t get there, but even that doesn’t explain away how poor his performance was. Among qualifying linebackers, only James Farrior allowed more than the 5.8 yards after catch averaged on throws with Pierce in coverage. Pierce will have new bookends around him that might help this year, though; the weakside starter will be former Atlanta linebacker Michael Boley. Boley fell out of favor with the new regime in Atlanta because of his struggles against the run, and even lost his job at the end of the season, but the Giants recognize that Boley is an explosive athlete capable of rushing the passer (although he didn’t show it last year) and being an effective pass defender both in zone and against tight ends in man coverage. Although we don’t often use the term in football, he’ll make for a nice platoon with second-year linebacker Bryan Kehl, who isn’t much of a pass rusher, but does a good job of plugging up holes in the running game.

The strongside linebacker will be second-round pick Clint Sintim, assuming that he picks up the playbook and the speed of the game at the level the Giants expect him to. 2008 starter Danny Clark, thrust into the position after Kiwanuka was moved to end, was inconsistent and limited athletically; in a front seven built on quickness and the ability to rush the passer, Sintim’s a better bet. The Virginia product had 11 sacks as a senior, so he can get to the quarterback, but he’s not particularly experienced in coverage and might not have the skill set to play on the outside. Don’t be surprised if he eventually replaces Pierce at middle linebacker, but for now, he gives the team yet another pass rusher. Sintim will be backed up by Gerris Wilkinson and special teams demon Zak DeOssie.

My take: This is a group that is, somewhat, in transition. The biggest question is how much does Pierce have left in the tank? He was taken advantage of toward the end of last season, but he is a proud player who feeds off the doubts and perceived slights. I would expect a good season from AP. I am not that worried about the outside slots. Which players eventually fill them I can't tell you. But, the Giants have lots of quality options.