Expectations were high for the New York Giants defense in 2014. Jerry Reese had filled out the secondary quite nicely with some big-name free agent additions, and the team was looking to improve on a good 2013 campaign.
That obviously never happened. Injuries struck hard and they struck fast. The Giants were hampered, undisciplined, and broken on the defensive side. There were some down spots. Some really down spots. There were also some bright spots. We'll take a look at them all, position by position, of course.
The marquee name here is, of course, Jason Pierre-Paul. He did not disappoint with a score of +16.9 on the season. He finished the year with 12.5 sacks, nine QB hits, and 38 QB hurries for a pass rush productivity ranked 16th among 36 qualifying defensive ends that played 50 percent of their team's snaps. He also managed the sixth-best run stop percentage in the entire league. His 49 stops ranked third among all defensive linemen and edge rushers with only J.J. Watt (61) and Justin Houston (50) having more. He was one of the best balanced linemen in the entire league last season for sure.
Despite his great work, JPP was not the highest-ranked defensive end on the team. That belonged to Robert Ayers, who managed a fantastic score of +17.6. That score puts Ayers among the top five of all 4-3 defensive ends in the league (JPP was seventh). Almost all of his grade came on the strength of his pass rush, where his five sacks, 12 QB hits, and 29 hurries in only 249 pass rush snaps put his pass rush productivity at the very top of the NFL rankings. That's right, he was the most productive pass rusher in the league according to PFF, and it was pretty easy to see. He was downright dominant whenever he played. It was a damn shame he didn't play enough.
The other intriguing defensive end on the roster is Damontre Moore. He had a paltry -2.3 score. He had a strong pass rush grade of +3.3, but it was more or less canceled out by a negative run grade. On top of that, he had the worst penalty grade among the defense, and that's what put him into the negatives. He was a fantastic pass rusher, with six sacks, 12 QB hits, and 13 QB hurries for a pass rush productivity good for eighth best in the NFL among 56 qualifying players who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps.
There's one player that I didn't mention, and that's of course the de facto starter opposite JPP for most of the season, Mathias Kiwanuka. He "paced" the team with a defense worst -18.3 grade. He had two sacks, sits QB hits, and 16 QB hurries for a pass rush productivity ranked 31st out of 36 qualifying DEs who played 50 percent of their team's snaps. He also had the worst run defense grade among all the DEs that played. Yeah, not good. Kerry Wynn, the final DE, managed an average score, with high marks for run defense but low marks for pass rush.
If you were interested in snaps taken this season (and oh, I know you are):
Jason Pierre-Paul - 981 snaps
Mathis Kiwanuka - 558 snaps
Robert Ayers - 386 snaps
Damontre Moore - 326 snaps
Kerry Wynn - 192 snaps
If you think that my analysis is implying something about improper management of resources at this position, guess what, you're exactly right!
The monster here is obviously Johnathan Hankins. His +20.2 grade puts him at the top of the Giants' defensive grades and puts him as the seventh-rated defensive tackle in the league. He had the seventh-most stops against the run with 23 and ranked 14th out of a qualifying 48 defensive tackles in run stop percentage. He was always a good run stopper, but his work in the pass game was even more impressive. He finished the year with eight sacks, six QB hits, and 21 QB pressures for a pass rush productivity ranked fifth among all defensive tackles with 60 percent of their team's snaps. As a top 10 run stopper AND pass rusher, it's a bit of an insult to not even be considered for the Pro Bowl or All Pro for the defensive interior. No matter, the silent star will continue to shine.
As for the others, well, they did not shine as bright as Hankins did. Cullen Jenkins scored a modest +1.1, with poor grades against the run, but strong as a pass rusher. If you want to know the snap counts, here they are:
Johnathan Hankins - 700 snaps
Mike Patterson - 430 snaps
Cullen Jenkins - 365 snaps
Markus Kuhn - 254 snaps
Jay Bromley - 112 snaps
There's a reason why I didn't give you the grades of Patterson, Bromley, or Kuhn before I gave you the snaps. Let's first take a look at Bromley, who scored a -2.1 grade, mostly for an inefficient pass rush. He did score positively against the run, however. That brings us to Patterson and Kuhn. Patterson graded out at -12.6 and Kuhn came out to -15.9. Ouch! To put their futility in perspective, the two of them together managed one sack, no QB hits, and 11 QB hurries in a combined 308 pass rush snaps. Hankins' 35 total QB pressures, meanwhile, came from 367 pass rush snaps. Just terrible. Neither should be on the roster come 2015, and it absolutely highlights the need for a pass rushing defensive tackle for the Giants this off-season.
Jon Beason was to be the leader of this defense in the middle. His season was a very short one, however. He managed a -4.2 grade on 160 snaps this season, mostly for some poor work in run defense. Not especially surprising. It will be difficult to keep him on the roster at his current salary.
Jameel McClain struggled even more, with a -12.1 grade in which he struggled heavily in run defense. His one saving grace was as a pass rusher, where he had a positive grade notching three sacks, four QB hits, and seven pressures. I found that somewhat surprising. He has limited range and should be relegated to being a back up veteran who acts like a "glue guy" rather than someone the Giants can view as a starter going forward.
There is hope at this position. That's hard to fathom, but it's true if you believe Pro Football Focus. The main source of that hope? Devon Kennard, of course. In 338 snaps this season, he had a +4.7 grade, scoring positively in pass rush (five sacks, four more QB hurries), in pass coverage, and in run defense. He was the definition of a three-down linebacker, above average in run stop percentage (18th among 43 qualifying LBs), pass rush (eighth among 46 qualifying LBs with minimum 100 pass rushes), and in coverage (second among 38 qualifying LBs with minimum 100 snaps in coverage).
There's also hope from an unlikely source as well. Mark Herzlich seems to have finally found his calling with a +2.2 grade on the year. That may not seem ultra high, and indeed he was not good in coverage at all or as a pass rusher, but he had the third-highest run defense grade (+11.4) among non-rush LBs in the NFL. He was only graded negatively once against the run all year (-0.7 versus St. Louis Rams). He is a true SAM, not a MIKE, and he was uniquely up to the task for it this year.
Jacquian Williams was a hot button topic this year. Thought of as the team's best coverage linebacker, he actually graded negatively versus the pass and as a pass rusher and positively versus the run en route to a -4.0 grade. I do think his pass coverage grade was a tad unfair as he was forced to cover slot receivers on many occasions, but there's still no denying that he struggled at it this year. It remains to be seen if he will be brought back. Spencer Paysinger only played 81 snaps all year, which was confusing in itself.
This was supposed to be the strength of the Giant defense. Alas, injuries took their toll on what should have been a dominant unit. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was the big free agent signing, and (I believe anyway) proved worthy of his contract. Despite playing through severe pain with an iliotibial band injury, he produced a +7.8 PFF grade. He allowed 42 receptions on 74 targets (56.8 percent) with five TDs and picked off two passes. He also had 8 passes defensed. He had a horrid start to the season, allowing 126 yards to Calvin Johnson versus the Detroit Lions. He also had a poor game against the San Francisco 49ers, allowing 79 yards against him. Outside of that, he did not allowing any more than 43 yards in a single game, and had 13 games in which he allowed less than 18 yards. That's awesome.
Meanwhile, Prince Amukamara had a Pro Bowl caliber season cut short due to injury. In the eight games that he played, he amassed a +4.7 PFF grade, for strong work in not only pass coverage but also in run defense. He allowed 26 receptions on 44 targets (59.1%) but allowed no touchdowns, picked off three passes and had five passes defensed. He, like DRC, allowed only one 100-yard game on him, and that was to an all-world performance by Tony Romo and Dez Bryant when the Giants first played the Dallas Cowboys.
The rest of the team at corner was essentially a revolving door, and not many stood out. Trumaine McBride showed the most potential out of the slot once Walter Thurmond went down with a +1.4 grade before he too was cut down by injury. Zack Bowman (-4.3) and Chykie Brown (-6.9) were deemed rather inefficient by PFF. Mike Harris played 224 snaps, however, and was simply average, which about as much as you can ask for from a fourth-string corner.
Jayron Hosley had a -6.7. Yep, "Hosley-level bad."
Much like with the "offense" edition, I saved the worst for last. Antrel Rolle had one of his worst years as a pro as he had a -13.9 grade. Coverage was mediocre? Run defense was that bad? Stupid penalties? Yes to all of the above. He was one of the worst safeties in the league against the run, which is really not good if you're going to be in the box as much as he was during the year. He had an incredible 17 missed tackles, and he ranked 51st out of 63 eligible safeties when it came to tackling efficiency. Not exactly the best contract year push for the veteran former Pro Bowler.
The others were not much better. Stevie Brown was poor in coverage but he actually was the team's best run defending safety and made several key stops in that regard. Quintin Demps was poor in all areas, just not to the degree of Rolle, as he had a -5.1 score.
The Giants had an overall grade of -35.4 (22nd in the league). Here are the splits:
Run defense: -30.1 (26th in the NFL - any surprise?)
Pass rush: +17.4 (15th in the NFL - if you get rid of Kiwi and Patterson, we jump up to 7th)
Pass coverage: -22.6 (21st in the NFL - If they remain healthy next year, will rocket up in 2015)
Penalty: -0.1 (18th in the NFL - Right near the middle again)
Injuries really just crushed many hopes this team had. The secondary was probably the most frustrating. Can you imagine if Prince Amukamara and Walter Thurmond (and heck, even Trumaine McBride) were healthy? Just insane to think about what could have been.
Better yet, it's clear that personnel management was a big issue. Why did Kiwanuka get almost as many snaps as Damontre Moore and Robert Ayers combined? He probably would have gotten more than what they had combined guaranteed had he managed to stay healthy. Why did Markus Kuhn and Mike Patterson play as many snaps as they did despite being a massive hindrance to the team? Frustrating to say the least. I know most of you agree with me here.
It's clear the team needs a new safety. A shame Cooper Taylor was injured, would've been interesting to see how he might have fared. Then again, it's fair to wonder if he'd even get a fair shot.
There's a lot of holes that need to be filled apart from safety. A 3 technique defensive tackle would be nice to have, as would an inside linebacker. I think I could roll with Kennard, Herzlich, and Williams at OLB if we absolutely had to with Kennard at WILL and Herzlich at his natural SAM position. Lots of turnover, guaranteed. With Perry Fewell gone, I can honestly say I have hopes for this defense because it's clear that there is talent in many spots along the defensive front and at corner. A few more big pieces and a coordinator who knows how to use them, and who knows? Perhaps the Giants surprise you.