Every year it seems that for all the criticism Jerry Reese takes from fans, he manages to find an under-the-radar player who comes from nowhere to be a major contributor.
In 2015 it has been fullback / special teams contributor / defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock.
Really, it is difficult to pinpoint Whitlock's greatest area of impact.
Fullback's generally don't get the appreciation they deserve, unless they are John Kuhn and scoring touchdowns in Green Bay. Sure, a nice fullback block can earn some nods of appreciation from the more old-school fans, and even some kudos should said block contribute to a touchdown run. But generally the fullback is the pinkie toe of the NFL. Nice to have, can help with balance, but it is slowly disappearing.
But while Henry Hynoski, the fullback Whitlock replaced, was largely liked by Giants fans, Whitlock is quickly entering the realm of "Folk Hero". It's a position last occupied by Rhett Bomar, but unlike Bomar, Whitlock is actually earning his adulation on the field. In an era when the NFL is moving towards ever-increasing specialization, when some teams actually carry three different kickers, rather than have an offensive or defensive player who can kick or punt a little do the booting, Whitlock is a three-way throwback to a bye-gone era.
Tim Tebow with more awesome hair. Or perhaps the New York Giants' Leatherman multitool.
When he was breaking down the Giants' 90-man roster, our own Fearless Leader (Ed) had this to say about Whitlock:
Fullback Nikita Whitlock was a collegiate nose tackle who had 18.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in four years at Wake Forest. At 5-foot-11, 250 pounds, however, being an NFL defensive lineman is not going to happen. He chose fullback over a move to inside linebacker. Can Whitlock complete the transition?
provided Henry Hynoski is healthy the job will belong to him. Whitlock? During the 2014 preseason he earned a +1.9 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in 44 offensive snaps. If he is similarly impressive this time around perhaps he earns a spot on the practice squad as an insurance policy.
With a player like Whitlock, who spent time on the Cincinnati and Dallas practice squads, there wasn't much evidence that he could displace fan favorite Henry Hynoski -- who happened to be one of the top fullbacks in the NFL. But what Whitlocks has is extreme versatility. Two-way players in the NFL are fairly common, provided you count backup offensive and defensive players on on special teams as being "two-way". But players playing on offense and defense? That is a rarity.
But not only did Whitlock prove to be Hynoski's equal in delivering punishing lead blocks, but he also proved to be a special teams demon ...
... And the defense's secret weapon. One part serendipity, one part perseverance, and one part stroke of genius, Whitlock got his chance playing his beloved defensive tackle position and he wrought havoc.
"We knew about it before," Spagnuolo said. "I remember [defensive line coach] Robert Nunn talking about it. Larry's [Izzo, assistant special-teams coach] been adamant about it. There's been a lot of different people, and especially Nikita himself. Every time I'd see him it was, 'Coach, don't forget.' I didn't forget. We got him in there."
So while it is difficult to parse the area where Whitlock has his greatest impact, his impact is most evident as a pass rushing defensive tackle.
Play 1 -- The Spin Cycle
If you've been paying attention at all to the interwebs this season, you'll recognize this play. It quickly went viral after the New York'a victory over Washington. This was the moment when the Giants -- who have been desperately searching for a pass rush from somewhere -- realized they might have an unexpected contributor.
Or at least a contribution from someplace that nobody outside of the Giants expected.
This is a pretty simple passing-situation play from the Giants. They are in their nickel set, with Nikita Whitlock at 3-technique between the left guard and left tackle. The Giants seem to be running a combination coverage with the corners, Jayron Hosley, Prince Amukamara, and Trumaine McBride in man coverage, the linebackers dropping back into zone coverage, while only the defensive line rushes Kirk Cousins.
Of the pass rushers, the left defensive end and tackle don't really get any push or penetration. The right defensive end pushes the left tackle back into the quarterback, but it is Whitlock who really makes this play. He is matched up on the left guard, this play, however after three quarters of dealing with the likes of John Hankins, Cullen Jenkins, and Jay Bromley, he just isn't ready for the compact Whitlock.
Whitlock starts out by showing that he is going to rush through the B-gap to the guard's left, that forces him to shade to that side. But as he goes to deliver his punch, Whitlock breaks out his now famous spin move and simply goes right around the now out of position guard.
At 5-10, 250 pounds, Whitlock is capable changing direction much more quickly than conventionally-sized defensive tackles. In this case, he uses his skills to draw the guard over to the left, creating a direct route to the quarterback through the A-gap on the guard's right. Rather than using brute strength or hand-fighting technique like a normal defensive tackle, Whitlock brings something more akin to what Spags has previously liked to get by moving his athletic defensive ends inside: A dynamic athletic mismatch.
That mismatch lets Whitlock pressure Cousins, who only had a small window to deliver the ball thanks to excellent coverage by Jayron Hosley, to throw the ball behind his intended receiver. It doesn't go in the books as a sack, but as they say: "Disruption is Production".
Play 2 - Low Man Wins
We really couldn't let a week go bye without mentioning Brandon Scherff (!) at least once. Well this time he has the unenviable task of trying to block Whitlock.
The Giants roll out a very interesting defensive line group on this play. From left to right, the Giants defensive line is: Cullen Jenkins (RDE), Johnathan Hankins (1-technique), Whitlock is the 3-technique, and Damontre Moore (LDE).
One of the most important aspects of line play is leverage. Apart from footwork and hand usage, playing with improper leverage limits many young linemen. They get too high off the snap, which lets opposing players with good leverage more easily move them around. Put simply: Low Man Wins.
In this instance, Whitlock's height -- or lack thereof -- is actually a tremendous advantage. At 5-10, he will always be the low man.
Scherff has struggled with his pad level at times this season, still playing like a tackle. He doesn't do a poor job with that on this snap, but when your opponent rolls out of bed with a 6 or 8-inch advantage in pad level, its tough to make up. Whitlock does a fantastic job of firing out of his stance and getting inside of Scherff's reach, and using leverage to his advantage. Once he is under Scherff's pads, Whitlock keeps Scherff's hands off of him, doesn't let him re-anchor, and simply drives the much larger guard back into the pocket.
The combination of pressure from Whitlock and Moore -- who does a nice job beating the right tackle himself -- likely contributes to the off-target throw from Cousins.
Play 3 -- If You Can't Block Him, Better Hold
The New York Giants blitz. A lot.
This play features a simple but well designed blitz, which helps overwhelm the Bills' protection and flush Tyrod Taylor from the pocket. He was tackled roughly around the line of scrimmage, but a holding penalty by Richie Incognito on Whitlock essentially makes this a sack without the loss of a down.
The blitz sends safety Craig Dahl through the B-gap between the left guard and left tackle. This is the same gap that Whitlock attacks. Had the Giants only rushed four, the protection would have allowed the running back to help Incognito with Whitlock. However the blitz by the speedy (and not wide-bodied) safety lets both players fire through the gap, forcing a one-on-one matchup between Whitlock and Incognito.
It's a matchup that Whitlock wins right off the snap. As we've come to expect, he fires low and fast off the ball, getting Incognito back on his heels and his pads raising. Then Whitlock uses that devastating spin move to keep the guard from even getting close to locking in a block.
The end result is that Whitlock is in the Bills' backfield before Incognito can do anything about it, and his only chance to keep his quarterback upright is to hold the much smaller defensive tackle.
Play 4 -- Just Too Quick
For a team starved of sacks, we just had to take a look at Whitlock's first NFL sack. By this point in the game, with the Bills desperately trying to salvage SOME offensive production from a game that was supposed to be a laugher, they decided to double-team Whitlock.
With Eric Wood at center and Kraig Urbik at left guard, there is 635 pounds of offensive lineman blocking a 250-pound defensive tackle. Conventional wisdom suggest that this is a hilarious case of overkill, devoting roughly two and a half times a rusher's mass to block him.
But Whitlock isn't a conventional rusher.
Once again his quickness, compact build, and natural leverage make him a terror to block. Because of his size and quickness, the center is unable to really lock in a block. There just isn't enough of Whitlock for two linemen to get their hands on, not that he has any intention of giving them the chance. When Whitlock's initial burst sets the guard back on his heels and forces his pad level to rise, he is around him in a flash, showing some impressive flexibility for a player with his build.
Next to Whitlock, Damontre Moore takes a page out of Whitlock's book and beats the right tackle with a nifty spin move of his own.
With a pair of rushers breaking free, Taylor tries to take off and use his excellent mobility to buy time for a receiver to work open. However Whitlock proves too fast and he wrestles Taylor to the ground, looking something like a bulldog with a tug toy.
Let's get this out of the way right now: I am not advocating that Nikita Whitlock primarily play defense, or that he be a "regular" contributor. That's not the best way to use him. He is probably being used best as he is now, as an extreme change of pace pass rusher in situations that let him put his talents to use. Whitlock's size, speed, and agility are a stark contrast for tired offensive linemen after dealing with big, powerful tackles like John Hankins or Jay Bromley for most of the game.
Being played to his strengths has let Whitlock become Pro Football Focus' 14th-rated defensive tackle ... In only 22 defensive snaps.
However it's also worth recognizing that Whitlock has important duties on offense and special teams, where his power and willingness to get dirty make him a very good fullback and an increasingly important part of the Giants' special teams.
But as important as discipline in maintaining his lane on special teams or making a key lead block are, there they simply won't stand out as much as sacking a quarterback. And while Whitlock's defensive play has come as a surprise for many of us out here, its not a surprise to the man himself.
"I wasn't an All-ACC D-lineman for no reason."