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Film Study: What happened to the Giants' run defense?

Early in the year the Giants had the best run defense in the NFL, but a pair of division games shredded that reputation. What went wrong, and can the Giants fix it?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday evening it was a big win, no two ways about it. It secured sole possession of first place in the NFC East for the Giants and helped to bury a dangerous division rival.

But despite the win, the course of the game left many with a bitter taste in their mouths. The Giants may have won, but their offense only put up 13 points. As bad, maybe worse, the Giants' run defense, which had been the class of the NFL, gave up 233 rushing yards and a career day for Darren McFadden.

Fans have been quick to point a fingers at a certain player (or two) on the defense, but Tom Coughlin had a different, and more detailed, view on the Giants' lack of a run defense against Dallas.

"We made some mistakes in terms of our responsibilities and how we play certain aspects of the run. There were some things that Dallas did coming off of a bye week, which you knew was going to happen. They introduced a couple of different thoughts in there. By and large, they blocked us and we've got to find a way -- and they're a good offensive team, don't get me wrong -- but we've got to do a better job of holding the point, of being where we're supposed to be from a gap responsibility, of recognizing the style run that's coming. We lost leverage on the corner consistently," Coughlin said. "One of the reasons was that as much as you want to tell somebody how fast an individual is, McFadden did just run around us a few times. When he hit a couple of plays off-tackle, we were holding our breath there to try to get him down, particularly when he got started through the line of scrimmage.

"It's a number of things -- they blocked very well, we were sometimes out of position, and sometimes not maintaining our leverage and our contain responsibilities. Our tackling at times was shoddy. We didn't get away with block tackles, which you don't like to see anyway, but some of the people in the secondary were trying to implement that and it wasn't successful. There's a bunch of reasons why."

So could the Giants' atrocious performance against Dallas be laid at the feet of Markus Kuhn and Jayron Hosley? After all, the Giants have given up more than twice the number of yards per game with them on the field than without.

Or is Coughlin correct and there is blame to shared by all? Let's take a look at what the Giants' run defense did in its best performance to date, holding the Buffalo Bills to 55 total yards on the ground, and compare it to what they did this past Sunday

Giants vs. Bills

Play 1

Out first run shows a lot of good, and just a bit of the bad. Unfortunately, that bad is enough for this to be one of the biggest runs of the game.

This is a pretty basic outside zone run by the Bills. The whole point of this play is to get the defense moving and if possible get the running back on the edge, or stress the front seven of the defense and create a cutback lane if the back can't get the edge.

First, I want to look at John Hankins. Hankins is lined up directly over the nose tackle, and immediately beats his block, getting into the backfield. Hankins has a shot at the running back and nearly gets him. But failing that, he maintains his gap discipline, not getting out position and opening a cutback lane.

Behind him is Jon Beason. Because Hankins wins so early, he is able to slow Richie Incognito's release into to the second level. That lets Beason slip past the block and fill the natural cutback lane.

Now for the bad.

Setting the edge and either stringing the run out to the sideline or making the stop is responsibility of Devon Kennard. Kennard gets hung up for just a bit on his blocker. That gives the running back just enough room to get around Kennard's lunging attempt at a tackle. Ideally, what Kennard wants is to quickly shed the blocker and make the tackle for a loss. But, Karlos Williams is a big, strong, and athletic running back, so that is easier said than done. More realistically staying in front of the running back until he can run him out of bounds is the smarter play. But, because it takes Kennard that extra second to get off the block, he can do neither.

At the second level, the corner (it looks to be Prince Amukamara) gets hung up on his blocker as well. He eventually forces Williams out of bounds, but he should be able to come up and help string the play out and delay the turn upfield.

This play just goes to show how even when the defense does almost everything right, a couple mistakes can lead to a big play in the running game.

Play 2

Now we'll take a look at how the Giants do defending the power running game.

This is a delayed hand-off right up the middle, but the Giants play great team defense to limit it to just a couple yards.

Starting in the middle of the defense, Cullen Jenkins is lined up at the 1-technique between the center and right guard. Even though this isn't his best position, he manages to stand up his blockers and partially split the double team. The offensive line manages to open a nice hole between the right guard and right tackle, and it is the fullback's responsibility to clear out the linebacker who comes to fill it.

Unfortunately for the fullback, that linebacker is Jon Beason, and he simply blows the fullback up eliminates the hole. The combination of Beason and Jenkins partially splitting the double team forces the back to attempt to cut back to the right.

And again, unfortunately for the Bills, Hankins has a 1-on-1 match-up on that side. Advantage Giants.

Hankins handily beats Incognito not once, but twice. He quickly beats him off the snap, getting into the backfield right off the snap. Then, seeing the back going to the other side of the line, Hankins spins far more quickly than he has any right to, given his size. Hankins' excellent play lets him make the tackle right around the line of scrimmage, but J.T. Thomas was there to make the tackle for a short gain as well.

The Giants make the play by being quick, decisive, and disciplined in their play. They're accurately reading the offense, filling their gaps, and aggressively attacking their blockers.

Play 3

More power football from the Bills, on this play I want to watch two Giants: Devon Kennard and Uani 'Unga. Yes, this play is made by New York Giants' linebackers.

The Bills' play is designed to blow open a hole on the right side of the line, with the tight end blocking Kerry Wynn while the right tackle and right guard combine to dig the left defensive tackle out of the hole. Then, the left guard pulls around to clear out the strong-side linebacker.

On the outside Wynn forces his blocker back just enough to interfere with the pulling guard, but Kennard does a fantastic job of meeting the guard in the hole and winning. Incognito gets knocked back enough that is unable to block Kennard and blow open the hole for the running back.

When the left guard began pulling, 'Unga read the pull and hesitated just long enough to make sure that there wasn't any deception in the play. He quickly and decisively scrapes across the line and is able to meet the running back in the hole. Either Hankins standing the center up, or a mental mistake, kept the right tackle from releasing into the second level and blocking 'Unga. But, 'Unga quickly recognizes the play and gets in position to make the tackle. Great play by the backup.

Play 4

Another good run defense by the Giants, but this time by two different players.

The Giants are in a lighter "nickel" front, with a defensive line of Owa Odighizuwa, Jenkins, Wynn, and Damontre Moore, and only Jonathan Casillas and Uani Unga at linebacker. With just six in the box, and an undersized defense to begin with, the Bills go for a power run. It would be the correct call, but quick penetration by Jenkins blows this play up before it really has a chance to get started.

With Jenkins at the nose tackle, he makes quick work of the center and gets into the backfield almost off the snap. That's a good thing as the running back has a clear hole in front of him. Jenkins' penetration forces the back to run sideways and delay his burst through the line. It also gives Casillas enough time to shed the guard who came up to the second level to block him, and get into the hole to make the tackle.

The Bills came into this game heavily favored, at least in part on the strength of their running game. Despite coming into this game with the second ranked run defense in the league, there was skepticism regarding whether or not the Giants could stand up to Buffalo's running attack. They did, giving up just 55 yards on the ground. It was a "Team" performance where every player was disciplined in his assignments and aggressive in his play. It also helped that the Bills were playing from behind all game, forced to abandon the run as time wore down and pressure to score mounted, but the Giants' run defense was excellent in a game nearly everyone expected them to lose.

Giants vs. Cowboys

Play 1

Much like the first play against the Bills, this is a run to the edge, but unlike the Bills the Cowboys send both their center and left guard on pulls to pave the way for the running back.

The Giants almost make the play but a few things happen to spring the big gain.

First, Travis Frederick gets in great position to pick up Kennard, who had discarded the tight end's block and was getting in position to make a tackle for loss. Perhaps if Kennard was in peak condition and not coming off an injured hamstring he could have either avoided the block or gotten into position quicker to influence the run, but he didn't so he was essentially taken out of the play.

Next, Thomas comes up behind Jon Beason to fill what would have been a cutback lane, but thanks to some stout play by Markus Kuhn (no, he doesn't lose on this play), Wynn, and Beason, he just gets stuck having to navigate through the trash. Had he seen the hole not opening, he could have kept scraping across the line and had been in better position to make the tackle for a short gain.

Finally, Jayron Hosley got matched up on a pulling Zack Martin. It's just a bit predictable what would happen when a 6-foot-4, 315-pound guard blocks a 5-10, 180-pound corner ... And it looks remarkably like the fate of the dragonfly in the beginning of Men In Black. That block lets the running back drift Martin and take away Brandon Meriweather's angle, and springs the back for a gain of 13 yards

I'm not going to say Prince would have fared much better than Hosley, but perhaps with 30 more pounds, Prince could have made Martin break stride a bit, slowing the back and letting Meriweather get the tackle right around the line of scrimmage.

Play 2

The Giants are in their nickel set for the next play, but aren't really giving up any size on the defensive line. and the Cowboys go for an inside zone run.

With that in mind, let's take a look at what happens up front.

The best part of this play -- from a Giants perspective -- is easily John Hankins simply disregarding La'el Collins, who winds up on the ground at Wynn's feet. Unfortunately this isn't a factor because of Kuhn next to him.

Assuming he does his assignment correctly, Kuhn's job is to keep the center from releasing into the second level, which would have kept Thomas clean to make a tackle for minimal gain. But, as he moves to take on the center, he misses and the right guard gets leverage and pushing him right out of the play. That has the bonus of effectively blocking John Hankins.

Finally on the edge, Ayers essentially gets a free release and goes charging into the Dallas Backfield. He actually beats the pulling Witten to the spot, but instead of potentially getting the tackle for a loss, he pursues Cassel.

The combination of Ayers running himself out of the play and Kuhn getting run out of the play blows open a six-lane highway for the running back to go through.

The Giants' linebackers were in good position, particularly Thomas, who had beaten his blocker, to make the play. That is if Ayers had engaged Witten and squeezed the play back towards the middle of the field. Instead, his overly aggressive and undisciplined play, combined with Kuhn getting blown up, let the back run free for a big gain.

Play 3

Another zone run from the Cowboys, and this one came very close to being a tackle for a loss.

The defensive tackles both do a good job on this play. Kuhn manages to not get pushed around by Martin and hold up the center as well, while Hankins controls Collins with one hand while maintaining his gap. Odighizuwa does a good job against Doug Free as well, despite winding up on the ground. That forces the back to have make a cutback, which almost lands him on the ground.

The only reason this play actually succeeds is because Jenkins can't beat the cut block from the tight end. Had he managed to successfully negotiate the block, he would have been in perfect position to make the tackle as the back slipped. But while Jenkins is often too quick for interior blockers, he doesn't have the quickness and agility at 34 years of age to really be an effective defensive end in a situation like this.

Play 4

Finally we have a power run that looked like an inside run, but was actually an outside run, or the running back quickly diagnosed the complete lack of an edge and smoothly took advantage.

The interior of the Giants' defense does pretty good with the Cowboys' man blocking. The DTs, which look to be Kuhn and Hankins, don't give up initial movement, though they start to get pushed backwards as the play goes on. The left side of the defense does a good job of setting an edge. Thomas does a very nice job of avoiding the OL block and flowing through the trash to get out into space to make the tackle. Kennard gets in good position to make the tackle for a loss as well.

The problem with this play, and why it gets such a big gain when it should have been a loss, is Cullen Jenkins. Once again Jenkins is playing defensive end, and he gets a free run off the snap as Tyron Smith gets to the second level. The tight end from the other side of the play has the assignment of blocking Jenkins. And much like Ayers in the first play, Jenkins gets overly aggressive and dives into the middle of the field rather than setting a hard edge.

With Kennard free and in position, had Jenkins set that edge the Giants could have handed Dallas a nice loss on the play. Instead, Jenkins tried to make the play himself and opened the door for a big gain and took away any angle Kennard and Thomas may have had on the back.

Final Thoughts

Watching the Giants' defense against the Bills and then against the Cowboys is almost like watching two different teams.

In the first game they were decisive and aggressive in their play, but still disciplined in their assignments. Players never really ran themselves out of position, maintained their gaps, and made it possible for their teammates to swarm to the ball.

Against Dallas, the Giants had a myriad of problems with their run defense. The first of which was personnel related. While Kuhn doesn't fare as poorly as many assume, he does not play nearly as stoutly as a 320-pound defensive tackle should. He has often been stalemated by single linemen and put on rollerskates by double teams. In Kuhn's absence the trio of Hankins, Jay Bromley, and occasionally Louis Nix were all difficult for opponents to move and were rarely overpowered.

Then there's the lack of Prince Amukamara on the outside. Put simply, he has been one of the most physical corners in the NFL and is a terrific run stopper. His ability to shed blocks and tackle is rare at his position. While Hosley has not (barring a few plays) played poorly in coverage, his small stature and tendency to shoulder block make him an inefficient at best tackler.

And finally, both Ayers and Kennard looked to be rusty after dealing with hamstring injuries. Both were obviously on snap counts, and neither played as well as they are accustomed.

But beyond even the personnel issues, the Giants' defense was sloppy and undisciplined against Dallas. Though I only was able to show four plays, there were many that saw various Giants over-pursuing rather than playing disciplined, missing tackles they had been making.

Perhaps the players were over-aggressive because of their embarrassment the week before, but the good news is that most of the Giants issues are correctable. Kuhn and Hosley are what they are, but the issues with discipline can be fixed.