The New York Giants pass rush has a history of greatness. That pedigree does not extend to the 2015 team. Currently, they rank last in the league with just 12 sacks through 10 games, and while this is a shameful achievement shared by the Atlanta Falcons, the Giants' lowly pass-rush puts them at the bottom of the table thanks to the sack total as a percentage of total passing plays.
The lack of pressure on the opposing team's quarterback has compounded issues in other areas of the defense, and as a result the Giants have allowed a league-worst 3,099 passing yards. There is no secondary in the league that can hold up for the extended periods required for this front four to hit home.
With six weeks remaining, and six opportunities to account for prior mistakes, the Giants find themselves in an unusual place -- atop the NFC East standings despite an equal number of wins and losses. There will inevitably be some changes that have taken place over the bye week, and with the offense humming along quite nicely, one has to assume these changes will focus on defensive game-planning. That's what we're going to look at today.
At the root of the problem lies personnel, and while players can be coached up throughout the season, it rarely happens with more established veterans. Other than a basic "grass is always greener" thought process, this is why many fans and media members call for the young guns to get more playing time because at the very least it generates a higher amount of variables. If something isn't working, increase the variables. If you're successful, it's probably a good idea to keep things the way they are.
The problem with the Giants is that this team has a tendency to ignore individual failures if the overall success is up to their standards. The offense has been keeping them in games, and their secondary has been getting turnovers, so there have been no major changes. With Jason Pierre-Paul back in the line-rotation, it looked like the pass rush may have to found a natural progression back to relevance, but the full-strength crew didn't even last one full game before losing Jonathan Hankins to a season-ending injury.
It would be hard to argue against Hankins' role as the linchpin of the defensive line for the past two seasons. Now, as the Giants march forward without him, their ability to pressure the quarterback with the front-four has somehow dipped even further into the waters of inadequacy. We know that Steve Spagnuolo won't sit idly by as his defense gets picked apart. He knows the issues we all see on game day, and that's why in lieu of allowing opposing quarterback to get comfortable, he's going to bring some artificial heat.
The Giants have run a 4-3 defense for quite some time now, and that's not going to change under Spagnuolo, but the multiplicity of his scheme seems to reach beyond the tired expectancy of previous years. Before we go into how they've been blitzing, we need to look at the two basic 4-3 shells.
Let's start with the "Under" alignment. The formation language doesn't only speak to the line players, and instead is dictated by linebacker spacing against the offense. In the "Under" scheme, the linebackers align to the "closed" side of the offense -- this would be pushing more guys to the side where the tight-end lines up, or in the case of two tight-ends, whichever one they wish to keep a focus on.
Now, as you can see above, the linebackers are showing a closed look, so the defensive line shifts to compensate that. The nose-tackle will generally shade the offensive center in any 4-3 look, but you can tell the difference between the "Under" and "Over" alignments by where the 3-technique defensive tackle sets up. In this case, Markus Kuhn (78) is positioned on the open side of the offense (no tight end).
Contrast this with the 4-3 "Over" look, and it's a bit easier to understand why there are two possible calls for the defense in a basic formation. In the "Over", we see the middle linebacker match his placement to the offensive center, which pulls the weak-side and strong-side linebackers each side of him for a much more balanced look.
In this situation, the 3-tech aligns to the strong side of the offensive formation with the other DT staying put. There are more technical differences between the two, but this is the easiest way to quickly interpret the front-seven of the defense.
The issue here isn't the scheme, it's the players. The Giants just don't have the quality required to pull off Spagnuolo's defense in the same way they did in 2007 and 2008. While coordinators normally take two offseasons to fully transition the team to what they like, Spagnuolo has been quite behind schedule as several injuries to key defensive players have forced less-than-ideal replacements into the lineup.
Let's begin at the most important spot; the defensive ends. Last year, Robert Ayers was a beast until a shoulder injury sidelined him for the tail-end of the season, and Damontre Moore looked to be the next great edge rusher. This season, neither have produced. Moore has as many roughing the passer penalties as he does sacks and Ayers is clearly struggling with more injury issues having missed four games this year and never looked 100 percent in the ones he did play.
Third-round rookie Owa Odighizuwa has had his own injury problems and is on short-term IR, and then there's Kerry Wynn, who has been good at run defense and well, not much else. What's left? George Selvie? He's fine, but he's certainly not providing any kind of spark to the players around him. These are just the issues to the edge guys!
At defensive tackle, we know Hankins is gone, but the German nightmare that is Kuhn still reigns supreme, and Cullen Jenkins plays like a 34-year-old because he is 34 years old. The team just doesn't appear to trust second-year player Jay Bromley so that's it. That's everyone, and everyone has a problem.
There is nobody to gain consistent pressure opposite Pierre-Paul, and without Hankins, the team now likely has to play Jenkins as a nose-tackle for the rest of the year. This is not good. That leaves Kuhn as the penetration 3-tech who is supposed to sniff out runs in the back field and abuse quarterbacks. This guy? I could show you stills and video clips of why this is a bad idea, but I feel that it would be too cruel, like laughing when somebody falls on the street or has been walking around with their zipper down all day.
How does Spagnuolo fix this? What do you do with a team made of spare parts held together by bubble gum? You improvise. You do crazy things like blitz everyone on the field, and play your starting fullback at defensive tackle. Weirdly, that works. Unfortunately, there are plenty more areas that have not.
Live by the blitz, die by the blitz
What do you do when you need more pressure on the quarterback? You blitz. It's been around since the 1950s and has never gone out of style. There is no combination of four starting-caliber defensive linemen available to the Giants right now, so they have to rely on pressure from elsewhere on the field.
The most common and obvious form of blitzing is to have a linebacker attack the quarterback. This is the ideal solution whereby one of your 'backers tries to find a hole in the protection and sneak through to hit the passer. The Giants have three solid options in this area and we regularly see one or more help out by rushing. Devon Kennard is a strong rusher, Jonathan Casillas has shown his worth this year and Jasper Brinkley has been excellent rushing from the middle.
When they need to, they have all shown they can get there but the problem is that it likely leaves a gap in coverage for short check-downs and shallow crossing routes. The Giants have been particularly bad at covering these areas because quick options like those allow the quarterback to neutralize any pressure extra pressure, or pick on linebackers forced into coverage against a nimble running back or play-making tight end. Spotting a linebacker ready to go isn't difficult so opponents can quickly check into these plays at the line when needed.
One way to combat this is to disguise the blitz. It seems basic, but it's not something the Giants have done often. In their last game against the New England Patriots we saw some of those looks though, mainly because you can't telegraph your intentions to Tom Brady. He's too good.
What they did against the Pats was use some more 3-4 alignments and implement a "mush rush" style of pressure. You saw some linebackers and secondary personnel hovering around the line and defensive ends standing up, anything to try and catch the offense off-guard. The aim is to have the quarterback call a protection towards a point where you know the potential blitzer is going to bail out into coverage. This should leave a gap to exploit on the opposite side.
In some of these cases we have seen the Giants try and bring a cornerback off the edge or have a safety shoot a gap. With corners, it's a bit more problematic because you're taking a prime coverage candidate and converting a low-strength player into a pass-rusher. This leaves either a linebacker or safety to pick up their receiver. Last week against the Patriots, we saw Trevin Wade blitz from the slot, which left Craig Dahl on Julian Edelman. Mistake.
The Giants run with a trio of safeties -- all of whom possess sub-par coverage skills. Right next to the pass rush, this may be the defense's biggest problem, so compensating one weakness by magnifying another is not a sustainable form of game planning. I know corner blitzes are rare as is, but one offensive play can be devastating when executed correctly.
Instead -- and we have seen some of this -- this team should be blitzing the safety rather than the corner. It does the same job of keeping the offense on their toes while maintaining their best players in coverage. Shortly after allowing a reception on a corner blitz, Dahl rushed the quarterback himself and ended up with the sack.
The Landon Collins factor
Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a strong safety in the NFL and currently writes for ESPN. I reached out to him for his thoughts on safety blitzes.
In both zone and man pressure schemes, the safety blitz can be used as a weapon, but it goes much deeper than just telling a guy to go get the QB. There is technique involved (still have to win a 1-on-1), timing (can't be early, can't be late) and the coverage aspect. Those players on offense get paid good money to pick up pressure schemes and NFL QBs can ID every blitz in the book. So, if you don't get home, there has to be a quality coverage scheme in the back-end to protect you over the top and to take away "hot" reads.
Bowen makes a great point about the task being more than simply running at the quarterback, but the rest of it holds up as a good strategy for the Giants. The corners are reliable enough in coverage to allow a couple of plays per game in "Cover Zero" or "Cover 1". The safeties are the weakness, and translating linebacker-esque players like Landon Collins into a form of quarterback pressure may be in the best interests of a team who cannot afford to put a rookie safety with teething problems in one-on-one match-ups.
Collins has had ups and downs this year, but teams are picking on his weaknesses more often as he generates more game-tape to study. I firmly believe that utilizing Collins' skill-set is key in generating extra pressure towards the end of the season. This guy will never be a ball-hawk like Troy Polamalu, but he could develop into a similar weapon at line of scrimmage.
The reality is that teams have gone away from standard 4-3 and 3-4 shells and predominantly have to play some form of nickel coverage, substituting a linebacker for a defensive back . With Collins in the fold, the Giants have an opportunity to disguise their intentions by converting a misused player into a "rover" type -- a linebacker / safety hybrid role that Collins played during his college days at Alabama.
Spagnuolo has to get creative, but more importantly, he has to acknowledge the deficits of his roster. Perhaps, the key lies in one player returning from injury. Cornerback Prince Amukamara is set to take the field once again next week, and with his presence comes a lot more flexibility with blitzing. Jayron Hosley did a reasonable job filling in on the outside, but Amukamara has been top-dog over the last two years.
With Amukamara back in the game, the Giants can send that extra safety or linebacker without having to worry as much about downfield threats. The team can put some trust back in any Cover 1 or Cover 3 schemes they want to employ. Brandon Meriweather isn't an ideal free-safety, but he's a lot more trustworthy than Collins at this point, and is far less risky with a pair of stable cornerbacks on each side.
To quote one of Batman's great nemeses, Bane; "There can be no despair without hope". I have hope in the Giants and maybe that's dumb. We have seen this story play out before. They get ahead, somehow, and then falter down the stretch. Hope is dangerous, but right now, it's free.