The New York Giants 2015 training camp is still young, but we are already getting glimpses of what could lie ahead in the 2015 season.
Most of the attention in camp has been on the offense. How Victor Cruz will return from his knee injury, how the offensive line will come together, how Eli Manning will perform in his second year with Ben McAdoo, and Odell Beckham (just Odell Beckham, you don't need questions as an excuse to watch him).
When the focus has turned to the defense, the questions invariably are about the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul, or the inexperience of the safeties. It is still very early in camp, but there hasn't been much speculation about what the defense under Steve Spagnuolo will look like.
And why should there be? Coach Spags is a known quantity; he learned how to call a defense under legendary coach Jim Johnson, then spent two years calling a highly successful defense for the Giants based on Johnson's philosophies.
If you listen to how the defensive players describe the defense that Spagnuolo is installing, it's plain to see that the core of his philosophy hasn't changed. Players on both sides of the ball are constantly using words like "Aggressive", "Attacking", "Swarming", and "Relentless" when talking about the new defense.
But what about the scheme that is built around that philosophy of relentless aggression? When he was hired, both Tom Coughlin and Spags himself said that he is not quite the same coach he was when he left the Giants after 2008. He has tasted failure twice, and spent time in a completely alien defense in Baltimore, and even gone to colleges to study up on how to defend elements of the college game that are trickling up into the NFL.
The basis for his defense hasn't changed, though: Get pressure on the quarterback, by any means necessary.
In the defense crafted by Jim Johnson, this meant running stunts and twists along the defensive line, dropping lineman back in coverage on zone blitzes, or sometimes both, while the secondary played zone coverage to capitalize on errant throws caused by confusion and pressure.
The result could be something like this:
The right defensive end and 3-technique run a stunt, with the 3-technique taking the outside rush while the defensive end crashes inside to occupy the blockers -- or force one to miss his assignment. On the other side, the left defensive end drops into a shallow zone coverage while the strongside linebacker comes on a blitz. The middle linebacker can stay put and play in coverage, blitz through an A or B gap, or be on a "Green Dog" blitz, and drop into coverage or blitz depending on what the running back does.
Behind the front seven, the secondary drops into a "Cover 4" shell, dividing the field into quarters of responsibility.
When Spags ran the Giants' defense, he ran some very similar concepts, but included more man coverage on the outside to disrupt quick timing routes and give his pass rushers more time. That's a trend that is likely to continue with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie adding roughly 10 to 15 pounds of muscle over the off-season in preparation to play more physical coverages.
That was then. Now? Well, some things haven't changed. Devon Kennard is looking forward to getting go quarterback hunting.
"There are different blitzes, he likes coming after the quarterback and getting pressure on the quarterbacks. He has different blitzes and different things we can do out of our coverages and stuff, so to that degree it is a little more complex but easy on us but looks more complex, I should say," Kennard said. "I think they will give me the opportunities where I can do that and same with some other guys on the defense. We've got some guys with some different skill sets and I think he is doing a good job of taking advantage of everybody.
"Obviously nobody gets more opportunities to rush the passer than defensive ends but there is definitely times where we are going to pressure all of our linebackers so we will see what kind of opportunities are presented to us once the year comes."
However other things have changed. Of particular note is his trip to the college National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes to learn how they defend spread-option offense that permeate college football.
Going back to school
-- Note: Huge shout out to the guys at Land-Grant Holy Land for the info on the Buckeye defense. It's one thing to be familiar with the player from draft scouting, it's another to get schooled on the nuts and bolts from some X's & O's guys who watch every week. --
Much like the the scheme Jim Johnson ran in Philadelphia, the Buckeyes play out of a 4-3, base Cover 4 defense. However they will frequently give the look of a Cover - 2 (two deep safeties) shell with man coverage on the outside by lining their corners up close to the line of scrimmage.
In reality, they are in "MOD" or Man Only Deep coverage. The corners will only be in man coverage if their receivers run down the field. If they run shallow routes, they are passed off like normal zone coverage.
Another wrinkle that OSU employs is to line their SAM linebacker up wider to make it more difficult for offenses to hit quick bubble screen passes.
The way OSU lines up its linebackers and defensive backs effectively constricts the field and forces plays back inside, where they can be taken care of by defensive ends and the middle linebacker.
Regrouping in Baltimore
The other influence of note on Spags is the two years he spent in Baltimore. The Ravens run a fairly unique defense that blends aspects of a 4-3 and 3-4 defense. Not only is their defense predicated on brutal physicality, but they try to get the the most out of "Tweener" players like Terrell Suggs, who can easily switch back and forth from linebacker to defensive end depending on the play. That allows them to not only be flexible, but to also take advantage of players with skill sets that don't fit neatly into a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
It is also worth noting that Baltimore also frequently sent their defensive backs on blitzes.
The Giants happen to have a couple of those versatile players themselves. Devon Kennard is listed as the Giants starting SAM linebacker, but he has size at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. On the other hand, Damontre Moore is listed as a defensive end at 6-4, 256 pounds.
Moore mentioned earlier in the offseason that the scheme that Spagnuolo is installing has facets similar to what he excelled in at Texas A&M, which used him as rush linebacker as well as a defensive end. In camp, Kennard alluded to the possibility that some packages could see him line up as a defensive end. By the same token, the Giants also have a pair of athletic safeties that could easily be mistaken for linebackers in Landon Collins and Cooper Taylor.
Several players have mentioned that the safeties are playing left and right sides, rather than more traditional "free" and "strong" roles. While some have speculated that this is to simplify matters for the largely inexperienced safeties, there might be another reason.
Spagnuolo's defense depends heavily on pre-snap adjustments by all of the players. With the safeties playing sides, it allows the defense to disguise what the actual coverage will be It also allows both safeties to make calls for their side of the defense, something Landon Collins hinted at:
"I agree with him [Spagnuolo, that the safeties are the most important players in the defense] because we're the quarterbacks of the defense in the back and you have to be able to put everyone in their positions, from the linebackers on back," Collins said. "We can help everybody know, we're the last line of defense."
Not just me and [Jon] Beason, but the safety next to me, whether it be Coop [Cooper Taylor] or Nat [Behre] or Jeromy [Miles]. Anybody that's next to me, us and Beason are the most vocal guys on the team. We get everybody in the right spots."
Tying it all together
We still don't know what Spags' defense is going to look like, and it would be irresponsible -- and likely wrong -- to make any pronouncements at this point. We probably won't know for sure what his scheme fully entails until sometime mid-season.
However, there have been some glimpses.
We know the defense will be aggressive, and it's likely that it will depend on using tactics like stunts, twists, and creative blitzes to create confusion and exploit match-ups.
The emphasis on checks, reads, and adjustments in coverage suggests that we, and more importantly the opposing offense, might not be able to know what the actual coverage is until after the play is over. It also suggests that they will able to run a variety of coverages out of a single look, and change at the drop of a hat.
Finally, the influence from his time from Baltimore suggests the possibility that there might be more use of "Hybrid" fronts. Fronts that mix and match personnel and concepts from both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts (such as defenses like Baltimore or Seattle).
In short, it seems like the general goal of this defense will be to generate pressure on an offense from anywhere, everywhere, and seemingly nowhere.