Earlier this offseason we looked at how the New York Giants offense could evolve under new head coach Ben McAdoo. There is the most potential for significant change on the offense after McAdoo's promotion from coordinator to head coach, but that isn't the only unit that could see a change in 2016.
There was a chorus of cheers around the Giants' fandom when Perry Fewell was fired in January of 2015, and an expectation that the Giants would return to the ferocious meat grinder of a defense of 2007-2008 with the return of Steve Spagnuolo. Spags, however, preached patience with regards to the defense, that it would take time to get back to what is expected from a Giants' defense.
And Spags didn't know how right he was.
A combination of the existing talent base and a rash of injuries that ultimately veered into the ridiculous hamstrung the play calling and devastated the depth chart. If the Giants' defense evolves in 2016, it's evolution will be driven as much by a change in talent as much as a philosophic or schematic shift.
Like last time, we'll start by looking at the players who are most likely to make the 2016 roster.
(Again, this isn't a complete roster projection, just recognizing that there will be camp competitions and players who aren't locks to make the final 53)
Defensive End - Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Defensive Tackle - Johnathan Hankins, Damon Harrison, Jay Bromley
Linebacker - Devon Kennard, J.T. Thomas, B.J. Goodson
Cornerback - Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple
Safety - Landon Collins, Darian Thompson, Nat Berhe
That the Giants went on a "$200 million spending spree" has been well documented. It's a number that is somewhat inaccurate, but the fact remains that Jerry Reese and Ben McAdoo spent quite a bit of John Mara and Steve Tisch's money to start 2016.
That money secured some of the best players at their positions on the free agent market to upgrade New York's decidedly un-Giant-like and historically bad defense. Damon Harrison is arguably (or perhaps inarguably) the top nose tackle in the NFL, Janoris Jenkins is (while a risk taker) one of the top play-makers in the defensive secondary, while Olivier Vernon was one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the NFL in 2015. It's also fair to add Jason Pierre-Paul to the list of additions, as the Giants didn't have him for most of 2015, and he played one-handed when he was on the field. Spagnuolo is counting a full season of JPP -- playing a full season with a glove on his maimed hand instead of a club -- as an addition to his defense, so we probably should as well.
Schemes and Formations
The Front Seven
Throughout Spagnuolo's first season back as the Giants' defensive coordinator, he used a 4-3 Under front as the defense's base formation. The 4-3 Under is a more aggressive version of the base 4-3 which walks a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage -- usually Devon Kennard for the Giants -- and generally attacks single gaps, focusing on using aggression and athleticism to disrupt the offensive backfield.
However, in 2015 the Giants defense somewhat freely switched between a 4-3 Under and a 1-gap 3-4 front. And really, there isn't much difference between the two fronts apart from the terminology.
At this point in the off-season, the coaches are just beginning to install their schemes, but also just beginning to feel out what the 2016 iteration of their units do best. As we said when looking at the potential evolution of the offense, there is a "give and take" in the construction of a football team. Coaches have what they would like to do in mind as they approach the offseason, however they also only have just so much control over the players available. Free agents are free to sign where ever they choose, targeted college prospects might not be available, and the specter of injury is ever-present. So, coaches need a certain amount of flexibility and recognition of reality.
So, while Spags may want to run a 4-3 Under as the Giants' base defense, that might not be in the cards.
As I mentioned above, the 4-3 Under is based around, and named for, the 3-technique or "Under Tackle". It's the position typified by Warren Sapp, that disruptive, upfield penetrating defensive tackle. However, while the Giants are remarkably deep at nose tackle, with Johnathan Hankins, Damon Harrison, Louis Nix and Montori Hughes all on their 90-man roster, they are also remarkably thin at 3-technique, with only Jay Bromley as a "lock" to make the roster.
It should be noted that there are a couple wild-cards in the defensive tackle rotation. Hankins has proven to be a disruptive pass rusher despite his wide body and considerable girth, having been effective at both the nose and 3-technique positions. Nix had a similar skill set coming out of college and played a similar role for Notre Dame as Hankins played for Ohio State. Though he has been slowed by nagging injuries, Nix could have that same kind of versatility. Finally, undrafted free agent Greg Milhouse stands is a natural 3-technique and has a chance of making the roster.
Moreover, both of the Giants' reserve defensive ends have upside as 5-techniques (the defensive end in a 3-4 front). It's the position that Odighizuwa played in UCLA, and might be the strong and high-motor (but not especially quick or agile) Kerry Wynn's best position.
The personnel the Giants have accumulated, along with the hiring of position coaches Patrick Graham (defensive line), Jeff Zgonina (assistant defensive line), and Bill McGovern (Linebackers), all of whom have significant experience coaching in 3-4 schemes, could suggest a move toward a 34 front.
Or at least more of a move than the Giants had planned on.
On The Back End ...
It might seem obvious, but defense is a team effort. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter how good a single player is if the team around him is lacking. J.J. Watt, Darrelle Revis, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, or LT, even an all-time great would only have a minimal impact on a game if their teammates didn't put them in position to succeed.
All the money the Giants spent on JPP, Vernon, and Harrison will be for naught if the secondary does not do its part. The defensive secondary has to keep the ball in the quarterback's hands long enough for the pass rush to get to him, and defensive backs are vital in defending the run.
As it happens, the Giants have invested heavily in their secondary as well. They signed talented free agent cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and drafted Ohio State corner Eli Apple 10th overall. They also drafted safeties Landon Collins and Darian Thompson relatively highly (trading up in the second round and using a third-round pick, respectively).
The Giants will continue to ask their defensive backs to fly downhill in run support, a role which is a strength for Collins and Apple. Thompson and Berhe, the two leading candidates for the free safety position both look to be violent hitters. Even DRC, who had a reputation as a less physical player prior to coming to the Giants completely changed that aspect of his game after Spagnuolo returned.
The real evolution of the secondary will likely come from how coverage is called. In 2015, Spags often used a "halves" concept to limit the responsibilities of his inexperienced safeties to either the left or right half of the field last season. In 2016, it appears as though he could use more of a traditional "center fielder" free safety and "box" strong safety alignment. Collins is, simply put, better close to the line of scrimmage, while Darian Thompson and Bennett Jackson -- should he return to form from his torn ACL -- are good candidates for a free safety role.
Since becoming a Giant, Jenkins has referenced a pair of coverage schemes -- "Cover 0" and "Quarters" -- with respect to the Giants' defense.
When it comes to coverage schemes, "Quarters" or "Cover - 4" is a balanced and adaptable coverage scheme that sees the corners and safeties divide the field into four equal parts.
While this is generally considered a zone coverage scheme, it does allow for man coverage by the corners, disrupting quicker passes, or allowing them to stick with receivers on deep routes. Also, because of the amount of field this coverage scheme defends, it is perfect for deceptive zone blitzes, a staple of Spags "Jim Johnson" roots.
Cover - 0, on the other hand is straight man coverage or "Man Across The Board".
(via American Football Monthly)
Cover 0 is definitely the most aggressive coverage scheme, trusting the coverage players to do their jobs while allowing for an aggressive pass rush. It puts a great deal of pressure on the safeties and linebackers, who might draw unfavorable match-ups on athletic slot receivers, tight ends, or running backs, but it gambles that the blitz will impact the pass before the coverage can be exposed. It's also a coverage scheme that plays to the strengths of DRC and Jenkins, who are talented man coverage corners and always threats to create big plays for the defense.
Tying It All Together
What could the Giants defense look like in 2016? The barest hope is "better than in 2015," but that's not saying much, nor is it setting the bar very high.
Instead, let's try and take a guess at some specifics.
The Giants will likely try to keep an athletic 4-3 Under as their base defense, but will likely spend plenty of time in a "nickel" set with Eli Apple or a third safety on the field.
The formidable, and massive, defensive tackle duo of Snacks Harrison and John Hankins suggests that the Giants could be looking to call more blitzes in years past. "Blitzburgh" architect Dick LeBeau used a combination of a massive defensive line and Cover 4 shell to unleash a potent zone blitz scheme on the NFL. While it's unlikely that Spagnuolo would copy that scheme completely, he could be counting on the Giants' massive defensive tackles to occupy blockers while man and zone blitzes create confusion and opportunities for free rushers.
It's also likely, particularly with the addition of Harrison, that the Giants will switch freely between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, perhaps even in the same drive, letting JPP or Vernon rush as linebackers.
Though we don't know exactly what form the Giants' defense will take in 2016, it seems almost certain that they will be aggressive, flying to the ball, trying to create pressure from unexpected angles and attempting to create turnovers.