New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo got the day off from speaking to the media on Thursday and in his place was defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. As usual, Spags was forthcoming and friendly with the media and spoke (with his trademark Massachusetts accent) on a variety of subjects.
One of the most important things he talked about was the importance of continuity in the Giants' defense this year. While there was tremendous turnover in both the locker room and the coaching staff, Spags still believes that the experience of the men who were there last year puts the defense in a better position than it was a year ago.
"Well, we're ahead just in the knowledge of it." Spagnuolo said "There's still enough guys here that did it last year, I think there's a comfort level there. And believe it or not there's a comfort level in the coaches. I know we had a couple coaching changes, but guys that are still here, that's huge. When you first come here there's a lot of coaching the coaches and then they have to feed it to the players. And believe it or not, there's some things missed there in the communication and that happens, it's the human language. Whether it's English, French, Spanish, things are lost in the translation, even in one language of English, so I think that helps. Having the coaches all on the same page, and guys that are new, that are coming in, we've got to get them out there, get them the reps, and we have to get guys talking together."
He finished by saying that he was happy to have the people in the defense that he has this year. Though pressed, he wouldn't comment on a difference of talent level, saying that doing so would be an "injustice" to the players who left.
There is some speculation that with an infusion of talent, and experience to the players who remain on the defense, Spags will change the defensive scheme he fielded in 2015.
"There is some tweaking going on." Spagnuolo said when asked about potential changes "Without getting too detailed, yeah when we do figure out who the best eleven are, then we'll finalize where we're headed. There's a lot of volume in the defense right now, all teams are like that right now, and at some point we'll cut it down and hone in. A lot of that will depend on the eleven we're putting out there."
One thing unlikely to be changed about Spags' scheme is the need for communication. At its best, his defense's ability to communicate and decipher an offense, to adapt and force an offense to adapt, make it very dangerous.
Just ask Tom Brady.
But that requires vocal leaders, players who have the "Football Get It", as Spags likes to say, and the ability to communicate that with their teammates. But do the Giants have any players like that?
"I think there's a number of them." Spags said "Kelvin (Sheppard) has been doing it, all the linebackers have been doing it. JC (Jonathan Casillas) he has been vocal. Now JC and I have been together for a while so he's comfortable with the system. A lot of them are talking well, we probably have to get a few more of them doing it. The more they talk, the more they communicate, the more they are on the same page, the better chance we have to have be successful."
And on his linebackers in particular, Spags was complimentary, particularly of their "Get It", or football IQ.
"I don't know if anybody stood out right now. I will say this: That room that linebacker room might be one of the better rooms I've ever been around." Spags said "By that I mean intelligence. These guys get football. Now they have to take that out on the field and see who can get from point A to point B and make plays, who is going to be in the middle controlling things. My guess right now is that it may be more than one, I like it when it's one, I don't know if we'll get there or not, but it is a good group. They work well together."
One of the hold-overs from 2015 is re-signed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. JPP also happens to be one of the major story lines, and curiosities, on the Giants' defense. Everyone wants to know what kind of shape he is in, how much he will be able to help the defense, or if he will even be effective with his maimed hand. So of course Spags was asked about the defensive end, which also led to one of the more humorous parts of the press conference.
"He looks good to me." Spags said, "I told him today, JPP is a natural knee bender. God has gifted him with the ability to do that, as big and as tall as he is."
[A reporter mentioned that 'knee bender' is a term frequently used by NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, or a "Mayockism".]
"Did Mike (Mayock) say that?" Spags asked with a smile on his face "He must have stole it from us then!" [laughter].
I mean that guys that can naturally play with a lwo center of gravity, a lot of guys play high. As soon as the ball starts going, they start running, and in order to run fast you have to high hips and go. But the game isn't played like that. When you watch him, he looks like a rubbery gumby man out there. He can move all over the place, his change of direction, he's long armed. I'm glad he's here, this time last year we didn't have him."
Front seven aside, the Giants also renovated the back end of their defense, adding cornerback Eli Apple and safety Darian Thompson in the 2016 draft. Apple was a surprise pick as pretty much everyone was keyed in on Jack Conklin or Leonard Floyd as the Giant's pick. As such, reporters are eager to learn more about the tenth overall pick they weren't expecting.
"I was at Ohio State two or three years ago, spent some time with Urban (Meyer) and his coaches, and I know that they teach press skills very similarly to the way that we do it." Spags said when asked what about Apple has impressed him "So as soon as he comes here and he's doing the techniques that Tim (Walton) would have been teaching anyway, it's just natural for him. So that impressed me from day one. Very patient at the line scrimmage against wide receivers, and he'll compete.
"I'll take Tim's word that he's doing less (grabbing). I didn't see as many yellow flags, although I did see one that was a hold, I didn't see who it was on. We always talk to him and say 'Don't go back for seconds'. I can give you all the key terms, but one of the ways you do it is you don't let him open up his hands in practice. I haven't done that to him yet, but that's the next thing."
Behind Apple is third-round pick Darian Thompson. For the second straight year it appears as though the Giants will be starting a rookie safety. Thompson has garnered rave reviews throughout the spring and summer, and he is another player about whom fans and reporters are eager to get the coach's take.
"As for a young guy, when you talk about intelligence and communicating, he is far more advanced than a lot of the safeties I've worked with." Spags said "Even going way back to Philadelphia when I had the secondary, we had a bunch of them come through when we were trying to find another safety to play next to Brian Dawkins and I think DT has done an excellent job."