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The New York Giants’ Defense Goes To Grad School

Steve Spagnuolo talked to the media Wednesday about the evolution of his defense, and some other things

NFL: New York Giants-OTA Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the 2016 season the New York Giants’ defense evolved into one of the best the NFL had to offer. Frustratingly stout against the run, stingy in the red zone, and a hazard for any quarterback to throw against, the Giants’ defense carried the team into the playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean that they can’t get better, and that is exactly what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is aiming for.

Spags is known for running one of the most complex defenses in the league, with a variety of checks, reads, and aggressive blitzes to keep offenses off balance. Wednesday he got into — a bit -- the process of editing that defensive playbook from one season to the next.

“It got a little bigger,” he said, “but we cut some things out. We changed some things we thought we needed, or added some things we thought we needed, probably not going to run some things that we didn't run a lot last year. So there's a little bit of that. It's probably evened out, it's probably about the same.”

“No,” he added with a laugh when asked if he could be more specific about the changes. “I mean look, this game, stay up with the times, right? You can't get caught doing the same things too many times over and over, because people in this league catch up to it. So we'll have a couple of tweaks.”

He did say that his decisions were impacted by the abilities and skill-sets of his players, as well as what they can handle mentally. And when it comes to the mental side of the game, if the defense was in the equivalent to their freshman and sophomore years last year, this year they’re in grad school.

“Personnel,” he said, “a little bit, where we are mentally, that's always a determination for me whether to add. And I think we've been able to do that with a couple of things. Once in a while I say to the guys 'look, we're in graduate school now. I think we're there, so we can put something a little bit more complex in.’ And that was a whole gradual thing last year. We kept it simple, built on it, and I think it helped the guys to do it that way, rather than throw it all at them at once.”

One of the headlines from OTAs was that the Giants’ safeties coach, Dave Merritt, believes that All-Pro and Defensive Player of The Year candidate Landon Collins can improve his game even more from what we saw in 2016.

Spagnuolo agrees that there are improvements he can make.

“We all do, I think we all do,” he said. “Coaches, players, when we start thinking we don't [have to keep improving], then there's going to be a problem, so we've talked a lot about that. And look, Landon's one of those guys that I don't believe that he rests on his laurels, I don't think he sees himself as, you know. I think he just wants to go out there and work. He's passionate about the game and he's always coming to me for direction, I don't have to chase him.”

Spags added, “Everybody's got to have the cerebral part of the game down. I think everybody can do better at that. There was a time early in the year last year when Landon struggled a little bit with play-action and recognizing play-action, and especially his first year. But we threw one at him today and he made a nice play, so he's progressed in that. And little disguise things, little detail things that I think that he's working on that I think will make him a better player.”

Part of Collins’ improvement in his second year was getting his weight down. It’s something he has struggled with, but Spagnuolo is confident in the third-year player.

“His first year was not a great year for that,” Spags said of Collins’ weight. “What did he say? Something about M&Ms (reporters supplied “Oreos”), giving that up? Well, he's still eating Maria's banana pudding, though, he probably walked out with a whole tray. But last year when he knew he had to get down, he did a really good job with his weight, kept it under the max level he was supposed to have it at, he did that every week, and I expect him to do that this year. In the offseason I'll tell ya, he's probably a little heavier than he wants to be, but I think he'll be fine by the time he comes back. He's got his diet right now.”

On Darian Thompson

Well, he's coming over that injury, and that's a tough one to get through. But he's always been a very cerebral player. I might have mentioned this before, I go back to last year and he came in early and he surfaced as the starter. Then he got hurt in training camp and didn't play in that last preseason game but was healthy to play in the Dallas game. He wasn't the starter at that point, I remember watching him function on the sideline. Here's a rookie from Boise State in his first NFL game down at Dallas, I think it was a Sunday night game – or at least in the afternoon – and he looked like lights were not to big for him. That impressed me right from the beginning. And I do think, and you guys would know better than I would, I think the next game was when he got hurt. I think it was only two games, so we didn't get to see anything more from him. But I think that he's a really good football player and he works really well with Landon.

On Dalvin Tomlinson

In a humorous moment, a reporter asked “Where is Dalvin Tomlinson At?”, to which Spagnuolo deadpanned “You might find him in there in the locker room... [laughter ensued]. I didn't mean that, I had to do one, right? He's on that learning curve like all rookies are, but I will say this: I have a great deal of respect for where he came from, Alabama, and what they do there with the coaching there, so I think he's ahead of it in that regard. I think the guys have confidence in him that he can go in there and help us in this league. But it's got to come from a lot of different people. Robert Thomas has done a heck of a job, Jay [Bromley] has done a heck of a job. We never play with just two guys in there, anyway.”

On B.J. Goodson

He has really taken this thing on, it's important to him, he takes it seriously. I don't believe that he was the signal caller at Clemson, at least that's what he told me, so this is a little bit new. But every day that we go out there, I think the guys get more and more confidence in him.

Goodson, and the rest of the linebackers are being mentored by new intern coach Antonio Pierce, an addition about whom Spags positively raved.

My man! Love that man. It helps B.J., it helps me more than anything. Antonio's great, I'm glad he's here, I'm glad he's still enjoying the game of football. He is, you know, the things that Antonio can give a guy like B.J. go far beyond what the coaches can give him. I mean, Antonio has experienced it, he was in the middle of it. He used to do it when he played. He sees things that other people miss, because he's a detailed guy in how he breaks down film, and he's doing a lot of that for me now, and he's in that linebacker room teaching those guys how.

On The Backup Cornerbacks

The young guys, you know it's taken them a little while, you know they struggle. But I'll tell you who has had a good offseason is Michael Hunter. He's done a really nice job, he's had to jump in there a couple times. You know Eli [Apple] has the illness right now, so he's not in there, and if you've watched enough of the practices, I don't know how many you've been to, Mike has really stood out. I give him credit for that.

And Finally, Playing With That Hunger

Since returning to the Giants in 2015 Spagnuolo has consistently asked his defenses to play faster, more aggressively. He admits that there is a fine line to walk at this point in the off-season, but still wants to see his defense be hungry.

There will be some tricks in there [to keep players motivated]. Here's the line you got to walk in these practices, look, our guys, I think we have a bunch of competitive guys, and they'd like to go out there and compete like defensive players do. However, helmets and nothing else on, you've got to be careful. So even though I want them to win every down, we talk about winning every down. If it's a first and ten, you can 't give up four, if it's a second and eight, you can't give up more than half. We're competing all the time, but we have to be careful. But, once you get pads on, I'm hoping the level goes from 'here' to all the way up 'here', because then you start competing, to being hungry to be the best, to wining a down – I'm talking about winning a down in practice, or I think you go backwards. And we can't afford that.