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Summer School: Darian Thompson And Defensive Disguises

How could the return of Darian Thompson impact the Giants’ defensive scheme?

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After laying the ground work with last year’s Summer School course with the basic nuts and bolts of football, this year we want to take a look at how some additions to the New York Giants — both new Giants and Giants returning from injury — can impact the team from an X’s and O’s perspective.

Last week we took a look at the addition of D.J. Fluker and what it could mean if the Giants build their running game on Inside Zone plays.

This week I want to turn it over to the defensive side of the ball and take a look at what the return of Darian Thompson could mean for the Giants’ defense.

When Steve Spagnuolo returned to the Giants’ sideline as defensive coordinator, there was much rejoicing at the prospects of the return of an aggressive defense. Fans were disappointed when Spags didn’t unleash the fearsome pass rush and “kitchen sink” blitzes for which he was so fondly remembered.

At the time, Spagnuolo’s hands were tied by the talent available. An avalanche of injuries, from Jason Pierre-Paul’s Fourth of July fireworks accident to a rash of training camp (and preseason) injuries to the secondary robbed Spags of many of the play-makers on whom he was counting.

Following the season, there was an infusion of talent into the Giants’ defense at almost every position. JPP recovered enough from his injury to play normally, Johnathan Hankins returned from his torn pectoral muscle, the Giants added free agents Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins, and Keenan Robinson. In the secondary, Landon Collins shed weight and mastered Spagnuolo’s defense, and the Giants drafted Eli Apple and Darian Thompson.

Spagnuolo finally had enough talent to crack open his playbook and put to work the lessons he learned at the knee of legendary Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson.

There are, of course, some differences between Johnson’s defensive schemes and Spganuolo’s — namely, Spags loves to play his corners in aggressive man coverage. But one common thread is the desire to confound offenses and apparently conjure pressure from anywhere on the field, and at any time.

Play 1

Situation: 2nd and 6 - 50-Yard Line

Score: Giants 7, Cowboys 6

After a four-yard run on first down, the Cowboys are trailing the Giants and are faced with a second-and-six at mid-field. In this situation the playbook is pretty much wide open and the Dallas offense could turn to any number of plays from their 11-personnel (1 tight end, 1 running back) grouping. Of course, they run the ball — which is hardly a bad idea. It’s still early in a close game, they have a tremendous run-blocking offensive line, a talented running back, and an unproven rookie making his first NFL start.

In response, the Giants field what appears to be a pretty vanilla defense. It’s a nickel look based on their standard four-man front. They show man coverage on the wide (and slot) receivers, with the linebackers playing close to the line of scrimmage to challenge the run. Behind them they appear for all the world to be in a Cover-2 shell.

In this look, their two high safeties would be splitting the field, with Darian Thompson apparently anticipating covering Jason Witten. From the Dallas point of view, this isn’t an unexpected defense. The Giants had been burned for a 21-yard gain just two plays earlier on a play-action pass, so it would make sense to keep two safeties back in case the Cowboys decided to let Dak Prescott throw more following Eli Manning’s touchdown on the previous possession, and hope an aggressive defensive front could blunt the running game.

Giants’ defensive coordinator Steve Spganuolo had other ideas.

The Giants are actually in aggressive man coverage Cover-1 shell, with Darian Thompson in man coverage of Ezekiel Elliott out of the back field.

NOTE: Thompson could be running a “Green Dog” blitz here, where he rushes if Elliott stays in pass protection, but covers him if he is a receiver. Without knowing the defensive call, it’s difficult to say and the end result is the same.

Spags trusts his young safeties to not only know their responsibilities and facilitate the communication on the back end, but also to get to where they need to be.

Landon Collins drops into a crisp backpedal at the snap of the ball into his single high coverage zone while Thomspson sprints down to cover Elliott. Thompson immediately recognizes the run play, accelerates downhill and starts scraping across the line of scrimmage. The Giants front does an excellent job of preventing the Dallas offensive line from opening a hole for Elliott.

The initial hole is clogged when Jay Bromley does a good job of pushing Zack Martin into the backfield, while Kerry Wynn stands the pulling Jason Witten up.

Elliott cuts back out of that hole and tries to turn the corner, but Thompson is there for the tackle, which is finished off by Wynn.

Comparing the beginning and end of the play, it’s easy to see how gutsy the Giants’ defensive disguise was, just how much ground Thompson had to cover, and how much was on him mentally, to get it right.

Play 2

The next week, the Giants largely shut down a New Orleans Saints offense that had eviscerated the previous year’s defense, dropping nearly-historic numbers.

After that game former NFL defensive back Domonique Foxworth wrote about the Giants’ defense for The Undefeated, saying:

When watching film, I can almost always tell the coverage before the snap. But not this time. The Giants safeties’ disguises were very risky. There was one play where the safety appeared as if he was down to cover the slot receiver, I assumed it was cover 1. I thought there was no way he could get back and man his deep cover 2 zone, but at the snap of the ball he sprinted out and got to his position.

The Giants’ defense played an excellent game that week, once again carrying the team to a win, as they did in the first game, and would again nine more times last year.

Situation: 3rd-and-10, 50-yard line, 2nd Quarter - 12:44

Score: Giants 0, Saints 0

First, let’s take a look at the play just before the snap, without any annotation.

With the Giants’ uniforms blending in with the “NFL” shield at the 50-yard line, getting a read on the personnel grouping is a bit difficult. The Saints are in an “11-Personnel” package, lined up in the Shotgun formation.

The Giants are in their “Dime” package, with six defensive backs — Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Landon Collins, Leon Hall, Darian Thompson, and Eli Apple (from bottom to top of the field), and just one linebacker (Jonathan Casillas).

The Giants are obviously expecting a pass here, and have put themselves in position to match up against the Saints’ athletic and varied offense.

They appear to be in something like a “Man-2” coverage, with man coverage on the three receivers, while the deep safeties play a Cover-2 shell over the top. Underneath, Hall and Casillas are showing blitz, but they could also drop into coverage if Spags plays it safe and just tries to prevent the first down.

As it happens, this IS a blitz, but the pressure and coverage are not what they appear. Let’s take break it down and take a closer look — there is a LOT going on in this play.

Starting with the outside corners, they are in the man coverage they appear to be playing before the snap.

Moving inside a bit, the Giants ARE playing a Cover-2 look, but of the safeties, only Landon Collins is dropping to cover the deep half of the field. The other half of the field is covered by Rodgers-Cromartie, who appears to be covering the slot on the other side of the field.

Darian Thompson comes on a blitz through the offense’s right “B” gap, through a hole created by the rushing Jason Pierre-Paul, and blitzing Leon Hall.

Everyone along the defensive front rushes — Except for Oliver Vernon, who drops into a zone coverage over the middle, though it gets shaded to the bottom of the field because that’s where most of the receivers are.

The late motion effectively makes this a “Robber” technique — but it is an unusual way of getting there. Most plays involving a “Robber” feature one of the safeties dropping back into a Cover-1 shell while the other rotates underneath to layer coverage and constrict throwing lanes over the middle. In this case, the Giants run an unexpected Cover-2 with a defensive end dropping into zone coverage underneath to clog passing lanes to any safety-valve routes.

Vernon actually does a great job in coverage, picking up the slot receiver on a comeback route. Vernon positions himself well to threaten the pass as Brees looks that way, keeping the ball in his hand.

The Giants ultimately bring six rushers to the Saints’ seven blockers, but the disguise and unusual movement create confusion among the blockers and both Hall and Thompson get (basically) free runs at the quarterback. Thompson trips as he goes through the line of scrimmage, but Brees is still sacked by Hall and JPP.

Final Thoughts

It says something about Darian Thompson that he not only won a starting job as a rookie, but that Spagnuolo would trust him with disguises this duplicitous and blitzes that audacious.

Though Thompson has been limited throughout the off-season as he recovers from the foot injury that ended his rookie season, Spagnuolo praised the safety’s football IQ, study habits, and work ethic, calling him a “very cerebral” player during mini-camp.

The Giants’ defense floundered a bit following Thompson’s injury, quickly followed by an injury to Nat Berhe. It re-established itself in the second half of the year as Andrew Adams established himself as a trusted starter and Spagnuolo was once more able to unleash his exotic blitz schemes.

Looking ahead to the return of Thompson and Adams having most of a year’s experience behind him, we can probably expect more of this kind of defensive sleight-of-hand.