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Summer School: The Giants And Defensive Line Rotations

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What rotation? The Giants didn’t sub very often in 2016

New York Giants v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

During the 2016 season, the New York Giants had a few statistical oddities when it came to which players and formations were on the field for each side of the ball. We’ve already talked numerous times about the offense’s almost exclusive use of 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back). On 92 percent of the Giants’ offensive plays, three receivers were on the field. No other team was above 76 percent. The other side of the ball gets talked about slightly less, but the Giants were just as fixed in their ways along the defensive line.

Most teams rotate out their defensive linemen to allow both fresh legs to get into the game and for the players who play the majority of the snaps to get some rest. That didn’t happen much for the Giants last season. Olivier Vernon barely left the field during his first season in New York. He played 93.6 percent of the defensive snaps in 2016, which led all NFL defensive linemen. Only two other players -- Khalil Mack and Cameron Jordan -- also played at least 90 percent of his team’s offensive snaps. Just eight others were above 80 percent on the season.

Jason-Pierre Paul played 71.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, but also only played in 12 regular season games. Ignoring the Week 13 game when he injured his groin against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pierre-Paul saw no less than 88.8 percent of the defensive snaps for games in which he played.

The Giants were better about rotating the defensive tackles, but with modern personnel packages edge rushers will be called on more than the interior defenders to be on the field. And even that rotation was little more than three-deep for the two spots inside. Johnathan Hankins led the tackles with 68.9 percent of the defensive snaps played and Damon Harrison played on 60.6 percent. Jay Bromley was the player who jumped in to spell the tackles with 22.3 percent of the defensive snaps played. Robert Thomas was next at just 6.1 percent.

Sometimes the defensive tackles were even subbed out for more defensive ends, which kept players like Vernon on the field even longer with a shift inside with new edge rushers on the field. The Giants did not use the NASCAR package as often as the tail end of Steve Spagnuolo’s last tenure as defensive coordinator, but they did go there occasionally. The shot below came against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10. The line from the defense’s left to right is Romeo Okwara, Devon Kennard, Olivier Vernon, and Owa Odighizuwa. The play did result in a Vernon sack.

But those plays were few and far between for the Giants and the backup ends did not see much action. Okwara was third among the Giants’ defensive ends in snaps played at 33.2 percent. He played more often on special teams -- 39.9 percent. Behind him was Odighizuwa at 15.2 percent and Kerry Wynn at 10.5 percent.

This type of rotation, clearly, is not normal. Overall most teams rotate their defensive linemen, both edge rushers and interior defenders, more often. Below is a chart of the snap percentages of the five most used linemen from the top five teams by Football Outsiders’ pressure rate in 2016, the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, and Miami Dolphins. Edge rushers are noted with an asterisk.

Defensive Line Rotations

Team DEN ARI PHI MIN MIA
Team DEN ARI PHI MIN MIA
DL 1 82.1% 87.3%* 75.8% 85.8%* 84.5%
DL 2 81.2%* 77.20% 75.0%* 81.0%* 67.1%*
DL 3 58.0%* 70.8%* 69.6%* 69.5% 54%
DL 4 57.90% 46.30% 45.8% 58.0%* 51.1%*
DL 5 56.40% 36.20% 42.8%* 53.1% 44.8%

The team that came the closest to the Giants was the Vikings, who relied on their top two pass rushers for more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps. But even Minnesota rotated more often in the middle and got a third pass rusher in the fold nearly 60 percent of the time.

Of course, that’s easier to do with a third pass rusher who deserves that time on the field. The Giants, for the most part, did not have that in 2016. When two players the caliber of Pierre-Paul and Vernon are on the field, it’s tempting not to take them off. It’s even more tempting when the players behind those two on the depth chart haven’t exactly inspired confidence.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the depth chart at defensive end hasn’t changed much. The biggest additions were fifth-round pick Avery Moss, free agent Devin Taylor and a trio of undrafted free agents. Besides that, the players behind Vernon and Pierre-Paul remain the same -- Okwara, Wynn, and a question mark in Odighizuwa.

This strategy didn’t kill the Giants last season. The defensive line was still strong at the end of games last season. They had their most sacks of any quarter in the fourth (12), though they also saw the most pass attempts in that quarter, too. Their fourth quarter sack rate (5.9 percent) was just behind the second quarter (6.2 percent). Still, it’s not a strategy most would want to follow long-term, especially since Pierre-Paul’s season did end with an injury.

Vernon may be a bigger concern due to the amount put on his plate during his first season with the Giants. We already discussed how he produced above expectations thanks to the pressure provided last season, but it would be unfair to place that type of load on Vernon again.

Football Outsiders has kept track of snap counts since 2012. In those five seasons, only four linemen have been on the field for 90 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in back-back seasons. Jared Allen did it in 2012 and 2013. Rob Ninkovich did it in 2013 and 2014. J.J. Watt did in 2013, 2014, and 2015 before an injury caused him to lose most of 2016. Cam Jordan is the iron man here with at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps played in every season since 2012. He should be considered the exception, not the rule.

It’s hard to see the Giants going with this top-heavy approach again throughout 2017, but with the current roster construction, it might be just as hard to envision the alternative. Perhaps the offense will sustain a few more drives and keep the defense off the field for a couple more plays per game. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be something.

The offense looks to be ready to change personnel-wise with the addition of Evan Engram and more tight ends on the field. The personnel might not have changed as much along the defensive line, but for the Giants to continue through the season with everyone healthy and productive, it might be time to change some things up there, too.