All eyes are on the New York Giants’ offensive line. How that unit comes together is obviously pivotal to the course the team’s season could take. However, there is an important question to be asked on the defensive line as well.
How will the Giants replace Johnathan Hankins?
The Giants made a competitive offer to Hankins before the start of free agency, but while it sat on the table for far longer than anyone would have thought it still wasn’t enough to keep Hankins in blue. The duo of Hankins and Damon Harrison, while not exactly “dynamic” was certainly dominant in 2017. They combined to help give the Giants one of the best rushing and scoring defenses in the NFL.
Hankins’ departure could well be a blow to a team that relied heavily on its starters to get into the post-season. However, it also opens up opportunities for other players.
We got to see two of them, Jay Bromley and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson, in action early against the Pittsburgh Steelers. What did we learn about them?
The Giants drafted Bromley in the third round of the 2014 draft, to the surprise of many. Bromley hadn’t done much in his first two years as a Giant, but appeared to begin to turn a corner in 2016.
He still didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but Bromley repeatedly stood out to me in re-watching tape of 2016’s defense. While other players like Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins, or Janoris Jenkins might be the ones making the plays, Bromley would flash on screen, affecting the play by pushing the pocket or knifing into the backfield.
Said Bromley about what he learned from watching Harrison and Hankins in 2016: “Honest to God truth, the one thing I learned from watching Hankins and Snacks was I don’t care about mistakes,” Bromley said. “I work my tail off to know my fundamentals well, to be in the right place with my eyes, my hands and my feet. Know my place. Know where I have to be. I don’t really worry about mistakes. The great ones have short-term memories. I have seen the best players make mistakes. So, it’s not about the mistake, it’s about how you rebound and what you do next time and that’s how you build trust.”
With Robert Thomas sidelined by an undefined injury (“soreness” in head coach Ben McAdoo’s parlance), Bromley got the opportunity to play against Pittsburgh’s starters.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had just picked up nine yards on a Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster end-around — the first down saved by Landon Collins. It being pre-season and the Steelers wanting to establish a physical mentality, this was likely going to be a running play.
The Giants lined up in their base 4-3 Under with a Cover 1 shell over the top. Devon Kennard is playing on the line of scrimmage, Landon Collins is in the tackle box as a pseudo WILL linebacker, and Darian Thompson is over the top as the free safety.
The Steelers run up the middle, intending to go behind the left guard. Jay Bromley shuts that down before it even starts by blowing right past him and into the running back
The Giants’ match-up based defense is on full display when the Steelers flip their offensive formation, and the Giants immediately react by swapping defensive tackle alignments — Damon Harrison and Bromley swapping places — and having Landon Collins and Devon Kennard switch sides of the defense.
Bromley fires off the ball low and fast, using a great rip move to get under the guard without losing any speed or momentum. In a blink he’s in the backfield almost before the running back knows he’s there, and makes the tackle. Collins comes in through the B-gap to secure the tackle and ensure that the back doesn’t even make it up to the line of scrimmage.
This is a run play, but had it been a play-action pass or even a straight pass play, Bromley likely would have had the sack. This is the kind of athletic penetration that the Giants’ have largely lacked since 2014 (when Hankins finished in the top 10 in both pass rushing and run defense).
We are at the start of the second quarter and second team players have started to filter in for both teams. Bromley is still on the field, but he is joined by rookie defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson.
Once again the Steelers decide to challenge the Giants’ run defense up the middle. In pre-season it isn’t a terrible idea — after all, how better to test the middle of their offensive line? Of course, it really doesn’t work that well.
Bromley is lined up as the left defensive tackle while Tomlinson is the right — one of the frustrating aspects of pre-season is that the NFL doesn’t realease the “Coaches Tape”, which has the endzone and All-22 views of every play. That makes it more difficult to suss out the exact alignment of interior players. In this case it appears as though Bromley is playing the 2i technique, on the right guard’s inside shoulder, while Tomlinson is lined up as the 3-technique across from the left guard’s outside shoulder.
Bromley draws the double team from the center and right guard. The running back initially angles to run behind them, but Bromley does a great job of anchoring and the hole doesn’t materialize. Bromley holding his blocks forces the running back to cut and try for a hole to the left.
Tomlinson does a good job of holding up his 1-on-1 block, forcing the back to the left B-gap. As he tries to break through the gap, Tomlinson reaches out one arm around the back’s waist, holding him up long enough for Dontae Skinner (LB No. 53) to come up and make the stop.
In what has become something of a tradition for GM Jerry Reese and the Giants, the team selected a defensive tackle in the second round going in to a season in which they could lose a starter to free agency.
They selected Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson, a powerful player in the mold of Hankins and Linval Joseph (both former second-round picks themselves). Tomlinson is a talented player, but some have come to the conclusion that he was overshadowed by the rest of Alabama’s incredible defense. That defense, however, wasn’t unappreciative of Tomlinson’s selfless efforts, using his strength to create opportunities for his teammates.
“You have to be selfless to take on double teams,” [Jonathan] Allen says of Tomlinson. “You know you’re not going to get the numbers you want, but you’re helping the team more than anyone.”
The hope is that Tomlinson will blossom on the Giants’ defensive line, where offenses will have to pay attention to Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Let’s see how he did in his first taste of NFL action.
Moving our concentration over to Dalvin Tomlinson, we take a look at a play that isn’t exactly a win for the defense.
Tomlinson is lined up as the 3-technique on the defensive right. The play goes away from him, to the offensive right where the tight end and full back do a good job of opening a hole for an off-tackle run.
However, the rookie defensive tackle does a good job on his side of the ball. He gets a good jump off the snap and appears to be the first defensive lineman moving. Staying low and showing off his understanding of leverage, as well as his power, Tomlinson gets a nice push on the left guard. Between he and Bromley (playing the 1-technique) the inside and left side of the offensive line is effectively collapsed.
It ultimately doesn’t matter and the offense still picks up four yards on the run, but it is an encouraging sign for the rookie.
On the very next play we get a glimpse of what Tomlinson is truly capable of.
Kerry Wynn makes the splashy play, rag-dolling the right tackle before coming across the formation to get the tackle for a loss — though that is ultimately wiped out by a penalty by the Steelers — but keep an eye on Tomlinson, the right defensive tackle.
Once again he gets a good jump off the ball and opts to go for the straight bull-rush. He stays low, keeping his hips down to maximize his leverage until it’s time to uncoil them. When he does, you can see the left guard get stood up and rocked backward. As Tomlinson capitalizes on the momentum and gets full extension of his arms, he is in complete control and puts the guard on roller skates. With his hands firmly inside the guard’s shoulders, he is able to discard him at will and make a play on the ball carrier. He isn’t quite able to bring him down, but Wynn is there to pick up the spare.
This kind of play is the reason why the Giants made Tomlinson their second-round pick.
There has rightly been some worry about the interior of the Giants’ defensive line with the departure of Hankins. He is a young and talented player who, at his best, is among the best defensive tackles in the league.
But early returns suggest that the Giants will be okay up front.
It seems likely that they will use more of a rotation along the defensive line than they did in 2016, when all four of their starters played too many snaps. Bromley finally appears to not only be playing up to his draft position, but potentially poised to out-play it. He was solid in relief of Hankins in 2016, but if he can provide the interior disruption that the defense has been lacking, it would go a long way toward making the defense even better in 2017. Between their defensive ends and aggressive blitz schemes, the Giants can make quarterbacks uncomfortable (to say the least), but nothing affects QBs quite like pressure up the middle, in their faces. Not only is it the quickest route to a sack, but it interferes with their mechanics and throwing lanes in ways that pressure off the edge just doesn’t.
It is a tad unrealistic to burden Tomlinson as Hankins’ heir — though that is what he was drafted to be. Tomlinson played well on the best defense at the highest level of college football, but there is still a learning curve to the NFL. He will likely need still need to adjust to the NFL game and there will be some hiccups along the way. But we have already seen flashes of his talent, and both the team and fans should be excited about his development next to Damon Harrison.
Or at least look forward to what Bromley and Tomlinson, as well as Robert Thomas, can show in the second pre-season game.