The New York Giants might have the worst offense in the league, and that’s bad enough. There is more than a bit of anger being directed at an offense that was supposed to be improved, and might just have regressed from a severely disappointing 2016.
But what has been very surprising has been the play of the Giants’ defense.
A dominant unit in 2016, the defense was dominant when it came to scoring defense and defending the run, and did a great job of limiting primary options in the passing game. This year the defense has gotten gashed, giving up well over 100 yards on the ground in each of the first three games. Part of it is certainly the sheer numbers of snaps being played due to the offense’s ability to convert third downs and stay on the field. However, the Giants’ defense has struggled to get off the field on third down.
Perhaps most alarming is the lack of tackling, particularly on the perimeter. It has been a problem going back to preseason, but now it is costing the Giants games in the regular season.
Let’s take a look and see what is going wrong.
For our first play, I want to look at (arguably) the defining feature of the Giants’ loss against the Lions: The defense’s inability to put Matthew Stafford on the ground. For all the criticism that the Giants’ offensive line got that game, the Giants’ defense was taking the Lions’ offensive line to the cleaners as well. The difference was plays like this, where Stafford was able to evade the rush and make plays.
Matt Stafford, freakish arm talent aside, is a decent but not great athlete. He is hardly Michael Vick or even an in-his-prime Donovan McNabb. But on this play, that’s exactly what he looks like.
As they did on almost every third down in this game, the Giants just rush three, dropping eight in to coverage to clamp down on the Lions’ myriad of weapons in the passing game. In theory, it actually worked. The three defensive linemen are actually able to get pressure despite both Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon being double-teamed on the edges.
The problem starts when Vernon isn’t quite able to split the double team cleanly enough to get a decent shot on the quarterback and ultimately gives up outside contain in the process. Vernon can’t be blamed for wanting to get the quarterback down, especially when their own offense is barely a factor. However, they have to be aware that Stafford can make any throw on the field from practically any base. It appears as though safety Nat Berhe is assigned to “spy” the quarterback, and he could have come up for the sack had the Giants kept him in the pocket.
From there, Romeo Okwara and Berhe come over to try and defend the scrambling Stafford. They both over-pursue his run to the left side of the field, giving his center a clear block to open the middle of the field back up. Had Berhe taken the left while Okwara played off the block to the middle.
At that point Calvin Munson comes off his coverage assignment (the pass was no longer a threat), but takes a terrible angle and winds up on the ground behind Stafford, before he is finally brought down.
Without knowing exactly what the assignments are, it’s impossible to say exactly where the breakdowns happen, but it looks to me like a breakdown of gap discipline on behalf of several players.
For our second play, an actual running play, we need both the All-22 and the end zone views to get a full grasp of what happens.
This is a fairly standard off-tackle run with a pulling guard. The left guard pulls around to block Jonathan Casillas in the hole, beating him to the spot and chopping him down with a cut block. In the trash, that block is tough to deal with, but he is athletic enough that he could have used his hands to help the guard to the ground and go over the block to fill the gap. Behind (or next to) Casillas, Olivier Vernon is being blocked by a tight end. He eventually beats the block, but can’t quite do it fast enough to collaps the running lane and push it further outside.
Moving to the All-22 view, you can see Landon Collins immediately come downhill from his deep safety position. He is blocked by the wide receiver, who completely ignores the corner covering him. Collins can’t avoid or beat the block, opening a hole for Abdullah to run through. The corner, Ross Cockrell has a chance to make a play on the running back, but he is only in position to try an arm tackle. Had one of the other defenders dealt with their blockers better, he might have been in good position to bring down Abdullah, but in this case, he needed to do a much better job of squaring up and making a “form” tackle.
Spinning forward to this past weekend, we see a frustrating recurrence of familiar problems.
Once again the Giants have the other team backed up on a third and long. This time the Giants’ show pressure, with potential rushers threatening the left and right “B” gaps. However, they drop into zone coverage and the Giants only rush three.
Unlike “Play 1” both of the Giants’ edge rushers have 1-on-1 match-ups (nose tackle Robert Thomas is triple teamed up front), though JPP gets chipped by the running back as he releases into the flat. On the opposite side, Vernon wastes no time getting past left tackle Jason Peters. However, he beats him too quickly and runs way past the level of the quarterback, opening an easy escape route for Carson Wentz.
Linebacker Devon Kennard has a clear and easy shot at Wentz in the open field, but he charges in recklessly and whiffs badly when Wentz jukes. From there it’s a repeat of the last play, with Thomas over-pursuing and opening up the middle of the field and defenders taking horrible angles despite having their eyes in the backfield in zone coverage.
Once again, breakdowns in discipline across the board opened the door for a not-unathletic quarterback to scramble and keep the drive alive — again resulting in a touchdown.
Finally we have a simple outside zone run that goes for a touchdown to bring the Eagles to within three points of the Giants after their fourth quarter offensive outburst.
Starting on the left side, Landon Collins recognizes the run and immediately comes downhill. He almost beats the pulling left guard to the spot to make a tackle for a loss, but gets caught on the side and pushed out of the way.
Right defensive end Romeo Okwara, who came on in relief of the injured Vernon, hesitates a beat and winds up getting blown way off the ball by an extra lineman brought on as a jumbo tight end.
Without anything resembling a firm edge by the Giants’ defense, the running back has no problem getting the edge. Linebackers Casillas and Munson almost get into place to make the play in space. However, the center pulled and got a block on Casillas and right tackle Lane Johnson got up to the second level and gets a block on Munson in the back, shoving him into Casillas, effectively taking out both linebackers.
Finally, free safety Darian Thompson, who is effectively the Giants’ last line of defense on this play, waited too long to get into position, takes a bad angle, and basically bounces off the running back.
All in all, this is a combination of good design and execution by Philadelphia and a series of breakdowns on behalf of the Giants.
The New York Giants’ defense was great in 2016, in part, because of their tackling. They quickly and efficiently brought down ball carriers, with solid initial hits, sound tackling, and help swarming to the ball.
I’m not going to play arm-chair psychologist or speculate what is going on in the building — I, we, can’t know those things. All I can do is look at the play on the field, which has been wildly inconsistent. At best, the Giants’ defense shows all of the positives it did a season ago. At worst, they are sloppy and undisciplined.
It's something Landon Collins has acknowledged, saying, "I think everybody is just trying to make a play. And you've gotta make a play within our defense. We've just got to uphold and do "our" job. Once we do our job everything is going to fall together."
The fact that most of the same players played as well in the same system a year ago, and still do (at times) this year, gives reason for hope. They clearly know how to do the fundamentals correctly and play with discipline. While there are a few new players on the defense, such as Ross Cockrell, Calvin Munson, and Darian Thompson — and they have each had breakdowns — they are also not the sole problem. As with the Giants’ offense, the problems are widespread and have a nasty habit of compounding on each other.
It also bears remembering that the defense didn’t really begin to take off and dominate until the second quarter of the season in 2016. The Giants’ have dug themselves a deep hole with a non-existent margin for error. However, they can still claw their way out. Part of that will be the offense (finally) pulling its weight and not forcing the defense to press, play too much, and try to win the game on their own. Another will the defense settling down and playing as they are capable.
Perhaps the biggest part will be the entire team playing with some poise and discipline.