The most surprising thing about the New York Giants’ 0-3 start has been the play of their defense.
Just a month ago the defense was believed to be the unquestioned strength of the Giants, particularly their ability to defend the run. Three weeks into the 2017 season, the Giants have the worst rush defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 153 yards per game. Their problems stopping the run were highlighted last Sunday by the Philadelphia Eagles, when they had six players run for a combined 193 yards.
It isn’t a personnel problem, as largely the same players formed an elite unit just last year — they didn’t forget how to play the run. Instead, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo says, they need to execute better as a defense.
“There’s a lot of things,” Spagnuolo said when asked what went wrong with the run defense. “It started inside, then it moved outside on some plays, then it got out to the second level guys, downhill, not playing downhill, guys not setting the edge in the secondary. When it goes like that, it’s not one thing. But I think everybody recognizes it. We’ve been through it. We sat down and watched every run play together as a unit. I think everybody was accountable for what they did or didn’t do and hopefully it will get fixed.”
“We work on it,” He added, when asked how they fix the problem. “It has to get fixed from the inside out. In other words, guys have to have the attitude to fix it, which I think they do. I’m going to credit the two teams we played. They’re two pretty good football teams that had some pretty good backs that made us miss. But if we don’t get better at that, it’s not going to – all the other stuff is not going to matter. So we need to improve that.”
While the main issue has been discipline in playing within the defense and in playing with proper technique, the Giants have also dealt with injuries early in the season. The Eagles’ biggest breakthroughs running the ball coincided with Olivier Vernon’s ankle injury and subsequent exit from the game.
“Yeah. We have some guys dinged,” Spags said of the injuies. “Didn’t think it would get like that quite this quick. We’re working through it. Give some other guys some opportunities.”
Olivier Vernon reportedly received (relatively) good news regarding his injured ankle and middle linebacker B.J. Goodson (shin) has been a limited participant in practice. Whether or not the defense would have them available, Spags would not say.
“I don’t know that,” He said. “I mean, I’ll leave that up to Ronnie (Barnes) and Ben (McAdoo). I mean, tomorrow we have kind of the walk through practice, so hopefully they’ll get a little healthier. We’re still three days away, so I’m hopeful.”
While Calvin Munson has filled in at middle linebacker about as well as could be expected for an undrafted rookie, the Giants certainly miss Goodson. As the defensive signal caller, he has been responsible for lining up the defense throughout the summer. He also proved to be a tackling machine and a force coming downhill in the season opener. About Goodson Spagnuolo said, “B.J. – he takes a lot of pride in being a downhill linebacker and tackling and being a physical guy, so if we can get him back, that certainly would help some things.”
As Spagnuolo alluded to earlier, when a run defense fails, it’s the fault of the entire defense. One of the problems has been the struggles of safety Darian Thompson. Thompson, considered a steal in the draft last year, left many tantalized by his potential when his rookie season was ended by a foot injury. His return was expected to help elevate the defense to the next level, but he has struggled, particularly in Philadelphia.
“Well, what I tell him is I haven’t lost any confidence in him because I haven’t,” Spagnuolo said. “We need him back there as a communicator. We need him back there kind of running the show and getting guys lined up and he has to play better when the ball carrier shows up in his alley and we have to make a tackle and he has to do that. But I think he’ll get better. We’ll all improve. I mean, that’s what you go through – go through some tough times and pick each other up and hopefully we find a way to win. I mean, this whole thing gets cured by winning a football game, so all we’re worried about is here’s what we’re doing. We’re worried about winning today and then winning tomorrow and just winning the day and hopefully on Sunday we can win a game.”
Thompson and 2016 starting safety Andrew Adams have rotated throughout the year, but Adams took over for Thompson at the end of last Sunday’s game. While his ceiling may not be as high as Thompson’s Adams has more real game experience — at least in the NFL. So while Spags expressed his continuing confidence in Thompson he also said that they would split snaps more and there would be more of a rotation.
And as Spags said earlier, when a game like last Sunday’s happens, the fault lies with the entire defense — himself included. The defensive coordinator took responsibility for how many plays his defense was on the field for, the fatigue from which likely contributed to the breakdowns in discipline and tackling at the end of the game. Spags’ solution: Call a better game.
“Yeah. Call better third down calls and win the third downs so we get off the field,” he said. “I look at that all the time. When I see that there’s over 70 plays, the first thing I do is go look at third down. Now, the more manageable third downs, the longer ones, right, we would rather have and when they’re not long, okay, then you have to look at first and second down. But you have to win third down to eliminate the number of plays on the field.”