When Pat Shurmur was named the head coach of the New York Giants, one of the biggest questions facing him was who would fill out the staff. As an offensive coach, the defensive coordinator position might have been the most important and in that vein, it was the first major focus of Shurmur’s tenure.
That focus landed on former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher. This should be considered a great get for the Giants, especially in a process that could have resulted in a more traditional hire in former Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, who had previously been reported as the favorite.
Bettcher brings both experience and success as a defensive coordinator for the Giants, but in a much different way than the Giants might be used to seeing. With the Cardinals, Bettcher was one of the most creative and versatile defensive minds in the game. Much of the focus around Bettcher will be how he has favored the “3-4” defense, but that’s overly simplistic. During his tenure in Arizona, Bettcher fit both the defensive scheme and defensive positions around the talent he had available. Last season the Cardinals had 15 unique starting defensive lineups, per NFL Game Stats and Information, though the seventh-fewest unique defensive lineups overall (294). If there’s one way to express Bettcher’s ability to adapt it is this — the Cardinals lost Calais Campbell, the likely 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, and dropped from third to fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA from 2016 to 2017 (his defense also finished third in DVOA during his first season as coordinator in 2015).
It’s certainly possible the likes of Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul spend a little more time standing up, but we shouldn’t expect either to be shifted to a full-time 3-4 outside linebacker. But if they do, this wouldn’t be the first time Bettcher has been tasked with transitioning two dominant defensive ends to a more stand-up approach — he was the outside linebackers coach under Chuck Pagano in 2012 when the first-year head coach moved the Indianapolis Colts from a 4-3 to 3-4. That included coaching both Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Mathis told Sports Illustrated in January. “I played defensive end for the better part of a decade. I needed a little more coaching. James was a chameleon. He could adapt. He did such a tremendous job, my learning curve was taken care of really, really fast. I owe him a lot.”
Mathis had eight sacks in his lone season under Bettcher, but exploded for 19.5 sacks the following season though Bettcher had followed Bruce Arians to Arizona by then.
Either way, the base defense argument will be overblown, because rarely is there a “base defense” in today’s NFL with 60 percent of plays featuring at least three wide receivers on the field. The no base defense is especially true in Bettcher’s scheme, where movement and versatility rule.
Aggression and deception
One of the biggest shifts on the Giants defense will be its aggressiveness. Arizona has been one of the most blitz-heavy defenses in the league, dating back to when current New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles was the defensive coordinator under Arians. Bettcher took that approach and turned it up to 11. When opponents were in obvious passing downs, the pressure was coming. While blitz rates between the Cardinals (33.2 percent) and Giants (30.9 percent) weren’t too dissimilar in 2017, how those blitzes were presented and their effectiveness were both vastly different.
Let’s start with this play from Arizona’s Week 16 game against the Giants — a 23-0 Cardinals win. The Giants faced a second-and-11 just over midfield. The Cardinals crowded seven men around the line of scrimmage, but only two had their hand on the ground. Four Cardinals crowded the left side of the line across from Ereck Flowers, John Jerry, Jerell Adams, and Wayne Gallman. At the snap, six of the defenders rushed with defensive back Budda Baker (36) responsible for Adams in coverage.
On the right side of the line, the Cardinals ran a stunt with Frostee Rucker (92) and Olsen Pierre (72). Pierre initiated a double-team against Brett Jones and Jon Halapio while Rucker looped from the edge to the interior. Behind that stunt, Deone Bucannon ran his blitz into the now open gap vacated by Rucker with a free path to the quarterback. It also helped that both rushers beat the tackles around the edge, but the pressure would have been there even without it. Eli Manning had to rush the throw and there was a single-high safety perfectly positioned on the one deep route and in place to catch an easy overthrown interception.
The Cardinals can also give the look of pressure, only to bring four and confuse the quarterback. The below play was a third-and-8 against the Seattle Seahawks. Arizona initially had five defenders near the line with a late break in from Tyrann Mathieu (32). It looks like a heavy blitz, but the Cardinals only bring four — just not the four Russell Wilson might have been expecting. The two linebackers over the middle drop back into coverage and Mathieu blitzed off the edge. Wilson’s timing was thrown off and the play resulted in a sack.
Perhaps the biggest key to this play, though, is the preparation and discipline of the players in coverage. Seattle needed eight yards to pick up a first down and the four receivers out in routes ran to or past the first down marker. Arizona had five defenders stationed at the first down line with two safeties protecting against anything deeper. There was nowhere for WIlson to go with the ball, which aided the oncoming pressure. The idea may be simple — make sure defenders play at the first down line — but in reality that type of awareness and execution is rare.
In 2017, Arizona was one of the most disciplined teams on third down — only three teams allowed more than the Cardinals’ 4.69 yards gained. Conversely, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only team to allow more yards on third down last year than the Giants’ 6.64.
Another one of Bettcher’s strengths is the ability to get his defenders into advantageous matchups. Take what he did this past season with Chandler Jones. Jones led the league in sacks (17), quarterback hits (33), and tackles for loss (28) spread pretty evenly against the run (12) and pass (16).
Below is an example against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3 that just allowed Jones to be in a position of strength to make a play. The Cowboys had a first-and-10 in plus territory. While facing a heavy run formation with 12 personnel (two tight ends, one running back, two wide receivers), the Cardinals countered with four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. One of those defensive backs, safety Tyvon Branch, was brought close to the line and Arizona had seven defenders against seven potential blockers.
How Jones was lined up and how that was manipulated is what helped the Cardinals gain an advantage on the play. Jones lined up wide, across from tight end Jason Witten. At the snap, defensive tackle Corey Peters (98) slanted his rush to his right. That caused left tackle Tyron Smith to pick him up instead of the left guard, who was initially lined up across from him. That left Jones one-on-one with Witten, a matchup the defensive player should win every time.
With Smith focused on Peters, Jones got an opening to burst through the hole and past Witten to hit Ezekiel Elliott almost immediately.
Of course, the most notable aspect of the Arizona defense has been the creation of the moneybacker position — a hybrid of safety and linebacker — now used by a few teams across the league. The role was first given to Deone Bucannon, a 6’1,” 220-pound safety who did his best work crashing the line in the run game and reacting to what’s in front of him. The Giants happen to have Landon Collins, a 6’0,” 222-pound safety who does his best work crashing the line in the run game and reacting to what’s in front of him. If there was one single aspect of this Giants roster that compelled Bettcher to take the gig, it might be this.
One misconception of the moneybacker position is that it’s strictly a move to linebacker and it takes away most coverage responsibilities for the player. That’s just not accurate. In Arizona, Bucannon had plenty of snaps in coverage against tight ends and receivers and Collins should continue to do so with the Giants.
The difference is a responsibility started closer to the line of scrimmage with an emphasis on making more plays. Bucannon was third among Cardinals in tackles despite playing in just 12 games. Collins has led the Giants in tackles in each of the past two seasons and a transition to “linebacker” would help the Giants fill the biggest weakness on that side of the ball with arguably its best player.
This could also give the Giants infinite possibilities on third downs with personnel. Take this play against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 7. The Rams faced a third-and-11 at their own 19. Arizona countered with seven defensive backs. The only “linebacker” on the field was Josh Byrnes (squared) and even he was lined up over the left tackle. Bucannon, playing the moneybacker, was lined up over the right guard. Arizona showed they would rush five and the six players behind them were all defensive backs.
Like many Bettcher plays, the pre-snap look they gave was not the post-snap result. Both Byrnes and Bucannon dropped back into coverage and Tyrann Mathieu blitzed the right side of the offense. With seven defensive backs covering four receivers, the only option was the checkdown to Robert Woods, who was quickly met by Bucannon for just a 7-yard gain and the Rams were forced to punt.
Collins and the rest of the defensive backs can also be used more on blitzes — a place they already excelled. Per Sports Info Solutions charting the Cardinals had two of the top-10 defensive backs by individual pass pressure — Tyrann Mathieu (11.5, first) and Budda Baker (6.5, eighth). The Giants had three of the top-14 — Collins (9.0, third), Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie (5.5, t-12th), and Darian Thompson (5.0, t-14th).
Having a player like Collins closer to the line and the possibility of two other safeties on the field can also help in coverage of tight ends. In three seasons under Bettcher, the Cardinals ranked seventh, sixth, and seventh in coverage against tight ends by DVOA.
Even if there’s a brief transition period needed for the full scheme to be put in place, the potential of the end result should make the Giants and their fans incredibly excited. In a general manager and coaching search that’s been fairly paint-by-numbers to this point, the hiring of Bettcher is a welcome development and the play on the field should reward this deviation from the norm.