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Film study: Olivier Vernon’s return highlights what the Giants’ defense has been missing

A look at Vernon’s play against the Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Throughout the 2018 offseason, fans and the media alike looked at the New York Gants new-look defense and wondered from where they would get their pass rush.

It was understood that James Bettcher likes to blitz and would be aggressive in sending pressure from a variety of sources. However, even the most blitz-happy defense still needs to be able to generate a pass rush without having to scheme it into existence. The Giants let linebacker Devon Kennard leave in free agency, traded Jason Pierre-Paul to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, and cut Romeo Okwara in the final cutdown to 53.

Looking at their production for their new teams, those losses sting. So far, Kennard is having a more productive season than Khalil Mack, with 5 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 6 tackles for a loss, and 8 QB hits. Okwara, also on the Detroit Lions, has 3 sacks, 2 TFLs, and 5 QB hits, and JPP has 4 sacks, 5 TFLs, and 9 QB hits.

So far rookie defensive tackle B.J. Hill leads the Giants with 2.0 sacks, 2 TFLs, and 2 QB hits (Kareem Martin leads the team there, with 6 QB hits).

Bettcher’s defense with the Arizona Cardinals had Chandler Jones to provide a natural pass rush from the outside linebacker and defensive end positions. It was expected that Olivier Vernon, the lone remaining established pass rusher, would have filled that role. Unfortunately, he was injured in practice before the fourth preseason game, and would miss the first five weeks of the season.

Not only did Vernon’s absence deprive the Giants’ of much needed pressure on defense, but it also made the lack of a natural pass rush elsewhere all the more apparent.

Vernon returned in week six to face the Philadelphia Eagles, and while the Giants’ defense had a poor performance, Vernon had an immediate impact.

Run defense

1st quarter, 9:37, 2nd and 3, Eagle’s 20

We start with the run game because a defense will never get the chance to rush the passer.

Here we see the Giants in their nickel set to counter the Eagle’s 11 personnel set, and as we have seen throughout the first part of the season, being in a nickel set means that the Giants are in a four-man front. Vernon is lined up in his customary spot as the right defensive end, and it appears (though this could be an effect of the camera angle) that he is at the 6-technique, heads-up across from the tight end.

Vernon is the first Giant moving when the ball is snapped, firing off and engaging the tight end. He gets his hands inside the tight ends’ shoulders, giving him leverage and control, and allowing him to discard the block and engage with the left tackle.

At the same time, DT Dalvin Tomlinson engages with the left guard, and does a great job of getting his hands inside, establishing leverage, and driving him back about five yards.

Back on the left edge, Vernon gets underneath Jason Peters’ pads and drives him as well. Along with Tomlinson, the penetration blows up the outside-zone run. With nowhere to go, thanks to the push from Tomlinson and Vernon, the running back is brought down from behind by Kerry Wynn for a four-yard loss.

Neither Vernon nor Tomlinson showed up on the stat sheet for this play, but if it hadn’t been for their work, particularly Vernon for setting a hard edge and keeping the play from getting outside. Wynn had a free rush from the design of the play, but he wouldn’t have been able to pursue from the backside without the penetration on the play-side.

2nd quarter, 1:44, 3rd and 2, Giants’ 15

Once again we see the Giants in their nickel personnel, which they played on the vast majority of snaps against the Eagles, and once again Vernon is lined up at the right defensive end position.

This is later in the game and the defense has been on the field for much of it at this point. Consequently, Vernon doesn’t quite fire off the snap like he did in the first quarter and lets his pads rise some as he engages the left tackle. Peters is able to anchor against his rush, but also isn’t able to create any movement there. Next to him, Kerry Wynn is engaged with the center and manages to get some push, which opens up the left B-gap for Alec Ogletree to shoot through. The left guard released up to the second level at the snap, but Ogletree is past him before he can engage to block.

With Vernon and Wynn controlling their blockers and Ogletree shooting the gap, there isn’t anywhere for the running back to go.

The left defensive end, Lorenzo Carter in this case, gets a free run at the backside of the play. With the runner stopped by the Giants’ quick penetration, he helps Ogletree secure the tackle.

Once again, Vernon doesn’t get on the stat sheet — run defense is a thankless job in that regard. However, the work of he and Wynn make sure that the defense is successful and drove the Eagles back on that play.

Pass rush

1st quarter, 7:56, 1st and 20, Eagles 39

Now we backtrack back to the first quarter and look at some of Vernon’s work on passing downs.

The Giants continue to be in nickel, with a four-man front and this time are playing under a Cover 6 shell. The left side of the defense (top of the field from this angle) is in Cover 2, while the bottom (right) of the field appears to be in a Cover 4 look. Eli Apple looks to be in man coverage on the top of the screen, establishing inside leverage to use the sideline as a second defender, while Landon Collins is in zone coverage at the safety position. Meanwhile, all the defenders on the defensive right appear to be in zone coverage.

Vernon lines up at the 9-technique, or across from the tight end’s outside shoulder, had there been one there. He gets a great jump off the snap, and opts for the bull-rush against Peters. He does a nice job of keeping his pads low and getting his hands inside of Peters’ shoulders, establishing leverage and control while delivering a powerful jolt which sets the tackle back on his heels. In that instant, before Peters can re-anchor, Vernon transitions to a long-arm to create some space with which he can work, then uses a swim move to get around Peters on the inside.

He hits Carson Wentz hard as he releases the ball, which falls harmlessly incomplete in the middle of the field. This was one of a several plays in the first half in which Vernon just missed the sack of Wentz, but offered suggestion that a sack was coming.

3rd quarter, 4:11, 2nd and 7, Eagle’s 39

And the sack did come. It was toward the third quarter and too late for it to matter in the grand scheme of things, but it was still good to see for a team that had been starved of a pass rush.

It should come as no surprise that the Giants are in the nickel on this play, with two linebackers behind a four-man front. The back seven appears to be playing under a Cover 4 defense, with the corners and safeties dropping in to a deep zone coverage shell, while the linebackers are in zone coverage underneath.

The Giants only rush four, with Vernon at the right defensive end position. Jason Peters had left the game with an injury at this point, bringing back-up Halapoulivaati Vaitai on at left tackle. Vernon gets a good jump off of the snap, and keeps his pad level down. This time he isn’t quite able to get his hands on the tackle first, but with his leverage and leg drive, he is able to force movement backward. Capitalizing on the momentum, he converts speed into power and bench-presses the tackle back to create some space. With a smidgen of space, he establishes half-man leverage on an inside move — in this case, he only works against Vaitai’s right shoulder.

With leverage on his side, Vernon is able to drive Vaitai back and comes up with the sack.

Final thoughts

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell once wrote that “You don’t know what you got, until it’s gone.” Though, reading this in 2018, you might be more familiar with the cover by Counting Crows.

The 2018 New York Giants are certainly familiar with the sentiment, having to see their defense without high-priced free agent Olivier Vernon. The Giants’ defense without Vernon tried hard, but with little natural pass rush from the remaining players and less support from the offense, they couldn’t get off the field or close out games.

And though the team as a whole collapsed against Philadelphia, we did come away with a couple bright spots. First and foremost was the stellar play of Saquon Barkley, and the other was the play of Vernon.

The pass rusher wasn’t as spectacular as the rookie running back, but his performance was notable not only in and of itself, but for highlighting what the team had been missing since he suffered the high ankle sprain in the pre-season.

The Giants’ season is, for all intents and purposes, over. But we should still enjoy the nice things, such as the play of Will Hernandez, Barkley, or Vernon, when we can.