But instead we’re going to do what the Giants themselves should do, and hopefully are doing, and take the extra days afforded by Thursday Night Football to break the weekly grind, take a breath, and problem solve.
The first step in problem solving is, of course, defining your problem.
The Giants as a franchise have a lot of them, certainly more on offense than defense, but the defense is not without some serious issues of its own. Some of them are problems inherent in how the defensive is constructed, but others might be fixable with some in-season adjustments.
One of the biggest problems with the Giants’ defense has been “leaky” yardage stemming from poor tackling. While Giants’ defenders have often made first contact which could limit offenses to short gains, too often those initial tacklers have slid off and ball carriers have racked up yards after contact. Those yards after contact have helped keep offenses on, or ahead of, schedule and the defense on the field.
Possible solution: Practice it!
Without being able to see practice it is difficult to know exactly how the Giants are teaching and practicing their tackling. However, given the current results, something can clearly be done better.
The sad reality is that tackling has become a lost art at the high school and college levels, and it is now the norm for players to come in to the NFL with poor technique. Teams with consistently good defenses have been able to find ways to teach good tackling form to players and do so within the limiting structure of the CBA. It might not be easy but it is certainly possible.
There could also be some issues with mental mistakes, as players are out of position or playing too overly-aggressive at times. Other problems, such as untimely penalties are artifacts of other mental mistakes. Those are correctable by coaching, but can be difficult in-game or in-season, when bad things are snowballing and players are trying to make a play.
Problem: Pass rush
The Giants have fielded one of the, if not the, worst pass rushes in the NFL this season. In the absence of Olivier Vernon, rookie defensive tackle B.J. Hill and EDGE Kareem Martin have been the Giants’ best pass rushers, with 2 sacks and 6 QB hits, respectively.
The Giants are at the bottom of the league in terms of both total sacks and sack rate.
- Continue to play Oliver Vernon - Vernon is finally back from injury (though he apparently has a “rib thing” after his first week back). His play was one of the few bright spots on defense for the Giants. He isn’t the same kind of lightning-quick pass rushing savant as Von Miller or Osi Umenyiora, but he has the best blend of quickness, agility, power, and technique among the Giants’ options now. As he plays, he should help the pass rush.
- Play the rookies more - As mentioned above, B.J. Hill leads the Giants in sacks with 2.0. And while Lorenzo Carter has just one sack on the season, he has gotten close, and he has athleticism that not even Vernon can match. Of 397 total defensive snaps (so far), Hill has played 146 (37 percent), while Carter has played 157 (39.5 percent).
Part of that has come as the Giants have leaned in to playing nickel packages, which generally feature 4-2-5 alignments. In those cases, the team is more likely to go with Dalvin Tomlinson, Damon Harrison, Connor Barwin, or Kerry Wynn. But with the Giants’ pass rushers only rarely able able to get within league-average distance from the opposing quarterback, they need to upgrade their athleticism along the line. Hill has shown that he can rush from both the DT and DE positions, while Carter has found success from both DE and OLB. One of the Giants’ problems in the pass rush is that they haven’t consistently fielded players who can win their one-on-one match-ups when they get them. While Hill and Carter need development as pass-rushing technicians, they have the physical traits to win those match-ups.
- Blitz Landon Collins - Landon Collins is one of the Giants’ best defenders, but he hasn’t had the season many expected from him so far. He had a historic season in 2016 playing almost exclusively as a box safety for Steve Spagnuolo, which meant frequently coming on blitzes. The result was 4 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 9 tackles for a loss. Under James Bettcher, Collins has generally played a more varied role, often covering running backs in the passing game while others have blitzed. The Giants have blitzed this year, but they haven’t been particularly successful. They rank 16th in the NFL in success rate on blitzes, and 32nd in the league in sacks on blitzes. When unleashed, Collins is a very effective blitzer, as evidenced by his QB hit on Cam Newton, a pass which resulted in an interception by Janoris Jenkins.
Problem: Free Safety
It was viewed as a surprise when former Tennessee Titans cornerback Curtis Riley emerged in the off-season program as the starter at free safety. Riley took the job from an injured Darian Thompson, though the Giants initially intended for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play free safety, hinting early on that they wanted a player with a cornerback skillset rather than a more traditional safety. Unfortunately, the experiment has not borne fruit, and despite his interception of Cam Newton, Riley has not been an asset in the deep middle of the field. Free safety might be the position that has the biggest discrepancy between its importance to a defense (especially an aggressive defense), and how much the position is discussed.
(Further reading on the importance of the free safety)
In all honesty, this problem might not be solvable in the season. It is also possible that with experience and coaching, Riley could grow into the role.
In the mean time, the Giants should try their other options at safety next to Landon Collins. Michael Thomas has played just 77 defensive snaps (19 percent of the total), and although he is listed as a “strong safety”, he does have experience as a slot corner. Thomas is a five-year veteran and has started games at the safety position. In Bettcher’s Cover 1 based defense, recognizing route concepts, rolling coverage appropriately, and then making secure tackles are most important for a safety.
Sean Chandler is an undrafted rookie with all of one snap on defense, but he has experience at both corner and safety, and has a reputation for taking good angles to the football. Playing free safety in an aggressive defense might be a lot to ask of the rookie, but it might behoove the Giants to at least start getting him experience.
Many of the Giants’ problems on defense aren’t solvable in-season. The questions about their pass rush have been born out over the first six games of the season. With Vernon injured, the team has one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. There should be some improvement on their abysmal sack rate with Vernon back on the field, and with the continued development of Carter and Hill. However, the Giants need to add another defender with the speed and quickness to actually threaten offenses (or two, if they part ways with Vernon). There are also problems inherent in poor free safety play — both in general and with an aggressive man-coverage blitz-heavy defense. And while Curtis Riley might improve over the final two thirds of the season, those problems are unlikely to be fixed until free agency or the draft.
There is also the problems which stem from the offense: Field position, time of possession, rarely having a lead to defend or influence how an opposing offense calls the game.
However, there are also problems which can be fixed in-season.
Bettcher is an excellent defensive coordinator with a solid record of producing good defenses and problem solving. It was a coup for the Giants to be able to hire him to run their defense, and it isn’t unreasonable to keep faith that as long as he is supported, he will figure the problems out.