A lot of the disappointment surrounding the 2018 New York Giants has been focused on what the offense hasn’t been able to do with the talent at its disposal. The struggles on defense might be overlooked because of the opposite problem — there was a clear lack of overall talent on that side of the ball at key positions. Now as the Giants focus their midseason transition on the defense, we’ll get a bit of a new look when Washington comes to the Meadowlands in Week 8.
By the numbers
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Time for a youth movement
With the trades of Eli Apple and Damon Harrison earlier in the week, two starting spots opened up on the defense — spots likely to be filled by younger players looking for a shot to make a bigger impact.
In Apple’s spot, B.W. Webb is likely to move from the slot to outside and defensive coordinator James Bettcher said both Grant Haley and Sean Chandler would get time in the slot. Haley is an undrafted free agent cornerback out of Penn State, who the Giants made a big effort to sign following the draft. After an up and down preseason, Haley was cut and signed to the practice squad with the cut down to a 53-man roster. Haley was promoted prior to the Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons, but only played three defensive snaps. At Penn State, the 5-foot-9 Haley played both in the slot and outside with success at both areas. Last season Haley allowed just a 43.5 percent completion percentage on 131 pass snaps and 23 targets in the slot, per the PFF Draft Guide — though he only spent 38 percent of his pass snaps in the slot.
Chandler, also undrafted, was a surprise player to make the initial 53-man roster. To this point in the season, Chandler has only been on the field for one defensive snap, but has been on the field for 51 percent of special teams snaps. He was a safety at Temple and through the preseason, so a move to the slot would be a slight position change.
Replacing Harrison will be more of a team effort. While John Jenkins best fits the profile of a 3-4 nose tackle (327 pounds), the Giants are more often in nickel with a four-man line and are likely to go a little smaller on the interior with more snaps for Dalvin Tomlinson and rookie B.J. Hill. This season Tomlinson had already played more snaps than Harrison — 57.5 percent to 54 percent — but getting Hill on the field more (39.7 percent of defensive snaps played) will be a positive thing for the growth of the defense. Despite playing significantly less often, Hill only has one fewer run tackle (5) at or behind the line of scrimmage than Tomlinson (6) — both still well below Harrison, who led the team with 9. Hill has also shown the ability to rush the passer from both the interior and on the edge in a four-man front. Hill’s two sacks are tied for the team lead and his three tackles for loss are now technically also tied for the team lead (Harrison had four).
Adrian Peterson is back
On the other side of the line and the other side of a youth movement is Adrian Peterson. After a weird season with the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, Peterson looks more like the player of old in his current tenure with Washington.
But while he’s looked closer to the Peterson of old, he’s added a new dimension to his game — running from shotgun. Part of the downfall of Peterson’s ability to play in the modern NFL was how one dimensional he made an offense while he was on the field. He wasn’t going to catch passes and he was only going to be able to run with the quarterback under center. But this season, Peterson already has 37 rushing attempts from shotgun, which ties his career high for a single season set back in 2010. He’s also been slightly more efficient from shotgun with a 49 percent success rate opposed to a 45 percent success rate under center this season.
Peterson is also once again making defenders miss. He’s 10th in the league with 22 combined broken tackles on rushes and receptions — an average of a broken tackle on 20.2 percent of his touches. That might be a problem against a Giants team that has continually struggled to tackle well. Curtis Riley and Alec Ogletree are both tied for the third-most broken tackles in the league with six — that accounts for 17.6 percent of Riley’s tackle attempts and 20 percent of Ogletree’s, per Sports Info Solutions. Ogletree did not practice on Thursday, so his status may be in doubt. He’s played every defensive snap for the Giants this season.
Wanted: A pass rush
The Giants had three sacks of Matt Ryan on the first two drives against the Falcons and it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Atlanta quarterback. Then for the rest of the game, he was only hit two more times and brought down once on a sack negated by a defensive hold.
Per SIS charting from Football Outsiders, the Giants are now 19th in defensive pressure rate and even when the Giants are getting pressure they’ve been rarely been able to bring down the opposing quarterback. Per FO, they rank 31st in adjusted sack rate. Washington is 18th in offensive pressure rate allowed and quarterback Alex Smith holds onto the ball longer than the average quarterback — 2.78 seconds per Next Gen Stats — despite his average pass being shorter than the league average.
Olivier Vernon has made an impact since he’s been back — he’s already sixth on the team with five pressures despite playing in just two games — but the other secondary pieces of the pass rush have not been able to make a difference. Kareem Martin leads the team with 12 pressures, but much of that was at the start of the season when he was the team’s primary pass rusher.