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James Bettcher’s defense is building a “relentless mindset”

The Giants’ defensive coordinator talks about the progress the defense has made over the off-season program

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With the second day of the New York Giants mandatory mini-camp, came the opportunity for the media to talk to the offensive and defensive coordinators.

While much of the focus for the Giants has been fixing their broken offense, there has still been plenty of interest in the new defense being built by new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. Building and installing that defense, which involves not only a new playbook but a scheme change for many front seven players has been a process.

That process has left Bettcher encouraged by the players buying in and putting in the work.

“Starting back in April, I think we sat in as coaches and defensively, you start to try to formulate what your vision is for how you want things to go. And I stood here, same place back then and talked about what we were hoping to accomplish during the offseason was to build a mindset in our defensive room,“ Bettcher said. “And that doesn’t happen unless players buy in, players believe. That doesn’t happen unless guys are willing to come and be here and be present when it’s voluntary.”

For all that we have become enamored with the measurable side of football, the saying that football is 90 percent mental and just 10 percent physical rings true. It doesn’t matter how physically impressive an athlete is if he has no clue where to be on a given play, doesn’t have the ability to grind in the classroom or practice field, or doesn’t have it in him to impose his will on the man across from him.

When Bettcher talks about building a “mindset,” that is what he is talking about.

“It’s building that, as I’ve said it before, that relentless mindset of how we’re going to work in the classroom, how we’re going to work outside the building, how we’re going to work in a walkthrough period at practice and how we’re going to take that over to team periods in practice. And I’ve loved that about our guys and I think we made some great progress to this point.”

Bettcher knows that coaching matters, that it’s his job to put players in position to maximize their skills and make plays. He also knows that he needs players who can capitalize on the opportunities the scheme gives them and make plays when there are plays to be made. That, ultimately, it’s the players who win games on the field.

“Well,” Bettcher said, “I think that’s the game, though. I think the game is our players win games in this league. And I love that about these guys, is they haven’t shied away from that. They want an opportunity to be one-on-one with someone. And you have to want that and you have to relish that opportunity.”

The common theme throughout the Giants’ 2018 off-season is a return to dominating games along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That is a shorter journey for the defense than the offense, thanks to players like Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson. But Bettcher has a bevy of players up front about whom he is excited.

About his defensive front he said, “Yeah, from a young guys’ standpoint, I think B.J.’s (Hill) really coming along. I’m really excited with where he’s at right now. Again, another guy excited to get his pads on, excited to see how we play in the run game when we get to training camp and have some padded practices. We know it’s going to start with the run game and if we’re going to be good in the run game, it’s going to start with those interior guys up front. All three of those guys that you mentioned have done a great job for us and I think [defensive end] Kerry Wynn has had a really, really good offseason and excited to see him in pads. [Defensive end] Josh [Mauro], [defensive tackle A.J.] Francis, the list can go on,[defensive tackle] Robert [Thomas]. I’m going to leave guys out if I keep going. But I’ll say this: I’m excited about where that group is at right now, but more importantly I’m excited about putting some pads on and seeing where we’re really at.”

Speaking of Hill, it was a surprise to many that the Giants drafted him in the third round of the 2018 draft. Not that he wasn’t worthy of the pick, but because the Giants already had Snacks Harrison entrenched as one of the very best nose tackles in the league and had selected another big, powerful defensive tackle the year before in Tomlinson.

However, Bettcher feels that casting Hill — who’s athletic traits bear a striking similarity to Fletcher Cox — and Tomlinson — who was a stand-out wrestler and has rare short-area quickness — purely as run-stuffers does both a disservice.

“I do think so,” Bettcher said, when asked if his young defensive linemen have upside as pass rushers. “I do think so. And one of the things when we drafted B.J., that was part of us selecting him because we thought he has a potential to be a three-down player. Whether that’s a middle push guy, whether that’s a guy that can beat some guards and create some disruption for either edge players, or edge pressure guys. Dalvin’s the same kind of player. Has some slipperiness to him, has the ability to get on edges. Excited to get to – again, I keep saying that, but I’m anxious to get to training camp to really see where some of that’s at. But I do expect those guys to be able to help us.”

Starting with Harrison and ending with Landon Collins — who is still working his way back from the fractured forearm that ended his 2017 season — the middle of the Giants’ defense portends to be a potent one. Bettcher credits those two players as aiding his decision to come to the Giants after parting ways with the Arizona Cardinals.

“You just said three [with linebacker Alec Ogletree] Pro Bowl players that are potential All Pros that I think all three of those guys can still play at the highest levels of their careers,” Bettcher said. “Shoot, that’s one of the reasons you want to run this defense and have a chance to coach this defense, is the first and last guy you said when you looked at who was here, and guys that are playmakers. Snacks [Harrison] being a guy that can win – we went and looked initially, all the one-on-ones that he had in the run game, and there wasn’t anyone that blocked him one-on-one in the run game. And I think what he’ll find and what we’ll find is we’ll be able to get him some one-on-ones. Whether that’s matched up on a center, on a guard, we’ll be able to get him some one-on-ones in the run game.”

About Ogletree, who the Giants acquired in a trade on March 7th, Bettcher said, “Alec has done an outstanding job. He’s growing into the leadership role of this defense. And you know, that always happens over time, especially when you’re putting a new system in because everyone’s really worried about their wheelhouse, their box, their responsibility and all that other stuff comes when we get to training camp and we start playing for real.”

Despite leading the NFL in defensive tackles in 2017, the Giants finished tied for third fewest sacks -- a revolting development for a franchise that boasts names like Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck. One of James Bettcher’s mandates is to build a Giants’ defense that strikes fear in to passing offenses, and his aggressive scheme is well-suited to the task.

“I think some of that will just come as we get into it,” Bettcher said when asked about rebuilding the Giants’ pass rush. “Finding what some of the strengths of the guys that we have on the field and trying to put those guys in the best possible position. OV [defensive end Olivier Vernon], we know is a dynamic guy. A guy that can rush from different angles, a guy that you can move around and put in different matchups. And he’s embraced everything that we’ve done to this point. I’ve loved working with him and I think he’s making some great progress, not just in this scheme, but I think as I’ve looked at him as a player, he’s sharpening his tools right now. Some of the other guys that I think can give us some impact would be guys that have a chance to win one-on-one matchups, or our guys that we can bring from different angles. And at times, if we have to, change who the fourth rusher is. At times maybe bring five or six. Whatever we would need to do.”