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Positive signs, but still lots of questions for Giants defense

Giants will be relentless, but will they be able to rush the passer?

James Bettcher
Photo by Ed Valentine

The New York Giants haven’t scored 30 points in a regular-season game since the final game of the Tom Coughlin era, which seems like eons ago. There are a multitude of opinions about the viability of the team’s 37-year-old quarterback. The rebuilt offensive line still has to prove its worth.

Yet, Pat Shurmur’s varied playbook and his success as an offensive coordinator in multiple places, the drafting of Saquon Barkley, the return of Odell Beckham Jr., the added experience for Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, and that rebuilt offensive line are all cause for optimism about the Giants’ 2018 offense.

It is the defense, though, about which there is the most uncertainty. At least from this vantage point. With spring workouts in the books, there are plenty of things to feel good about on the defensive side of the ball. There are also a bunch of things to be concerned about.

The Bettcher effect

James Bettcher talks OV, Giants pass rush

Posted by Big Blue View on Tuesday, June 19, 2018

When new defensive coordinator James Bettcher steps to the podium to speak to media, you can hear and feel the enthusiasm he has for his work. The players feel it, too. “I love him,” Janoris Jenkins said recently of Bettcher. Of the defense Bettcher is bringing from the Arizona Cardinals to the Giants, Jackrabbit added “I love it.”

The defense Bettcher is bringing to the Giants is a base 3-4, but it is really a multiple defense based on using a wide variety of fronts and changing up the number of pass rushers and where they are coming from to cause uncertainty on offense.

In a fantastic piece Patricia Traina did on Bettcher shortly after he was hired by the Giants, she pointed out that Bettcher used 14 separate personnel deployments last season. Did you even know that was possible? From Pat’s post [subscription only]:

Bettcher’s most frequently used personnel deployments include 2-4-5, his go-to formation (used on 509 of the team’s 1,061 defensive plays or 48%, which is well above the NFL average 15% last year); 3-3-5 (181 defensive plays), the third-most used formation behind the 3-4-4 (271 plays); 1-4-6 (60 plays) and 4-4-3 (11 plays).

The blitz is also part of Bettcher’s arsenal. Per the most recent data from Pro Football Focus, Arizona sent extra rushers 36.6 percent of the time last season, seventh-most in the league. The Giants rushed more than four 28.2 percent of the time, just below the league average of 29.2 percent.

One thing the base 3-4 allows is making it easier, perhaps, to disguise where rushers might be coming from. Even when the Giants are rushing four, the offense will always have to identify the fourth rusher. Will it be a linebacker? Which one? A safety? A corner?

When he spoke to the media for the first time, this is how Bettcher described his vision of good defense:

“It’s about playing relentless. The game is about playing hard, the game is about playing physical and the game is about playing smart. Those are things that our guys are going to do whether we’re bringing five, bringing six, bringing four, dropping eight, whatever we’re doing, whatever the field position is, down and distance, all that stuff. The thing our fans are going to see, you’re going to see a defense that is going to run around, play hard, play fast, play smart, play physical and that’s what playing defense is about.”

Things to feel good about

Let’s identify some of the things the Giants should feel good about after spring practices.

“Build a wall” against the run

The Giants have been using a base three-man front of Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill. That’s 969 pounds of run-stopping beef facing teams on early- and short-yardage downs.

Pro Football Focus says simply that “Harrison is the best run-stuffing force in football and has led all interior linemen in run-stop percentage for five straight years.” They also call him the prototype for the 0-technique nose tackle.

Tomlinson was PFF’s highest-graded interior run defender:

Hill, a third-round pick (69th overall), is the player who coined the “build a wall” phrase. Throughout the spring, he looked like he would be the third key brick in that wall. A 6-foot-3, 311-pound nose tackle at North Carolina State, he has been showing the Giants enough athleticism to be more than that.

“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,” Bettcher said. “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.”

GM Dave Gettleman not only talks about stopping the run, but during the offseason he referred several times to the depth the Carolina Panthers had along the defensive front when he was GM there.

“You cannot have too many good players at a position. Whether it’s defensive tackle, quarterback, o-line, I don’t care. And the other thing you’ve got to understand is, the problem you get into, and I’ve seen it a number of times, you have a really good 11 or 12 guys and you don’t have quality depth behind them. What happens is the coaches, and rightly so, don’t want to put in the backups that aren’t very good. Okay? So, what happens is, guys end up playing 95-98 percent. In the fourth quarter, their tongues are hanging out. They are gassed,” Gettleman said during the draft. “Let me tell you something right now, you see teams that consistently blow fourth quarter leads. Obviously that’s on the defense. I promise you they’ve got no depth. They’ve got no depth. You have to have quality depth. This is not about here or here, here, here. And I’ll tell you this: you’ve got a powerful defensive line and you can get pressure with four, you and I can play back there.”

The Giants have added Hill and R.J. McIntosh in the draft along with Josh Mauro and A.J. Francis in free agency to try and create that depth.

The linebackers

In a change from the previous regime, the Giants paid real attention to — and put real resources into — the linebacker position during the offseason. They converted their best defensive end — Olivier Vernon — into an outside linebacker. They traded for Alec Ogletree to quarterback their defense. They signed Kareem Martin, who played for Bettcher with the Cardinals, to help anchor the front seven. They considered trading up in the draft for Lorenzo Carter, didn’t, then landed him anyway in the third round, 66th overall.

There are some concerns. How well will Vernon cover the pass? How quickly will Carter develop? Do they have enough depth behind the five guys mentioned? Still, entering the season the Giants can feel better about their front-line linebackers than they have in quite some time.

Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins

Both players had well-documented, difficult seasons in 2017. Both under-performed. Both got suspended. Both, at times, had their effort questioned. Jenkins ended up on IR.

Both have been exemplary citizens so far this offseason, and both played well during spring practices. The Giants will need both to play to their potential, and to stay healthy, in 2018. Both are off to good starts.

Things to be concerned about

Now, let’s turn our attention to things to be concerned about following spring practices.

Pass rush

Where is it going to come from?

The Giants had an Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders, of 6.1 percent last season. That was 23rd in the league. Then they traded away Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, and lost Devon Kennard, who was third on the team with four sacks, via free agency.

The only player the Giants have who is an accomplished pass rusher at the NFL level is Vernon. They hope Harrison, Tomlinson and Hill can occupy blockers and push the pocket. They hope Carter can develop quickly and become a factor as an edge rusher. They hope they can scheme favorable matchups for their players, and that those players can win them.

“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,” Bettcher said. “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.”

The Giants are probably going to have to do a lot to create pass rush.

Cornerback depth

As mentioned above, Jenkins and Apple look ready to have solid seasons. What happens, though, if one or both don’t play well? Or if a significant injury forces one or both to miss time?

A glance at the cornerback depth chart is not encouraging.

William Gay is an outstanding veteran leader, and a great presence. At 33, though, can he hold up in the slot? If he can’t, can Donte Deayon, Grant Haley or someone else handle it? Can the Giants find adequate depth on the outside among a group that includes Chris Lewis-Harris, Teddy Williams, B.W. Webb and Kenneth Durden?

Who’s next to Landon Collins?

No worries about the Giants’ premier strong safety. His forearm will be fine. The ankle that troubled him last year no longer seems to be an issue. He should be entering his prime, and that is an exciting thought.

Who occupies the second safety spot across from him, though, is anybody’s guess.

Darian Thompson, a 2016 third-round pick, was disappointing last year. The job could still be his, but he is going to have to earn it. Andrew Adams, a third-year player who did a good job filling in for the injured Thompson in 2016, has a chance. Curtis Riley, signed as a free agent from the Tennessee Titans, has converted to safety and gotten lots of first-team looks. Michael Thomas is known more for special teams acumen, but he is also in the mix.

Whoever gets the spot, the Giants need better play at the back end of their defense than they got a year ago.