It’s time for our Summer School series to turn its attention back to the New York Giants defense.
Last time, we looked at how the defensive line, and the defensive end position in particular, will change as the team switches from a scheme based on a four-man front to one based on a 3-man front.
This time we will be looking at how defensive end Olivier Vernon could transition to his new job as an outside linebacker in James Bettcher’s scheme. Likewise we will also look at how free agent addition Kareem Martin fit into this scheme when it was employed by the Arizona Cardinals.
Chandler Jones and Olivier Vernon
For insight in to how Bettcher may use Olivier Vernon as he transitions from being a defensive end to an outside linebacker, it would likely be instructive to look at how he used Chandler Jones with the Cardinals.
Jones was drafted by the New England Patriots out of Syracuse as a defensive end as that team transitioned from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense. Eventually, for reasons beyond the scope of this piece, Jones was traded to the Cardinals following the 2015 season.
Now under Bettcher, Jones made the same transition that Vernon is new being asked to make.
The Jaguars line up in a heavy “21” set, with a tight end attached to the left side of the line, and, and a pair of running backs (a full back and running back Leonard Fournette) in the backfield.
The Cardinals match this by stacking the box and placing nine players near the line of scrimmage. They are in their “base” 3-4 defense, with three down linemen, outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Kareem Martin line up on the line of scrimmage at the 9-technique. At the last moment an inside linebacker steps up to show pressure through the left A-gap.
Jones is lined up on the left side of the defense (across from where the tight end’s outside shoulder would be if he were lined up attached to the right tackle).
He initially rushes in to the backfield as Blake Bortles executes the play-action fake, before quickly dropping in to coverage on Fournette as he diagnoses the play. Despite reacting quickly to the play-fake, Jones doesn’t quite have the speed to keep up with the running back in the open field and prevent the catch-and-run for a nice gain — but that isn’t what we’re interested in.
Without knowing the play call, it is impossible to know exactly what Jones’ responsibilities are. However, it appears that he has the traditional edge player’s responsibility of setting a firm edge in the run game, while also being responsible for the running back in coverage.
Jones isn’t always responsible for the running back, and some times his responsibilities as a linebacker are more akin to a stand-up defensive end than what Giants’ fans are used to from 4-3 linebackers.
For instance, on this play Jones still lines up as an outside linebacker on the defensive left (offensive right), but runs right past Fournette, who is obviously releasing in to a route.
In this case Jones is essentially a 4-3 defensive end, but playing from a 2-point stance instead of with his hand on the ground in a more-familiar 3 or 4-point stance. His job is solely to rush the passer, which he does while executing a TEX stunt with the defensive tackle playing the 2i technique.
(A stunt along the line of scrimmage where the defensive end uses an inside move to rush through the B-gap between the tackle and guard, while the defensive tackle uses an outside move and attacks the C-gap outside of the offensive tackle. The goal is to create confusion among the blockers and an open rushing lane.)
Other times, Bettcher moved Jones back to the defensive end position.
On this play the Cardinals are still using a three-man front, but with much greater spacing than normal for a 3-4 defense.
As we covered the last time we looked at how the Giants’ defense might change under James Bettcher, the defensive end in a 3-man front typically plays the 5-technique.
On this play, however, Jones lines up in a 4-point stance as a “Wide 9” defensive end.
His job is NOT to occupy blockers on this play. Instead, his goal is to rocket into the backfield and create as much pressure and havoc as possible. By lining up so wide, Jones gets a favorable and efficient angle as a pass rusher, but it also creates massive gaps up the middle.
To combat this, and help generate both confusion and pressure, Bettcher dials up a creative blitz scheme, which we can see from the All-22 angle.
The initially shows a 5-man pressure package underneath a Cover-4 shell. However, after the snap, the two linebackers showing pressure up the middle drop into zone coverage, while a safety blitzes, creating a 4-man pressure. Likewise, what appears to be a Cover-4 shell sees one deep safety rotate down and it becomes a Cover-3 shell, with the outside corners and free safety in zone coverage.
That all combines to create enough confusion on among the blockers and Bortles to result in the sack.
Jones doesn’t pick up the sack, but he is able to push the left tackle right into Bortles’ lap, forcing him to pull the ball down and creating the opportunity for his teammates to finish the play.
While also labeled as an outside linebacker, free agent addition Kareem Martin was used a bit differently than Jones.
Very occasionally, Martin would line up as a true off-ball linebacker.
Here the Cardinals line up in a 3-man front, rushing three while dropping eight into coverage. Martin is among those eight, picking up the running back in coverage. He does a good job, limiting H-back Trey Burton to just 1 yard on the reception.
But that play was much more an exception than the rule. Martin was used along the line of scrimmage, playing out of either a 2-point or 3-point stance.
On The Edge
Most of the time, Martin is used like this. Here he lines up as a linebacker, up on the line of scrimmage. Here he is on the right side of the defense, lined up at the 9-technique, across from the tight end’s outside shoulder.
At 6-foot-6 and listed at 272 pounds, Martin is big for a linebacker. but in this case, his size and power allow him to easily deal with the block from rookie TE O.J. Howard and quickly pursue the play from behind.
Other times, Martin initially lines up as a linebacker only to put his hand on the ground as a defensive end just before the snap.
In this instance, Martin starts the pre-snap phase as an outside linebacker lined up outside of the tight end. But just before the snap he moves inside and puts his hand on the ground as a traditional 7-technique defensive end.
The late move likely limits how much the offensive line is able to adjust the blocking, and Martin is able to knife inside the C-gap and help to disrupt the play.
It bears mentioning that Martin’s athleticism (at least as measured by the NFL scouting combine) is marginal for an NFL linebacker. That shouldn’t be surprising considering his size and the trend towards smaller, more athletic linebackers. However, he has excellent movement skills when compared to the defensive linemen he resembles. Bettcher uses Martin’s versatility to good advantage by moving him inside and creating an athletic mismatch.
If you read our Summer School piece on the the 5-technique, you should already be familiar with this play.
On this play, Bettcher uses an unusual alignment with just two down linemen and a pair of outside linebackers who line up wide of the tight ends. Martin is one of those down linemen, lining up as the 3-technique defensive tackle.
He winds up absorbing a double team before pushing into the backfield, but the confusion created by the alignment forces Cousins to scramble, where he takes a hard hit from from the rest of the defense.
The Giants will see more changes on defense than at any point in the last two — nearly three — decades. Despite all the differences between John Fox, Tim Lewis, Steve Spagnuolo, and Perry Fewell, each ran a variation on the 4-3 defense. That defensive scheme became intimately familiar to an entire generation of Giants fans.
But now as the team transitions to an aggressive and “multiple” 3-4 defense, that generation of fans enters unfamiliar territory.
There will certainly be some similarities to past defenses — NFL coaches rarely reinvent the wheel. Spagnuolo’s second stint as Giants’ defensive coordinator, in particular, has some schematic similarities to James Bettcher’s defense.
For Olivier Vernon, playing as a linebacker isn’t entirely unfamiliar. The defense routinely used 3-man fronts to create confusion and mismatches. Even when playing defensive end, Vernon would occasionally drop into coverage for a zone blitz, and he was effecive.
Going back in time, we find this play from last year’s Summer School series:
Vernon, who is lined up as an outside linebacker (much like Chandler Jones for the Cardinals) drops into a shallow zone while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sprints back into position as a free safety, while Darian Thompson blitzes.
Still, this play was uncommon for the Giants in their years in a 4-3 defense.
It does show, however, that Vernon should be able to make the transition from Spagnuolo’s defense to Bettcher’s. Likewise, he should be able to play a similar role as Jones did for the Cardinals.
Martin will likely be a much more direct translation from Arizona to New York. As in Arizona, he will, for the most part, likely be a linebacker in name only. But whether is is a linebacker or defensive end, his versatility should help make the Giants’ defense entertaining for fans and unpredictable for opponents.