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Can Connor Barwin be a complete linebacker for the Giants?

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What are the Giants getting in the 10-year vet?

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Back on July 23 the New York Giants made the move to sign Connor Barwin and add a veteran EDGE player to their revamped defense.

Barwin has played in a variety of defenses in his 10-year career, playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses for the Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, and Los Angeles Rams. His signing was with the understanding that the Giants would be getting an experienced player and steady veteran to help ease the transition for some of their younger players, such as Lorenzo Carter and Avery Moss. It also helps that Barwin knows both his head coach and linebackers coach from his years in Philadelphia.

“Thought it was the right fit for me, good opportunity for me. Good defense for me. I know Shurm [Pat Shurmur], I know [linebackers coach] Bill McGovern,” said Barwin this week in training camp.

But when asked what the Giants are asking of him, Barwin’s answer is interesting. He said, “Rush the passer, be a veteran, be a leader, be available to play SAM, to play WILL and definitely mentor the younger guys. I haven’t played in Bettch’s defense but it’s a 3-4 and I’ve played in a number 3-4s. They’re all similar.”

That the Giants want a veteran mentor isn’t surprising, but that they want him to line up on both the strong and weak sides of the defense is a bit surprising. It suggests that they are looking at him as more of a “complete” linebacker who could see the field on any down or distance than simply a rotational pass rusher.

Let’s take a look at his film from 2017 and see if he can fit in to that role for the Giants.

Rushing the passer

Play 1

We’ll start with the Rams’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Barwin is lined up as a linebacker in the Rams’ 3-4 set, but in this case he lines up as an inside linebacker, close to the line of scrimmage, threatening the B-Gap. Interestingly, the Rams line Aaron Donald up as the nose tackle, head-up on the Center.

Barwin initially engages with the right guard, using a good first step and hand usage to get the guard back on his heels. Rather than trying to shoot the gap or bull his way past the guard, he is actually executing a twist, as Donald crashes down, occupying both the center and guard.

Barwin didn’t engage fully with the guard, relying on his hands to keep from getting tied up. So when Donald crashes down he is able to quickly disengage and dart through the unocupied A-gap and quickly bring down Blake Bortles.

It isn’t the traditional edge rush that most are expecting from the veteran pass rusher, but the traits he showed — hands, quickness, and agility — are useful a rush from anywhere. Also, having a good inside move in his arsenal just adds that much more to the Giants’ pass rush.

Play 2

Now we spin ahead to late in the season and a divisional game between the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks. This time we see Barwin lined up as a 4-3 defensive end on the offensive right. While Barwin is listed as an outside linebacker, he will almost certainly be lining up as a defensive end at times in the Giants’ “Multiple” defense.

Here he does a nice job using his burst off the line in an outside rush to force the right tackle to commit to defending an outside rush. For an instant it looks as though he is going to convert speed to power and the tackle stops his feet to anchor against the rush and does succeed in getting his hands on Barwin first. However, Barwin transitions from a long-arm move to a spin back in side. Caught flat-footed, the tackle can’t reverse and mirror back to the inside, instead winding up on the ground.

Barwin isn’t quite fast and agile enough to bring down Wilson, who darts out of the way of a diving Barwin. But this was still a very good rush and chased Wilson back to Donald for the (eventual) sack.

Defending the run

There are a few things on this play to which Giants fans should pay attention to.

Edit: It was pointed out to me that I misidentified the Cowboy’s run play. Because of how the Cowboys have to block the with the Ram’s spacing and alignment, I initially thought it was a zone run with pin and pull elements. Instead, Nick Turchyn of ITP pointed out that it is actually an old-school counter run that was somewhat sloppily executed (particularly on the part of the pulling guard). This doesn’t change anything about how Barwin defends the play, but I had to own up to and take the “L” on this one.

The Rams start out lined up in a 3-4, with Barwin lined up as the weak outside linebacker (on the right side). He is the player who has to take on the pulling guard, and does a great job of doing so. He engages the guard with great leverage getting under his pads and absorbing his momentum well, despite the 50-pound weight difference. His hand usage is solid, easily disengaging from the guard to get into the backfield. By setting a firm edge, Barwin eliminates the possibility of Elliott bouncing the run outside, allowing Barron to come up and make the tackle.

Playing in coverage

At some points the defensive call might force Barwin in to coverage. It isn’t ideal, but occasionally EDGE players and linemen need to drop in to cover to create confusion on zone blitzes.

That is exactly, what happens here.

The Rams show a single-high safety look, which could be either a Cover-1 or Cover-3 shell over what looks like an all-out blitz. It is a bit tough to tell before the snap whether the Rams are using man coverage or zone coverage under the single high safety, but after the snap it appears as though the corners are in zone coverage.

Up at the line of scrimmage, it looks as though the entire front seven is coming on a blitz. However, Barwin and one other linebacker drop in to zone coverage underneath at the snap of the ball.

Barwin does a decent enough job of getting dropping in to his zone, before reading Bortles’ eyes and staying under the double-move. His coverage isn’t a major factor in the play, but he got back quickly enough that it constricted the throwing window and Bortles had to try and fit the ball over Barwin, under the closing safety, and inside of the cornerback with outside leverage. Hopefully James Bettcher will avoid calls that put Barwin in man coverage, but he did his job here.

Final Thoughts

Connor Barwin was brought in to be another veteran presence on the Giants’ defense. His role right now is to help mentor younger players and ease the transition in to a blitz-happy, multiple, 3-4 based defense.

Once games start being played, the Giants will likely use him as a rotational player, coming on in certain packages or to give other players a chance to rest. Despite being a 31-year old, 10-year veteran, Barwin still has the physical skills to get it done on Sundays. He actually had one of the highest snap counts in the Rams’ front seven last year. This year he should see his share of the snap count decreased, but that might make him more effective.

Having another effective linebacker pressuring offenses would only help Barwin’s new team.