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Film study: Breaking down the Giants’ dominant run defense vs. Cleveland

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It was a bad idea to run against the Giants’ defense Thursday night. Let’s look at why.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The first game of the New York Giants’ 2018 season is in the books. The Giants lost the game, giving fans plenty to be concerned about. But if there was one facet of the team’s 20-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns about which fans should be excited, it was the Giants’ run defense.

Run defense generally isn’t flashy or exciting, but it is vital to defense as a whole. Defending the run well helps the team control the clock, knocks opposing offenses off schedule, and will allow James Bettcher to unleash his blitz-happy pass rush. It also allows the defense establish a physical tone and can provide an early momentum on that side of the ball.

All told, the Giants held the Browns to 50 yards on 33 carries on the ground (1.5 yards per carry). If we except runs by quarterbacks, those numbers become 35 yards on 28 carries, for a scant 1.25 yards per carry. Granted, this is only preseason, and the Browns’ offensive line is a work in progress, but that is still a far cry from the 4.2 yards per carry allowed by the 2017 defense.

Let’s take a look and see how the Giants suffocated the Browns’ run game throughout the game.

Setting the tone

The Giants’ starting defense set the tone for the game on the Browns’ first run of the game.

On the Browns’ side of things, they are lined up in a 21 personnel package, lined up in the power I formation with a fullback behind QB Tyrod Taylor and the tight end attached on the right side of the formation. They are showing a power run look, and that is exactly what they bring. The Browns use a man-gap power run, intending to run right up the middle of the Giants’ defense.

The Giants’ line up in their “base” 3-4 defense, with a defensive line of B.J. Hill, Damon Harrison, and Dalvin Tomlinson, and Kareem Martin and Olivier Vernon as linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Linebackers B.J. Goodson and Alec Ogletree are not far behind, with Goodson lined up as the strong inside linebacker on the strong side of the offense (the offensive right in this case), while Ogletree is lined up as the weak inside linebacker, or “Moneybacker” on the offensive left.

As the snap approaches, strong safety Landon Collins walks up, creating an eight-man box, and attacks the left C-gap outside of new left tackle Joel Bitonio. He is able to get a free run into the backfield and make the tackle for a loss, but it was set up by the work of Vernon and Tomlinson.

Lined up at the 7-technique, off the left tackle’s outside shoulder, Vernon attacks the left B-gap, forcing both the left guard and left tackle to block him. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson attacks the left A-gap, and absolutely mauls the center. Tomlinson fires off the ball, shooting his hands into the center’s chest and quickly establishing leverage and control. After that, he simply bulls the center into the backfield and in to running back Carlos Hyde’s face.

The quick penetration forces Hyde to pull up as he approaches the line of scrimmage and Collins easily brings him down for the 1-yard loss.

The second team

The Giants relied on their starters heavily in previous years — far too heavily. Players like Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul rarely left the field and even Damon Harrison played a massive share of the defensive snaps.

The Giants want to be able to rotate their defensive linemen to keep them fresh and effective for as long as possible. But for that to be viable, they will need to trust them to play without a significant drop-off.

This time around, with Baker Mayfield on the field, the Browns use an 11-personnel package, with one tight end and one running back, and line up in the shotgun and run off-tackle power. The goal of plays like this is to change the math on the play side of the ball by pulling blockers around to create a numbers advantage for the offense on the edge of the defense.

The Giants are in their nickel defense, with a 4-2-5 alignment. They are showing either man coverage under a Cover 1 shell or a Cover 3 look, either way devoting 8 players to the tackle box.

The front seven features rookie Lorenzo Carter and veteran Connor Barwin at the defensive end positions while defensive tackles A.J. Francis and Robert Thomas line up at the 1 and 2i techniques (respectively). Behind them are linebackers Mark Herzlich on the weak side, Ray-Ray Armstrong as the middle linebacker, and safety Michael Thomas on the strong side over tight end David Njoku.

At the snap, Thomas takes on the right tackle while Barwin takes on Njoku, both holding their blocks well, preventing the Browns from getting any kind of push on that side. The play is made when Thomas takes on the pulling right guard, and wins. This would normally be considered a huge mismatch in favor of the lineman, but rather than taking on Armstrong, the guard decides to take off at a right angle and try to block Thomas.

Without knowing the blocking scheme its impossible to say whether the guard went off-script or not, but had he blocked Armstrong it might have opened a crease for running back Nick Chubb. Instead, Armstrong gives Thomas an assist with a shove in the back of the guard, helping the safety overcome the 100+ pound size difference and put the guard on the ground. With no blocking on the edge, Chubb has nowhere to go except into Armstrong’s waiting arms.

Run support from the secondary

One of the biggest issues with the Giants’ run defense in 2017, apart from injuries to front seven players like Vernon, Harrison and Goodson, was poor tackling from the Giants’ secondary. That was a problem we did not see Thursday night against the Browns.

Once again the Giants are lined up in their nickel package, showing a 4-man front with Carter and Romeo Okwara at defensive end while Robert Thomas and Jordan Williams play the 1 and 3-techniques, respectively. Armstrong and Herzlich are at linebacker, and UDFA rookie Grant Haley is at cornerback at the top of the field.

The Browns use a counter run, but the play is initially disrupted by Carter getting quick penetration. He isn’t able to make the play, but he is able to keep the pulling tight end from getting a clean block on Herzlich. While the TE does manage to get push on Herzlich, he isn’t able to seal the edge and allow Chubb to turn up-field. On the outside, Haley plays off-man coverage, allowing him to break off coverage and rally to the ball. Despite being outweighed by nearly 40 pounds, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Haley makes a terrific form tackle of Chubb, wrapping up his legs and bringing him down for 1-yard loss.

While this isn’t a coverage play, these are the kinds of plays can help make or break a defense.

Final thoughts

The Giants game out of their first preseason game with a clear “To Do” list to work on before next Friday’s game against the Detroit Lions. They have obvious issues to work out on both sides of the ball — namely the passing offense and defense. The run game, however, appears to be an early strength for both the offense and the defense. On the offensive side of the ball, the Giants had 22 carries for 128 yards, or 5.8 yards per carry — unheard of numbers for any recent Giants’ team.

And as we saw today, the Giants’ run defense was nothing short of suffocating. Not only did their defensive front look deep enough to keep up a solid rotation, but they played with good technique across the defense. James Bettcher has preached play speed and aggression since Day 1 as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, and Thursday night his defense routinely rallied to the ball, without hesitation and against every run scheme the Browns showed.

There is still a ways to go until the regular season starts, and individual performances are not nearly as important as the teams’ improvement curve across the four games. However, considering the importance of defending the run in the NFC East — and in the Giants’ schedule overall — this is about as solid a starting point as they could ask.