Everyone thought that the New York Giants would be able to defend the run. With players like Damon Harrison, Landon Collins, Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, B.J. Goodson, Kareem Martin, and Kerry Wynn playing near the line the scrimmage, they should be able to defend the run.
And the Giants’ defense has largely been stout against the run, when it is the running back carrying the ball.
But when it is the quarterback carrying the ball? That’s when the problems come. “Dual Threat” quarterbacks, such as Blake Bortles and Dak Prescott pose problems for defenses around the league with their ability to take away a defense’s numbers advantage and gash man coverage. Distressingly, the Giants have found themselves gashed by both of these quarterbacks, looking particularly bad on zone-read plays.
The zone read took the NFL by storm nearly a decade ago, with players like Micheal Vick, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick using more sophisticated versions of college offensive concepts to freeze defenses and win games. But eventually the option was figured out by defensive coordinators and largely died out as a core offensive principle.
So it is distressing that the Giants have had so much trouble dealing with quarterbacks running the ball. While the zone read is undoubtedly effective, it is also well understood by now, and should have been included in the Giants’ defensive game plans. More than anyone, the Giants know that they must fix the problems with Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans looming.
“Until we fix the zone read stuff, we will continue to see it, especially from mobile quarterbacks,” coach Pat Shurmur said this week. “Again, it’s another challenge for us. Those are really where the big runs came last week. I thought our guys battled the run pretty well considering the type of runner that we were playing against and type of offensive line. Sometimes those zone reads pop out on you. That’s always the challenge when you have a quarterback that has legs like they do.”
Fixing the Giants’ defense of the zone read will largely fall on the shoulders of defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
“I think anything you have issues with, it all starts in the meeting room,” Bettcher said. “We go in and we continue to grind out the tape. Continue to correct in the meeting room. I know that’s not a flashy answer, but that’s the truth. There’s a process to getting things right, and you follow the process. That’s go in the meeting room, continue to correct it, continue to talk about it, go on the practice field, walk it thru, go out and execute it in practice. Come in and watch that tape of it, and you do that day-in and day-out. That’s how you get better. That’s how you get better as a player. That’s how you improve as a coach. That’s how your scheme improves, and ultimately, that’s how you play better on Sundays.”
As Bettcher suggests, correcting this particular issue isn’t flashy. Defending the zone read is about recognizing what the offense wants to do, being disciplined, and forcing the quarterback to make the read you want him to make.
Defensive captain Landon Collins said, “We just had to change the way we were playing it. We just weren’t reading it the correct way.”
And once they’re seeing what the offense needs to do, discipline comes back into play. “Rush lane integrity is very important,” Bettcher said. “You want to be aggressive, whether you’re pressuring or whether you’re rushing four, but you have to be sound with who’s closing the middle pocket lanes where he likes to escape and rush.”
Hopefully the third time will be the charm for the Giants. The Texans don’t have a good pass protecting offensive line, but they can run block. Part of that is because Watson has reclaimed much of his ability on the ground after tearing his ACL last season, so the Giants have to be ready for yet another quarterback who can burn them on the ground.
The Giants better be ready to defend the zone read, because as Shurmur said, they’ll be seeing it until they prove they can reliably defend it.