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Giants vs. Jaguars: Can the revamped defense stop the Jags’ running game?

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The Giants’ defensive strengths match up well with the Jaguars’ offense on paper, but what about on the field?

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Football is finally, truly, back as the New York Giants host their Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season.

Most of the narrative surrounding the game will be the daunting task the Giants’ has before it in the Jags’ hyper-athletic defense. However, the Giants’ rebuilt defense could have its work cut out for it with the Jags’ offense as well.

Last season the Jaguars lead the NFL in offensive plays with 1,077, but were fifth in points per game at 26.1, sixth in yards per game at 365.9, and first in rushing at 141 yards per game.

The Jags were powered by their running game, with their passing game a middle-of-the-pack 17th overall. Blake Bortles completed 60 percent of his passes, averaging 32.9 attempts per game (21st in the league). Bortles was 20th in the league with 21 passing touchdowns, but took better care of the ball than in previous years with 13 interceptions (a career best).

Changes ... Embrace the strange

The Giants underwent a massive and fundamental change on defense this past off-season. So much so that mentioning statistics from prior seasons is essentially meaningless.

In a philosophic change from the 4-3 based defenses, new defensive coordinator James Bettcher has brought a defense that is based in the 3-4, but will feature everything from five-man fronts to two-man fronts. Bettcher called some of the most aggressive defenses in the NFL when he was the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, and aggression was what he showed throughout the preseason.

There has been a massive turnover of the Giants’ roster, with new additions at every level of their defense. Up front is starting defensive tackle, rookie B.J. Hill, as well as very recently added Mario Edwards and John Jenkins. At the second level are Kareem Martin, Alec Ogletree, Lorenzo Carter, Tae Davis, and Nate Stupar, and the secondary has been completely rebuilt apart from Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Landon Collins.

Players are playing new positions as well. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson will be defensive ends in base packages — though they move inside in four-man fronts, and are essentially defensive tackles when the EDGE players are on the line of scrimmage as stand-up defensive ends.

Olivier Vernon has moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, though he will continue to play defensive end in certain packages and situations. The biggest difference being that he will face more blocks from tight ends and less from offensive tackles.

Free safety Curtis Riley is converted from the cornerback position he played most of the time for the Tennessee Titans.

Perhaps the biggest question at the start of the season is how all of these moving parts, how all of these changes, new players, and new positions will fit together. Scheming to beat the Jaguars’ offense would be difficult with an established defense. How, and how well, the Giants defense is able to be on the same page and execute the scheme and game plan might be the story of the game on the defensive side of the ball.

Win in the trenches, stop the run

The Jaguars’ offense is powered by their running game — that much is common knowledge. Not only did they lead the league in rushing yards, yards per game, and rushing attempts, they were second in the league in rushing touchdowns. Taking the ball out of Blake Bortles’ hand and giving it to the running backs — mainly Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory — helped cut down Bortle’s interception totals.

The Jaguars reinforced that strength on the first day of free agency, signing guard Andrew Norwell to replace left guard Patrick Omameh (who quickly found himself on the Giants’ offensive line).

But while the Jaguars are very good at, and committed to, running the ball, they didn’t generate an inordinate amount of explosive plays on the ground. Last year they finished 13th in the league in rushes to the left of 10+ yards, 17th when rushing up the center, and 16th rushing to the right.

The strength of the Giants’ base defense proved to be stopping the run in the pre-season. The combination of B.J. Hill, Damon Harrison, and Dalvin Tomlinson on the line, with B.J. with Goodson and Alec Ogletree at inside linebacker, and Kareem Martin and Olivier Vernon on the edges proved to be suffocating to opponents’ running games.

As a whole, the Giants’ held offenses to 3.8 yards per carry, and even fewer when the starters were in the game.

But while the defensive front will have its work cut out against the Jaguars’ improved offensive line, they will also have to make sure they tackle soundly and limit Leonard Fournette’s yards after contact. While he isn’t an explosive running back, he is a very powerful one, consistently looking to finish runs and punish defenders. The extra hidden yards, falling forward to turn a three yard run into a five yard run, will be huge in this game.

The basis of their defense against the Jaguars will have to be playing up to that level (or better), containing their running game and forcing the ball into Blake Bortles hands.

Bringing the heat

Probably the enduring question for the Giants’ defense this offseason has been where would they get their pass rush?

Olivier Vernon exceeded expectations throughout training camp and the preseason, proving to be nearly unstoppable in practice and a force in preseason games. However, he is working his way back from a sprained ankle suffered in practice.

Head coach Pat Shurmur said that Vernon is “Making great progress” working his way back from injury and that “From what I’ve [Shurmur] seen he looks to be a fast healer.” Whether or not Vernon is healthy in time to play Sunday remains to be seen.

Apart from Vernon, the Giants have gotten surprising production from Kerry Wynn on the defensive line, and have Kareem Martin, Connor Barwin, and Lorenzo Carter as EDGE defenders who bring some pass rushing upside.

Assuming the defense is able to first contain the Jaguars’ rushing attack, and the offense is able to put pressure on the Jaguars’ offense to score points rather than run out the clock, the Giants’ will need their pass rush to show up. When the Jaguars played the Cardinals in 2017, Bettcher’s defense came up with three sacks and an interception of Bortles.

Last season the Jaguars only gave up 24 sacks all season long, but through the pre-season, Bortles was sacked four times and threw three interceptions on just 53 pass attempts. Bortles lost his top two receiving targets from a year ago when Allen Hurns joined the Dallas Cowboys in free agency and Marqis Lee was lost for the season to a knee injury. With fewer familiar options for Bortles, the Jaguars might not be as able to exploit the inherent weaknesses in pass coverage created by blitzing.

However, this brings up a pair of issues. First, Bortles’ next two most familiar options in the passing game are running backs Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon. The Giants remain plagued by an inability to cover running backs and tight ends in space, forcing the team to use safety-turned-linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong as the “moneybacker” (weak inside linebacker) in nickel situations. His speed, range, and experience in coverage are assets, taking pressure off of Alec Ogletree in pass coverage. However it also takes linebacker B.J. Goodson off the field, and he has proven to be a force against the run. Secondly, Bortles is a big and athletic quarterback with a willingness to hurt a defense with his legs. The Giants have been hurt by running quarterbacks in the past, with Baker Mayfield twice extended drives by exploiting lapses in containment by the Giants in preseason.

Containing the run and forcing Bortles to throw the ball might allow Bettcher to fully open his playbook. However, the defense will need to avoid over-aggression and limit mental mistakes if they want to give the offense a chance to win.