“I have a unique challenge for you should you choose to accept it.”
That was the message I received on Sunday night from our fearless leader. Ed Valentine reached out to me with a different sort of assignment. Over my time here at Big Blue View my focus has been on the offensive side of the football, and in particular the quarterback position. But this week, Ed was looking for something different. In the wake of comments from Pat Shurmur that the New York Giants made some “tweaks” on the defensive side of the ball, Ed wanted me to look at their defense and see if these changes were apparent on the film.
So here we go.
Let’s start by looking at some of the big plays that the Giants gave up in the passing game over the first three weeks of the season. As you’ll see, these plays were successful due to a few different reasons on the defensive side of the football: Technique, execution, and just plain good offensive design were the main culprits.
We can start in Week 1. On this second-and-8 play against the Dallas Cowboys, the Giants’ secondary tries to disguise their coverage, but they will end up rotating at the snap to a Cover 1 scheme:
The player to watch is rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker (27) at the top of the screen. He is in press alignment over wide receiver Michael Gallup (13), and Gallup runs a straight go route. Baker is in press alignment, but he hesitates at the start of the play and makes a late attempt at a jam - or even to get a hand on Gallup - but fails in the attempt. Gallup gets a free release off the line of scrimmage and gets into his route immediately. Baker does force him to the outside, but with Gallup into a full sprint right after the snap, the WR is able to get enough separation on his vertical:
Dak Prescott (4) drops in a perfect throw with touch, and the Cowboys have a huge gain.
Here is another example of Baker aligned in press positioning, but failing to get a good jam at the line of scrimmage:
On this play the Giants are again in a Cover 1 scheme, and Baker is matched up against Amari Cooper (19) at the top of the screen. Baker sets up with inside leverage, looking to force Cooper towards the boundary and his “help,” which is the form of the sideline. Off the line, Baker again waits to jam Cooper, or to even get a hand on the WR. Cooper employs a jab step to the inside, and even with the inside leverage advantage Baker reacts to that movement, starting to turn to the inside. That gives Cooper the advantage he needs, and he cuts to the boundary and gets vertical on a go route. The rookie DB tries to recover, but again he cannot maintain contact and misses on a jam attempt late in the release. Cooper gets up to speed, and Prescott drops in a touchdown toss.
What is interesting about these two plays is that coming out of the University of Georgia, press technique was considered a strength of Baker’s. Looking at scouting reports on him from both Joe Marino and Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network, two of the best evaluators in the business, you will see that both highlight Baker’s press ability. According to Marino, Baker “[e]xcels at lining up on top of receivers and disrupting in the contact window. Hands are active and his base is balanced while perfectly blending patience and aggression.” Marino continued to highlight his press coverage as his best trait. As Crabbs described him, the Georgia CB “projects favorably as a press man corner in the NFL. If allowed to play within the contact window and disrupt route releases, Baker can be an impact starter from the get go.”
However, Crabbs also added a bit of a schematic caveat: “With some concerns centered around his long speed, Baker is a more favorable fit in a Cover 2 heavy defensive system, where he can be afforded deep help to ensure he’s not compromised vertically in the event he misses his jam at the LOS.”
On both of these plays, the scenario outlined by Crabbs played out to a T.
Moving away from press technique for a moment, we can look at some breakdowns in zone coverage. In Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills, the Giants defense gave up a big play in the passing game to Josh Allen and Isaiah McKenzie on a throwback concept. Facing a 1st and 10 on the Giants’ 48-yard line, the Bills line up with Allen (17) under center and McKenzie (19) on the right side of the field. The Giants are going to run Cover 6, or “Quarter-Quarter-Half” coverage here. That gives them a Cover 4 look to the field, and a Cover 2 look to the boundary side of the formation:
The Bills employ a play-action passing design and roll Allen out to the right. But they are looking to throw back to the left - the Cover 2 side of the field - on a three level flood concept:
This design puts Baker in a bind. He is the flat defender to the Cover 2 side of the coverage, and cornerbacks given this responsibility are supposed to “jam and sink” under vertical routes to protect the safety against “9s and 7s,” i.e., go routes and corner routes. (As an aside, I still rely on these evergreen pieces from Matt Bowen when thinking about pass coverage).
But Baker also sees outside zone run action headed his way, so he decides to forgo the jam and reacts downhill to the run action. When Baker sees that the QB is rolling away from the running back with the ball, he starts to retreat into the flat area of the field. But with the safety forced to cover the corner route, that leaves a big gap for McKenzie on that crossing route:
If Baker jams and sinks off the snap, he’s probably in a better position to at least squeeze this throwing window. It is a great design by the Bills to be sure, but better technique here at least makes it a tougher play.
Buffalo also got the Giants on this vertical concept from Allen to Cole Beasley (10):
Earlier this season I talked about how coaches need to put their players in a position to be successful. That certainly applies on the defensive side of the football as well. Baker gets put in a difficult spot here because he is tasked doing something a bit unfamiliar. A defensive trend we have been seeing from teams this season is the “inverted Cover 2.” This is a rotation coverage that has cornerbacks serving as the safeties, responsible for half-field coverage. New York employs that on this play:
As you can see, they show Cover 3 pre-snap with the cornerbacks aligned in off coverage and a free safety deep. But at the snap the safety drops down into that middle zone that we usually see a linebacker occupy in a Tampa 2 scheme, and the two CBs drop deep to each cover a half of the field.
Unfortunately, Baker gets bracketed by a pair of vertical routes:
This puts him in a really difficult spot. Ideally the linebacker “carries” that inside vertical a bit more, allowing Baker to react to the outside. But both routes are open, Baker reacts to the inside vertical, and Beasley is left alone on the sideline.
On both of the previous plays, there was an element of the offense dialing up a play that could be tough to defend given the coverage. This play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is an example of the offense calling the perfect coverage-beater and then executing.
Early in the second quarter the Buccaneers line up with Jameis Winston (3) under center, and Mike Evans (13) split wide to the left. Janoris Jenkins (20) aligns in off coverage over Evans:
Again, we will see a Cover 6 scheme, with Jenkins playing quarters to his side of the field:
Jenkins uses outside leverage here, due to both the alignment of Evans and the coverage scheme. Cover 4 cornerbacks use outside leverage because they can expect help to the middle of the field in the form of the safety. However, as with everything in life there is a catch. That safety will need to react to, and cover, the inside receiver should he run a vertical route. If that happens, the CB is suddenly left on an island one-on-one with no inside help.
Which makes the Mills, or “pin” (post/in) concept a Cover 4 beater:
Jabrill Peppers (21) is the safety, and when he breaks downhill on the dig that leaves Jenkins on an island, using outside leverage, against Evans on a post route:
Hard to defend that.
So we’ve covered some of the breakdowns, now let’s highlight some of the better execution we have seen recently from the Giants’ defense. We can start with Cover 6. We highlighted a situation where Baker was caught in a bind and failed to squeeze on a throwing window. Now look at the rookie CB handling that hard corner responsibility much better against Washington:
See how Baker handles his zone responsibilities here? He sinks to help the safety against “7s and 9s,” squeezing that throwing lane. He also communicates with the safety - as evidenced by his extended arm pointing out the vertical route - but keeps his eyes on the play in front of him. Again, Cover 2 corners in this scheme sink, but react to flat routes in front of him. Baker is able to see Trey Quinn (18) on the shallow route and is in position to help on that when the ball is thrown in front of him. Much better zone execution on this play.
Now let’s look at some press technique plays. On this first example Baker uses press coverage against a slant route. He does a much better job in the contact area, getting his left arm onto the receiver’s upfield shoulder, and is in perfect position to take away the slant:
Now on this play, Baker faces a vertical route from press coverage. Once more we see much better technique, and the QB is forced to go his third read, and the pass is intercepted by Peppers and returned for a touchdown:
Baker does not hesitate here, as he did on the previous examples against vertical routes. He gets his left arm extended immediately after the snap and into the shoulder of the WR. Then he maintains perfect positioning down the field, and the QB is forced to look elsewhere.
Finally, we can highlight an example of a Cover 2 scheme executed much more effectively. On this play the Giants employ a Cover 2 Man Under coverage, and they pass off the routes much better, take away the QB’s options, and it leads to a sack:
Returning to the initial assignment, it seems that the tweaks referenced by Shurmur might be two-fold. First, less of that Inverted Cover 2. Second, however, and this is probably the biggest tweak: Better execution. Last week the Giants seemed better at handling their assignments, especially the rookie CB. That is a great sign for this defense as the season unfolds. Of course, the Giants did that against an offense that is struggling. They will get some tougher tests over the next few weeks, and we can see if that higher level of execution continues.