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Film study: A look at David Mayo, the Giants’ latest linebacker hope

What has former Carolina Panther brought to Giants’ defense?

NFL: New York Giants at New England Patriots
David Mayo is in the middle of that pile on a sack of Tom Brady.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants found themselves in dire straits at the linebacker position when Alec Ogletree suffered a hamstring injury, Tae Davis a concussion, and fifth-round rookie wunderkind Ryan Connelly tore his ACL in the first few games of the 2019 NFL season.

These unfortunate injuries left the Giants interior linebackers with the undrafted rookie from UTSA Josiah Tauaefa, long-time special teamer Nate Stupar, and a familiar face to general manager Dave Gettleman — 26-year-old David Mayo. Gettleman drafted Mayo in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft out of Texas State, where he ranked second in the entire FBS for total tackles in the 2014 season. Highly productive, and a team leader in college, Mayo spent four years with the Carolina Panthers as a core special teamer, learning from two of the more prolific linebackers of this era: Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. This preseason, Mayo failed to make the final roster for the San Francisco 49ers, which prompted Gettleman to trade B.J. Goodson to the Green Bay Packers and sign Mayo. And here the Giants are, with Mayo getting a shot to prove himself.

Mayo has had three starts with the New York Giants; it hasn’t been perfect, but he’s shown an exceptional ability to key and diagnose run plays while aggressively coming down hill and forcing negative plays for the opposing offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Mayo ranks third in rush defense (grade of 82.1), second in overall defense (grade of 78.6), and fourth in stops (12) on the New York Giants defense. While these are solid grades from a respected outlet, they don’t tell the entire story, so let’s dive into the tape. Below is a clip from Mayo’s first start against Washington, and he displays quick diagnosing ability in a high leverage situation on the goal line.

Mayo is the linebacker lined up at the bottom of the “N” in “GIANTS.” On this play, he quickly diagnoses the fullback’s intentions on heading to the weak-side C-Gap, with a simple pin-pull concept from the play side guard and tackle, while the Redskins bring an extra offensive lineman to play off the tackle’s edge. Mayo sees the play side guard pull, along with the fullback, and he quickly scrapes over the top of the defensive line and finds the gap to beat the fullback to the hole. The fullback attempts to block Mayo here, but Mayo is in position to dip his inside shoulder, which forces the fullback to whiff. This puts Mayo in the position to square up to Adrian Peterson to make the tackle, which he aggressively executes. Mayo has shown this ability to make aggressive tackles near the line of scrimmage, while maintaining solid gap discipline, and showing an ability to shed blocks to disrupt or clog rushing patterns. For example, the play below:

One can see that Mayo (55) is lined up over the tackle and tight end Kyle Rudolph (82), with the Vikings in a three-tight end set on their own goal line. B.J. Hill is lined up as a 3-T, with Markus Golden over tight end Tyler Conklin (83), which gives Rudolph an easy path to the second level to have a free shot at Mayo. Hill initially does a really good job penetrating upfield by attacking the outside shoulder of the guard and forcing the tackle to block down hard, while forcing Dalvin Cook to have minimized space to flow with his blocks, which also forces a cutback towards the tight ends. There would have been a lot more room on this play for Cook to effectively operate if Rudolph executed his block but that did not materialize. Mayo quickly diagnosed the play and shot the B-Gap off Hill’s initial penetration, and what was overly impressive was the fact that Mayo held Rudolph from executing his block by utilizing a very strong long arm to keep his own chest clean. Mayo stood tight to Hill’s outside hip, which created further penetration, forcing Cook to spill to the unblocked contain defender, Janoris Jenkins. This play doesn’t show up on the stat sheet for Mayo; but if Rudolph was able to locate Mayo at the second level and hinge him away from that gap, then there would have been a gigantic hole in the B-Gap for Cook to explode through. This is an excellent representation of strength and mental processing by Mayo. Below, one can see that long arm move again, which allows for Mayo to keep his chest clean and locate the ball carrier.

Mayo is forced to hesitate due to the pump screen by Brady to Edelman, which allows offensive guard Shaq Mason (69) to locate Mayo at the second level. This is far from an ideal situation for a linebacker to be cleanly located by an offensive linemen, but Mayo utilized that strong long arm to keep his chest clean, while using his solid vision to watch the play break down. Mayo sticks that outside hand on the outside shoulder of Mason, while keeping his hips square to the ball carrier; then he quickly locates the hole, explodes off the block and delivers a violent hit to Sony Michel. Another very good play in the tackle box from a player who wasn’t on the Giants roster during training camp. This wasn’t the only play where Mayo got the best of Mason.

Here, one can see Mayo lined up on the Patriot head and his task on this play, pre-snap, was to blitz the back-side A-Gap, but Mayo adjusts when he realizes it’s a run to the field side B-Gap. One can see how he adjusts his path right after the snap, lowers his center of gravity, and drives his legs through Mason, who has a clean look at him once again. The processing ability, strength, and lower leg drive that Mayo displayed on this play is more than impressive, while showing a very valuable ability to adjust. If he continued with his backside A-Gap blitz, then he would have taken himself out of the play; instead, he makes the tackle and continued to build on what was a very impressive performance on the road. The ability to tightly scrape over the top of blocks and keep your chest clean are very valuable in football, but so is pursuit and an ability to work through trash, which are both qualities that Mayo has shown. Below are several clips of Mayo displaying these traits.

In the first clip, Mayo is the boundary side linebacker. Upon the snap, Mayo flows with the blocks and attacks down the line of scrimmage, with bodies falling at his feet. He’s able to show very good spatial awareness and work through that “trash” as he keeps Marshall Newhouse (72) from even coming close to locating him at that second level. He locates the ball carrier and makes the tackle from the backside. The next play shows Mayo aggressively attack the play side edge from the backside of the play by using explosiveness and a decisive nature to follow the blocks and beat his own block to the open gap. Ted Karras (75) didn’t have a chance to locate Mayo, and that Patriots play would be foiled by the linebacker. The third clip is against Washington, another play from the backside, where Mayo dips his inside shoulder to avoid a block from Morgan Moses (76) at the second level. He then uses good foot speed, pursuit angles, and competitive toughness to track Chris Thompson (25) through the trash and locate him on the HB Power Toss. These three plays, all made from the backside linebacker position, show Mayo’s ability to diagnose, locate, avoid blocks, and utilize solid pursuit angles, while working through trash, near the line of scrimmage to the ball carrier.

This is a lot of praise for a journeyman linebacker, but the tape doesn’t lie; Mayo has executed against the run well so far. He’s also shown a very good ability to mentally process the game against the run, but he’s still susceptible to mental errors in other facets of the game. The Vikings were able to expose Mayo’s liabilities against the pass, while trying to take advantage of that quick decision making that he exhibits. Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski knew the Giants were vulnerable at the linebacker position, so he attacked the second level defenders with a lot of misdirections, back side screens, play action boot legs, and many other plays to force the Giants to make quick decisions, while forcing them out of position on several different plays. Mayo was guilty of this throughout the game, and the end result was not positive for the Giants defense.

The Vikings had an opening script that started with two play action boot legs and Stefanski didn’t stop with that; he kept on using the play action and the passing game to open up his vaunted rushing attack led by Dalvin Cook. The end result is the clip above. Look at Mayo (55) who flows with the blocking initially, but is tricked into covering Irv Smith (84), who leaked out of the backfield like it was another play action bootleg. That fake leak out by Smith takes Mayo completely out of the play, for Mayo sees the leak and quickly makes a decision that it must be a play action bootleg again. As one can tell by the end result, it was not a fake and Alexander Mattison (25) picked up a nice chunk of yards. If Mayo was a little bit more patient, he could have noticed the ball was in Mattison’s hands and crashed the gap hard, but that did not happen because of the excellent play calling of Stefanski, and because Mayo’s strength is not in pass coverage; Mayo’s assignment on this play was man coverage on Irv Smith if it was a pass, but as we know it was not; Mayo misjudged the play and overcompensated for a part of his game that isn’t as effective as his run defense. Although it’s a small sample size, Mayo has been targeted six times in the passing game, yielding five receptions for 53 yards. Some of these plays were well scripted; Stefanski put Mayo in precarious situations, like the one below:

Play action boot-leg away from the intended receiver, against zone defense; it’s a simple Yankee Concept by the Vikings, but the key is Dalvin Cook leaking out of the backfield after the fake, which holds DeAndre Baker in place and creates this gigantic void for the horizontal crosser. Initially, Mayo doesn’t get a whole lot of depth after biting on the play action, but he was put into an almost un-winnable situation, when he veered inside while dropping back into coverage. This ensured that Adam Thielin would have a lot of space towards the sideline to make an easy catch. Below one can see Mayo attacked in man coverage against Sony Michel, early in the Patriots game:

I’m not sure if there was a miscommunication between Ogletree and Mayo, but it’s obvious man coverage and the Patriots motion Michel to a TRIO look to the field. The Patriots run the No. 3 receiver, Michel, on a flat, with two slants from the No. 1 and No. 2, which creates traffic. Mayo reacts way too late on this play and Michel picks up an easy first down, while Mayo shows another aspect of his game that he struggles with — tackling in space. You can see how Mayo adjusts after the catch, and he has a good angle towards the ball carrier, but he leaves his feet and neglects to square up on the sideline, which allows for Michel to employ a quick stop to force a Mayo miss. This is a struggle I have noticed through the last couple games; as effective as Mayo can be in between the tackles and through traffic, with people around him, he can struggle with breaking down in space and making open field tackles. He leaves his feet too often and leaves himself too vulnerable, which has resulted in negative plays. Mayo brings Dwayne Haskins down on the play below, but still allows him to fall forward, while not squaring up at all.

Haskins is not fleet of foot by any stretch and one would want to see his linebacker drive through ball carriers. One can see Mayo in the middle of the screen; as Haskins scrambles, Mayo comes downhill hard and goes for the hit, but fails to square up and only gets an arm on the quarterback, which does effectively bring him down. These are little nuances I have seen through his three starts that aren’t the end of the world, nor are they consistently displayed by Mayo, but they do tend to happen. He’s a little bit wild as a tackler in space and more discipline/fundamentals may benefit the linebacker, but it doesn’t damn him as a player for Big Blue. The clip you’re about to see is a missed tackle against top competition, but it’s not necessarily due to poor fundamentals, rather a lack of top end athletic ability to keep up with Dalvin Cook.

Mayo does a good job to diagnose the screen and keep the block from locating him, but he allows himself to be vacuumed too far inside, which doesn’t allow him to cut off Cook’s angle to the sideline. Mayo cannot get his hat in front of Cook, due to a combination of the marginal angle, Cook’s contact balance, and Cook’s far superior athletic ability, which allows Cook to pick up the first down. But there is one thing I really love about Mayo on this play -- his hustle. Mayo is always giving 100 percent. He’s incredibly competitive with a very high motor, while showing a lot of effective traits that allow him to make these spot starts in the NFL.

Giants fans should be happy to have David Mayo on the roster. He’s smart, quick to diagnose, strong against the run, and has an incredible motor. He’s a valiant reserve linebacker that fits in well with this Giants defense, and I can see why Gettleman was so quick to add him once he became available after final cuts. With that being said, there’s a reason he was available after final cuts; his tackling mechanics are adequate in space, as is his coverage ability, but he’s still a physical player who is solid at the second level of the Giants defense. Mayo has not been perfect, but he has been more than effective in his three starts with the Giants, and the team can do a lot worse than Mayo at linebacker. He’s coming off his best start yet against the Patriots. Let’s see if he can build from there.