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Third down continues to be an issue for Giants’ defense

How the Giants’ defense continues to struggle on third down

NFL: New York Giants at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ third-down defense has been an assailable sieve that has been exposed all season long. Opposing offenses have enjoyed the pregnable outcome of this fact and Giants’ nation is a regrettable witness to their defense’s critical vulnerability. Big Blue currently ranks 21st in the NFL in opponent third-down conversion rate, with 42 percent allowed, and 50 percent allowed in the last three games against the Lions, Cardinals, and Patriots. This past Sunday’s game against the Lions was even worse with a dismal 57 percent conversion rate on third down. In a glass half full world, one may conclude that the Giants defense was opportunistic late in games to force negative plays for the Lions, due to the fact that Jabrill Peppers forced a Kenny Golladay fumble on a play that was ostensibly unattainable for the Lions, and the Giants sacked Matthew Stafford on a 3rd & 8 forcing a punt; both plays happened to be on the final two drives for Detroit, but cruel reality paints a much more defective, yet conspicuous canvas to Giants fans. According to Sharpfootballstats, the Giants defense has faced 51 third and long situations (third-and-6+) this season through the air, and they’ve allowed 23 conversions for a rate of 45 percent. The Giants defense was 8 for 13 in third-down efficiency against the Lions. Outside of the two plays I wrote about above, the only third downs the Lions did not convert were two third-and-17s, a third-and-14, and the third-and-5 which you’ll see below:

One of those third-and-7s was a 13-yard pass to Ty Johnson that set up the erroneous running into the kicker penalty which extended the Lions drive. Even on this third-and-5 above, you can see T.J. Hockenson wide open right on the sticks in the middle of the field. Luckily for the Giants, Stafford missed that easy first down, but Big Blue’s “luck” wasn’t present in these key situations throughout the game. The Giants surrendered two third-and-7s, two third-and-8s, two third-and-2 plays(one being a touchdown), a third-and-9, and a third-and-15 touchdown on the slot vertical to Marvin Hall Jr. It is unacceptable for a defense to give up six third-down conversions that are inauspicious for the opposing offense.

The Giants third-down struggles were evident on the Lions first drive when Big Blue was tasked with defending a third-and-8:

The Giants show blitz and bring 5 with an E/T stunt to the weak side and a E/LB (Peppers) stunt towards the strength, with Michael Thomas blitzing from that side. Alec Ogletree is showing initial blitz from the weak side but drops back into a middle hook zone. The Lions are in a 3x2 look and they sense the pressure, so all the receivers run slightly in-breaking routes, which is just a way for Stafford to find the hot read and get rid of the ball, but he didn’t necessarily do that here. Pay attention to Danny Amendola, the #2 receiver towards the bottom of your screen; he’s being covered by Grant Haley, who is about 7 yards off Amendola. At the snap, Amendola explodes off the line of scrimmage and heads inside. It’s Haley’s responsibility to click and close, but there is a hesitation and a hitch in his movement towards the inside breaking route of Amendola. That slight hesitation by Haley and Hockenson’s route from the strong side occupying Ogletree’s attention led to the easy completion. Grant Haley has been a target for opposing offensive coordinators all season. I have expressed my admiration for Haley’s ability to be incredibly physical and effective in run support, but he’s been a liability in pass coverage, and teams are aware of this unfortunate truth. Haley is pound for pound one of the toughest players in this league, but simple plays like the one below have become too prevalent:

The play design from the stack puts Haley in a tough position to begin with because there’s a receiver running a vertical outside of Amendola that hinders Haley from using any sort of anticipation to jump this out-breaking route, but just looking at the separation Amendola gets on Haley, and seeing similar examples of this week in and week out, have me questioning the continuity of this defense’s overall ability to have any kind of moderate success on third down, especially when James Bettcher relies so heavily on man coverage concepts. The first quarter third-and-8 to the field No. 2 was against Haley as well:

That hard outside step at the top of Amendola’s route forces Haley to fully commit his hips towards the sidelines, which turns him 360 degrees around and leads to an easy pitch and catch for the Lions. On the season, Haley has been targeted 37 times, surrendering 32 catches, for a success rate of 86 percent, and that’s with two abysmal overthrows to Trey Quinn back in the Washington game, while also not recording any interceptions or pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, Haley has surrendered the most yards (353) from the slot cornerback position, but this begs the question ... is there a solution to this issue on the Giants roster? As Giants fans eagerly wait to see if Sam Beal, Julian Love, or Corey Ballentine can make that difference, one cannot deny the liability Haley has been, but one must acknowledge how effective he is against the run. The Giants may have to decide the near future: to stick with Haley at the nickel, try something new, or possibly use Haley in more obvious run situations and attempt to ingratiate the youth into the lineup.

Haley is far from the only problem on this Giants defense; their inability to stop big plays downfield has been an issue all season for the Giants and it was, once again, on Sunday. In 2019, the Giants rank bottom five in Pro Football Focus’s coverage metric, while ranking 29th in opponents’ completion percentage (70 percent), 27th in opponents passer rating (104.4), and 30th in yards per pass attempt (8.5). If you read my last few articles, you saw the issues the Giants have had with pattern match and banjo coverage situations, which just stems from an overall lack of cohesion as a unit, especially in terms of communication. But as you’ll see below, mistakes are happening on third-and-long situations, where the Giants come out in zone coverage:

On a third-and-15, the Giants are showing a four high look pre-snap and it turns into a more three high situation with Bethea eyeing down the backside receiver’s dig, but the meat of the play is towards the field stack at the bottom of the screen. A simple passing concept that may have had blown coverage here; it’s a slot vertical, with a 7 route from the No. 1 in the stack. Haley and Peppers flare out to the flats, while Ogletree and Bethea occupy the middle of the field at the sticks. The Lions high-low rookie DeAndre Baker’s zone with that 7 and the slot vertical that bends towards the pylon; Baker bites up on the underneath 7 route and Thomas is playing deep middle of the field; by the time Thomas sees the breakdown in coverage, it’s way too late and it results in an easy touchdown. Good design to attack this defense by the Lions, but Baker can’t bite underneath and give all that ground to the slot vertical; by doing that, he put Thomas in such a bad position to try and cover all that ground, which is virtually impossible, but this kind of lack of congruence and overall lack of continuity has bitten the Giants several times this season. Teams have been confusing this Giants defense with pre-snap motion, bunch/stacks, and other various ways to attempt to throw off the assignments of the Giants’ defenders. Below is an important third-and-9 before halftime:

Giants are in man coverage and the Lions hit them with two pre-snap motions towards the bottom of your screen, one was right before the snap on DeAndre Baker’s receiver Amendola, which creates a tight grouping of receivers, with Amendola being outside and off the line of scrimmage, which is important. At the snap, Amendola goes underneath both the receivers on a drag, with Golladay running directly at Baker before he breaks inside with his route. This causes Baker to be late on the drag route underneath and across the field; now, pay attention to the two safeties Michael Thomas and Antoine Bethea. The latter sees the drag underneath but does not see Baker in phase, so he jumps up creating a void near the sticks. Peppers is manned up on Hockinson, who is running a vertical from the weak-side of the formation, which also acts as a clearout for Amendola and the reception on the horizontal cross by Golladay. With Jenkins and Haley occupying the strong side vertical, Michael Thomas is the only defender to cover Golladay’s cross, since the Giants brought five on the blitz. If you pay close attention to Thomas’s hips once Golladay comes off his initial stem towards the inside, you’ll see Thomas flip his hips outside then quickly changes direction and heads inside. This misjudgment by Thomas was caused by Baker’s inability to get to his underneath assignment. Thomas ends up stacked on Baker, as Golladay is running towards the rookie, and from Thomas’s perspective, he saw Baker engage Golladay, which led him to believe Baker was taking him on his route, so Thomas flipped his hips outside towards Marvin Jones Jr. But by the time Thomas realized Baker was going underneath towards Amendola, Golladay had already broken inside towards the vacated spot where Bethea also went underneath, and Thomas couldn’t get back in phase with the talented young receiver. If Thomas was sure of his assignment and stuck to Golladay from the snap, he would have never flipped his hips outside and he would have utilized more hip/eye discipline on Golladay’s cross. Just another microcosm of this defense not being on the same page and being heavily affected by pre-snap movement and an understanding of assignments.

The Giants have struggled all season with third-down defense and they’ve been susceptible to big, chunk, plays, both of these warts were uncovered and visible to the naked eye on Sunday against the Lions. This team is young and inexperienced, with a lot of new pieces being brought in, and the older players on this defense have shown their age in certain areas, but it’s the miscommunication, lack of cohesion, and the blown assignments that are way too palpable with this defensive unit.