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Blitz or play coverage? The Giants’ defensive dilemma

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Whether it is blitzing or playing coverage, the Giants don’t have any good options on defense

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the New York Giants — and the Giants themselves — have been aching for a return to “Giants’ Football” for nearly a decade now.

What is “Giants’ Football”? At its heart “Giants’ Football” means defensive football.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a commitment to any particular scheme or personnel archetype. Those things are fluid and should change to reflect the shifting landscape of offensive football in the NFL. Offenses are constantly innovating to find novel ways to stress defenses, and so defenses must adapt with them. “Giants’ Football” is more of a mindset than a scheme. It means fielding the kind of defense that gives offensive coordinators fits and keeps offensive players up at night.

The one constant to great defensive football over the last four decades has been the ability to affect and frustrate opposing passing games.

In 1990, the Giants won Super Bowl XXV by ignoring the Buffalo Bills’ running game and committing to not letting Jim Kelly and the explosive “K-Gun” spread passing game beat them. That game plan is in the Hall Of Fame.

In 2007, the Giants relied on a stable of hyper-athletic pass rushers to routinely create pressure by lining up four defensive ends in Steve Spagnuolo’s innovative “4 Aces” set. Paired with some aggressive man-coverage blitzes, they were able to suffocate some of the best offenses in the league — including one of the best in league history.

It was a plan we saw again during the “All In” run in 2011 and during the stretch of dominant defensive play by the briefly-nicknamed “NYPD” in 2016.

The personnel and schemes may change, but the ultimate goal of an NFL defense remains the same: disrupt the opposing passing game. The major problem with the Giants’ defense as it stands now is that they struggle to do so.

The Giants have an average pass rush in 2019, and their 24 sacks is exactly the NFL average. Their 40 percent Pass Rush Win Rate (the number of pass rush snaps in which the defense gets pressure in 2.5 seconds or less) is 24th in the league, but not far off of the league median of 44-45 percent (per ESPN).

But if we look past those numbers we see that the Giants’ defense sits squarely on the horns of a dilemma. The Giants’ struggle to get pressure without blitzing, but they also struggle to cover behind blitzes.

The Giants have the second-lowest pressure rate in the NFL when not blitzing. And as we know, the only way to reliably defeat NFL offenses is to pressure the opposing passer and disrupt the passing game. So to get pressure on the opposing passer, that means the Giants have to blitz, right?

Per Pro Football Reference, the Giants have blitzed 99 times this season, or on roughly 29.4 percent of their 337 pass rush snaps. When the Giants blitz, they are certainly more likely to get to the quarterback, coming up with 10 sacks on those 99 blitzes (10.1 percent sack rate) to 14 sacks on their 238 non-blitz rushes (5.8 percent sack rate).

So the Giants should never NOT be blitzing, right?

Well, if you read the headline, or have watched the last 26 games the Giants have played, it should be obvious that it’s just not that simple.

The other shoe to drop is that the Giants are caught squarely in the catch-22 of blitzing: In order to send extra pressure, you have to weaken your secondary. And the Giants’ secondary simply can’t withstand being weakened.

While the Giants do have a higher sack rate and pressure rate when blitzing, opposing quarterbacks are actually better when the Giants blitz them when they don’t.

  • Quarterbacks throw for more yards per attempt against the Giants’ blitzes — 10.1 to 8.3.
  • Quarterbacks average higher completion percentages, completing 70.8 percent of passes against blitzes to 67.9 percent when the Giants don’t blitz.
  • The Giants have a lower interception rate when they blitz, 1.01 percent, to 2.9 percent when they don’t blitz.
  • Opposing offenses get first downs at a higher rate when the Giants blitz than when they don’t, 45 percent to 33.6 percent.
  • Opposing quarterbacks have a higher ANY/A (Adjusted Net Yards per pass Attempt) when the Giants blitz than when they don’t — 9.2 to 7.7.
    (Note: ANY/A measures yards per attempt while factoring in interceptions and sacks. For context, Patrick Mahomes currently leads the NFL with an ANY/A of 9.5. An ANY/A of 7.7 would rank sixth in the league.)

If this sounds familiar, that’s because for all the personnel shuffling and changes the Giants made to their defensive personnel over the 2019 offseason, they had the same problems in 2018.

Last year the Giants were able to generate pressure with their blitz packages, but struggled to cover behind them. This year they not only have similar issues, but they have gotten much worse when it comes to limiting yards per attempt and completion percentage.

So what is the answer for the Giants? We know that a defense that can’t impact the opposing quarterback is just asking to be dissected piecemeal, but we also see that when the Giants bring pressure they are exposing their secondary to be exploited for chunk plays.

Should James Bettcher up his 29.4 blitz rate, go down swinging, and hope for the best? Or should he sit back and play coverage and hope that a four-man rush with seven in coverage will be able to slow the bleeding?

This does make an argument for targeting Ohio State EDGE Chase Young in the 2020 draft and hoping that the defense can get pressure more consistently with a four-man rush. But it also points out that the Giants need all of their young defensive backs to make significant strides in their second and third years. If they don’t make those strides, the Giants will still struggle to hold up on the back end even if they are able to get pressure with four rushers.

The bad news is that the Giants are unlikely to flip a switch and become something they aren’t this year. The good news is that their propensity to make opposing quarterbacks look like Top 10 passers while playing coverage and Mahomes when blitzing will help maximize their opportunity to draft Young.