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The curious case of Markus Golden -- just how good has he been this season?

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Taking a closer look at how Markus Golden wins

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

The New York Giants have struggled mightily on defense in 2019.

They have struggled to hold even ailing offenses in check and have often failed to get off the field when they absolutely needed to do so. The Giants’ rebuilt secondary has struggled to hold up while the defensive front hasn’t produced consistent pressure.

We recently saw that the Giants have struggled to generate pressure when not blitzing, and have struggled to hold passers in check when they do blitz.

That being said, we have seen free agent pass rusher Markus Golden emerge as a consistent producer in the pass rush.

But Golden presents a curious case as a successful pass rusher. The NFL’s best pass rushers are almost always elite athletes who use their physical ability to give them an advantage over bigger and stronger offensive linemen. While we frequently say that we want teams to draft “football players” and not “athletes”, the fact remains that the EDGE has one of the highest athletic premiums on the field, behind only cornerback.

Golden, on the other hand, is not a great athlete. In fact, he tested out as a marginal one for his position at the NFL Scouting Combine.

But that isn’t the only thing that makes Golden something of an oddity among NFL EDGE players. His pass rush win rate (the percentage of pass rushes in which the rusher beats the blocker in 2.5 seconds or less) is below the NFL average. However, he is one of the league leaders in quarterback hits and has produced a respectable number of sacks on the season, sitting at 6.5 after 10 weeks. He converts an unusually high number of pressures into hits and sacks.

So while Golden doesn’t win his pass rushes particularly often, when he does beat his blocker, he finishes at the quarterback much more frequently than average. So how does he do it?

I went back and looked at his sacks from the first ten weeks of the season to find out.

Hand usage

Beyond athleticism, how a pass rusher uses their hands is one of their primary weapons in taking on blockers. Hand usage was one of the primary fears for Jason Pierre-Paul’s future after his fireworks accident. But while hands were never the strength of JPP’s game, they are one of the most obvious strengths of Golden’s game. He consistently uses his hands well to keep blockers off of his chest, giving himself room to work as a pass rusher.

We’ll start by looking at his first sack of the season, a split sack with Lorenzo Carter of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen:

Golden lines up as a stand-up rusher out wide as a 9-technique rusher (if there was a tight end on his side of the field, Golden would be lined up on his outside shoulder in the D-gap). We’ll get into why that is significant later, but for now I want to concentrate on Golden’s hand usage.

Golden has a good get-off, but if the right tackle were able to get his hands on him he would likely be able to ride him around the pocket and give his quarterback time or an avenue for escape.

But the right tackle can’t get his hands on Golden, who uses a two-hand swipe to clear the tackle’s hands and keep his momentum around the edge. This is one of his go-to moves and something he has used to get to the quarterback throughout the first half of the season.

Once again we see Golden lined up outside at the 9-technique, taking an outside route to the quarterback. This time we get a great view of Golden using his hands to attack the right tackle’s hands and keep them off of his body. This turns into a bad rep by the tackle, who stops his feet and lunges at Golden as his arms are knocked away. That opens the door for Golden to carry his momentum around and into the backfield.

The Giants’ don’t get the sack on the play — an untimely penalty not only wipes it off the board but gives the Vikings the first down and continues the drive. This is, however, a good display of how Golden uses his hands to make up for his marginal athleticism.

Motor

When the Giants signed Golden, one of his biggest selling points was his work ethic off the field and effort on it.

Whether you want to call it hustle, motor, or competitive toughness, that effort has been one of the other driving factors behind Golden’s ability to finish his pass rush wins at the quarterback.

Here we see Golden line up as a blitzer on the interior, shading into the B-gap just before the ball is snapped. He winds up executing a stunt with rookie EDGE Oshane Ximines, but the Buccaneers’ offensive line is ready for it. They handle the blitz well, never letting Ximines into the pocket and running Golden well past it. However, Golden stays with the play and is able to run Jameis Winston down from behind for what is ultimately a 2-yard loss on a third-and-8.

Match-ups

Say what you will about James Bettcher — and there is certainly plenty to say about his work as the Giants’ defensive coordinator to date — one thing he has excelled at this year is creating favorable matchups for Golden. While Golden is easily the Giants’ best and most dangerous pass rusher, he is also one of the NFL’s least double-teamed pass rushers.

While players like J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, and DeMarcus Lawrence are able to consistently win their rushes at a high rate while facing high rates of double teams, players like Golden need help from their coaches.

That schematic help is one thing Bettcher has been able to provide.

I mentioned before that lining Golden up at the 9-technique is significant. First, it provides him with a favorable angle into the backfield. Put simply, an EDGE lining up that wide doesn’t need as much lower-body flexibility to bend the edge and flatten to the quarterback. Therefore, it’s easier for a pass rusher to carry his speed and momentum throughout the rush. A player like Von Miller might be able to run at full speed around a hula hoop, but most humans don’t have that kind of flexibility in their hips and ankles, and flattening out the angle to the quarterback helps the pass rusher.

Second, putting an EDGE rusher out wider makes life harder on offensive linemen. Their goal is to keep their hips square to the line of scrimmage for as long as possible before turning. By moving the edge rusher out wide, it does compromise the defense’s gap integrity, but it also forces tackles to commit to being an island with the EDGE player — or force them to try and divide their attention if the B-gap is being threatened.

Finally, playing an EDGE that wide limits the offense’s ability to double team them. Either they are getting a favorable angle with an offensive tackle well away from the interior offensive line, or they are getting a matchup on a tight end.

Bettcher has also moved Golden around the defensive formation to create opportunities as an unblocked rusher.

Here we see Golden lining up outside, but where he stunted to the outside later in the game here he stunts to the inside. Golden and Alec Ogletree use B.J. Hill to absorb blocks, giving them both free runs to the quarterback. By running Golden inside, it draws the lineman assigned to block him inward, where he is engaged by Hill and prevented from getting back to the edge in time to pick up Ogletree. Hill, meanwhile, keeps control of the right guard while Dalvin Tomlinson forces the center over to the left, creating a rushing lane through the right A-gap for Golden to exploit.

All told, that makes for an easy and direct route to the quarterback for Golden.

Final thoughts

Golden has become the Giants’ best pass rusher, and there isn’t really much of a competition. But unlike many EDGE players in the NFL, who use their technique to unlock their athletic traits, Golden uses his technique and fit within the Giants’ scheme to succeed despite his traits.

The Giants do not have a pass rush that is particularly scary on its own. Golden has a lower than average pass rush win rate, Lorenzo Carter has yet to emerge as a consistent threat off the EDGE, and Ximines is still finding his way as a pro.

But while they might not be scary, Golden has emerged as a consistent contributor for the Giants’ pass rush. Assuming he maintains his production through the final six games of the season, the Giants will be faced with an decision. Golden is on a one-year “prove it” deal, and they will be forced to decide whether to extend him or allow him to explore free agency.

To use a baseball metaphor, Golden probably isn’t an “Ace” for the Giants’ pass rush, but he does have the ability to exploit match-ups and make linemen pay for mistakes. That could make him an excellent complementary piece and the team’s “Closer” should they add a (potentially) elite pass rusher in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft.