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Why isn’t the New York Giants’ defense improving?

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There are several potential reasons — let’s look at them

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants
James Bettcher
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We have known all along that the progress, or lack thereof, of the New York Giants defense would be a defining characteristic of the team’s 2019 season.

Way back in May defensive coordinator James Bettcher acknowledged that he would be relying on many players who had yet to build their NFL resumes.

The Giants used seven of their 10 draft picks on defensive players. They moved on from Olivier Vernon and Landon Collins. They added Jabrill Peppers, Markus Golden and Antoine Bethea. They were relying heavily on a group of as-yet fully established second-year players like B.J. Hill, Lorenzo Carter, Grant Haley and Tae Davis.

Even after a summer that looked promising, this was never going to be a smooth, easy road. In his work on quarterbacks, Mark Schofield always talks and writes about player development not being linear. The more I study and learn, the more I believe that to be the case across all positions. In fact, all sports, all professions and maybe all parts of life.

There are always steps forward and along the way steps backward. What you hope to see is that the arc over time generally points in a positive direction.

Nine games into the season I think it’s easy to agree that the defense has no made the hoped for progress. The Giants are 29th in points and 28th in yards allowed. They are tied with the Green Bay Packers for most 40+ yard passing plays allowed (11). They have given up 400 or more yards in a game five times in nine games, matching how many times that happened in 2018.

James Bettcher was asked this week if he thought the Giants’ defense would be farther along than it is. Taking out some of the long-winded gobbledygook, here is the crux of what he said:

“I think that no matter where we were at, right now, I would want more, that’s just me ... I think there are some areas that we’re getting better and some players are getting better. We have to keep pressing forward to get the other things out of our game.”

The Giants gave up 35 points, 494 yards and 23 first downs Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. In Week 8 against those same Cowboys, the Giants gave up 38 points, 429 yards and 24 first downs.

Those are just numbers, but they illustrate the central point — there really isn’t any tangible evidence that the Giants have made progress defensively.

The question is why?

Do they have enough talent? Do the young, talented players they do have just need more time to learn and grow into the players the Giants believe they can be? Is the coaching or the way some players are being utilized partially to blame?

The answer is probably some combination of all three. So, let’s try to take an honest look at those areas.

The talent

The brutal truth is the Giants, despite their offseason emphasis on upgrading the defense, still don’t have enough talent. Not nearly enough.

Think of any great defense. It features multiple game-changing players other teams have to plan for. Lock down cornerbacks. Difference-making safeties. Pass rushers who have to be double-teamed, and who manage to get to the quarterback anyway. These are the kind of players who play beyond scheme, who make plays that really aren’t coached.

Do the Giants have a single player like that? Nope.

Markus Golden is having a nice season and the Giants need to re-sign him, but he’s not a Joey Bosa-Khalil-Mack-Von Miller level game-wrecker.

The Giants hope Lorenzo Carter will become a game-changing player, and he is showing signs of improvement. He isn’t, though, showing signs of being dominant.

Jabrill Peppers is a nice player, but he’s not Jamal Adams. Antoine Bethea was a really good player. Now, he’s just a really good leader.

Dexter Lawrence might be an All-Pro caliber interior lineman one day, but he’s not there yet.

The Giants don’t have a top-flight cornerback. The linebackers are middling, especially with Ryan Connelly out for the season.

Simply put, the Giants don’t have any real difference makers who scare opposing offenses, make them play differently and make plays no matter what the offensive or defensive call. They have a few good ones, a couple who might become those difference-making players eventually and even a couple who perhaps used to be in that category but aren’t any longer.

The Giants just need to continue emphasizing adding defensive players. A premier pass rusher and a lockdown cornerback or top-tier free safety —- or both — would make a huge difference.

Those won’t be easy to find, especially since the Giants will also be on the hunt for offensive upgrades at wide receiver and the offensive line during the upcoming offseason. They have to, however, be on the wish list.

The learning curve

As I mentioned, Lawrence is showing signs of being a terrific player. Pro Football Focus, in fact, believes Lawrence could already be one of the top five nose tackles in the NFL. The Giants drafted him 17th overall, though, because they thought he could be more than “just” a nose tackle. The Giants believe, and many who have evaluated him agree, that he is just scratching the surface as a pass rusher.

Much is riding on cornerback DeAndre Baker after the Giants traded away assets to get back into the first round and select him. Baker’s struggles this season have been monumental, and getting him right has to be a high priority. Whether he has the athletic gifts to be a true lock down corner is debatable, but the Giants need him to become a good one.

Rookies like Oshane Ximines and Corey Ballentine are getting their feet wet, and aren’t what they will be. Connelly is hurt.

It’s often said that players should take their biggest leaps from Year 1 of their careers to Year 2. If that’s the case, all of these players should be better equipped next year. Also, if that is the case perhaps there should be a bit of disappointment that Carter and B.J. Hill have not truly stepped forward.

The coaching staff

OK, so we have to talk about Bettcher and his defensive coaching staff. How much of the lack of progress is on them?

The answer has to be some, obviously. Coaches are tasked with developing and teaching players, figuring out what they do best rather than trying to pigeon-hole them into roles or systems that don’t suit them.

Is Bettcher trying too hard to re-create what he has when he coordinated a really good defense with the Arizona Cardinals, rather than recognize and work to maximize what he actually has in New York? I have heard that accusation. It’s easy to make because there are several ex-Cardinals on the roster. I’m certain Bettcher has some core principles he believes, but I’m not sure the “rebuild the Arizona defense” accusation is fully on target.

At times this season, I believe we have seen some mis-use of talent. Too much soft or zone coverage from players brought in for their man-to-man coverage skills. Some questionable deployment of the defensive line talent, particularly Monday against the Dallas Cowboys. A couple of eyebrow-raising decisions at inside linebacker.

The monumental number of big plays being surrendered by the secondary is a huge concern. The Giants are 29th in the league with 38 plays of 20 or more yards allowed. They are 27th in passer rating against at 104.0. They are 21st in the league in third-down defense, giving up first downs on 41.96 percent of plays, much of it because of an inability to cover.

The confusion we have seen in the secondary, and that Baker has admitted to, is a concern. Is that on Bettcher? First-year secondary coach Everett Withers? Baker himself? Maybe all three need to take some of the heat for that.

Here is an interesting comment from Withers on Friday regarding Baker:

“He’s coming along. Coming along. Guys progress as they progress and they work as they work. I think early, he didn’t quite understand the sense of urgency and detail in the things that you have to do. Sometimes when you’re in college, you go play corner on one side and that’s all you do. You just go play that one guy. So, he had a lot of details he had to work on.”

Back to Bettcher, though. It’s apparent that at times this season his game plans haven’t been perfect. His decisions on how to employ players in the secondary has at times been confusing. You wonder at times when players blow assignments in coverage or fail to fill gaps in run support if they’re being taught properly during the week.

Still, there is also the talent issue. Sometimes, the players just aren’t good enough. Sometimes, you are calling things you don’t want to call or doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do simply to try and cover personnel weaknesses you know you have.

For me, I believe all three of the things we have talked about factor into why the defense does not appear to have improved over the course of the first nine games. Will it get better over the final seven games and what will be the fallout if it doesn’t?

We will just have to find out.