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The Giants defense is different, but has it gotten better?

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Let’s break down what the Giants have done to help James Bettcher

NFL Draft Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The 2018 New York Giants defense was a mess. The unit ranked 26th in yards allowed per drive and 27th in points allowed per drive. If the defense wasn’t creating a turnover — surprising fifth in turnovers per drive — the opposing offense was likely going to be on the field for a while. The Giants’ defense allowed the fourth-most average plays per drive and the sixth-longest average drive at 2:57.

While there might still be some shock over how the Giants went about reshaping the defense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that would be one of the main focuses of the offseason. In a draft lauded for its defensive playmakers, the Giants used seven of their 10 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball.

Without question, the 2019 Giants defense will look different than the 2018 version, but how much and does different mean better or just different?

Rotation. Rotation. Rotation.

Since Dave Gettleman came on board as general manager of the Giants, he expressed a desire for a deep rotation of players across the defensive line. We can argue whether “deep” suggests quality or quantity, but the Giants will certainly have a number of players rotating in both the interior and the edge.

The selection of Dexter Lawrence should have shocked no one since he’s the physical representation of everything Gettleman believes a football player should be. However, it does slightly cloud the picture along the defensive line. After the trade that sent Damon Harrison to the Detroit Lions, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill stepped in as the main interior defenders. Hill, especially, got a huge boost in playing time over the second half of the season.

source: pro-football-reference

While the Giants’ run defense suffered some once Harrison was removed from the roster, the interior pass rush opened up once Hill started to break through. Lawrence had some pass rush production in college — his 11.8 percent pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions was impressive — though that was less about a pass rush plan and being a giant human being among college offensive lineman. The good news is Lawrence is still considered a giant human, even by NFL standards, but it’s unlikely that will be as advantageous as it was at the college level without a more intricate toolbox of pass rush moves.

What’s most likely to happen is a rotation heavily featuring Hill, Tomlinson, and Lawrence with the likes of Olsen Pierre, R.J. McIntosh, and seventh-round pick Chris Slayton sprinkled in depending on the down and distance. Expect Hill to get a fixed spot on passing downs (of which there are many) while Lawrence and Tomlinson take over in short-yardage situations.

This rotation-heavy approach is also likely to spread to the edge with a pass rush group of Markus Golden, Lorenzo Carter, Kareem Martin, and third-round pick Oshane Ximines. Last season Oliver Vernon played at least 76 percent of the defensive snaps in every game he appeared and that number fell below 80 percent just twice. Vernon also accounted for 18 percent of the Giants’ overall pressures, per SIS.

No pass rusher on the current roster projects to have that type of role. Expect a heavy rotation of those four pass rushers with the order determined throughout training camp and the preseason.

Coverage is king

Many expected the Giants to go early and often in the draft with a deep group of pass rushers, but instead, they went on cornerbacks. In a way, this can be just as helpful to the pass rush. This was an idea discussed at the end of the season when there was a disappointment in the lack of sacks produced by the defense. The argument went, despite the lack of sacks, the Giants were an above average team in creating pressure. However, the coverage was poor and quickly open receivers allowed opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out and not suffer the decline in performance typically associated with pressure.

At the league level, passes are continually getting out quicker than defenders are typically getting to the quarterback. Last year, of the 1,281 sacks across the NFL during the regular season, three (0.2 percent) occurred under 2.0 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. Just 29 (2.3 percent) happened under 2.5 seconds and 113 (8.8 percent) were under 3.0 seconds. Thirty-two of 34 qualified quarterbacks had their average time to throw below 3.0 seconds in 2018. And while conventional wisdom would say the longer a quarterback holds the ball, the harder it is to stay in coverage, the data also shows the longer a quarterback holds the ball, the more likely he is to be sacked.

source: @benbbaldwin

Both pieces of the defense play off each other and one shouldn’t be ignored in favor of the other, but last year the Giants pass rush was better than the raw sack totals would indicate and the coverage let it down.

Of course, the center of this specific argument for the Giants was an improvement of the secondary would make the pass rush better without a need for an overhaul of the rushers involved because more sacks were already likely to come. But while the Giants did seek to upgrade the coverage, they also significantly changed who will be on the edge with the trade of Olivier Vernon. Now, talent-wise, the pass rush is probably more representative of the 31st-ranked sack total than the 14th-ranked pressure rate they had in 2018.

But still, the Giants went big on improving the secondary and that is a strategy that will help all areas of the defense.

First-round pick Deandre Baker projects to slide in as a starting outside corner opposite Janoris Jenkins. Baker was viewed by some as the top corner in this draft because of his scheme versatility. Per SIS, he played 54.4 percent of his snaps in man coverage, where he was quite good (4.3 yards allowed per snap and 33.1 percent positive play rate allowed) and 45.6 percent of his snaps in zone where he was less good, but still pretty good (5.9 yards allowed per snap and 45.5 percent positive play rate allowed).

Baker doesn’t possess the size (5-foot-11) or speed (4.52 40 time) that stands out but has physicality and technique to make up for it. That allows Baker to hang with a speed receiver down the sideline like Marquise Brown:

Or hang with bigger receivers like LSU’s 6-7 WR/TE Stephen Sullivan:

In the fourth round the Giants took Julian Love, who could serve as a jack of all trades type of defensive back for the defense. Love spent a significant amount of time in man coverage for Notre Dame in 2018 — 65.8 percent with 5.2 yards allowed per snap and a 36.2 percent positive play rate allowed per SIS — but was also successful in zone coverage and played more of that during the 2017 season. Like Baker, Love doesn’t have the prototypical size (5-10¾) or speed (4.54) for the “modern” cornerback, but has plenty of instincts to make up for it. Love’s best skill is his ability to put himself between the ball and the receiver without losing leverage in coverage.

Love recorded 39 passes defensed over the past two seasons. His ability to track the ball and the receiver plays well on the outside and could translate to the slot and potentially safety — a position Gettleman mentioned could be in Love’s future. Last season for the Fighting Irish Love played 25.4 percent of his pass snaps in the slot. Per SIS, on 11 slot targets, Love allowed five completions (45.5 percent) and just 2.6 yards per target in 2018.

Physically Love doesn’t resemble Arizona’s Budda Baker, but could play a similar role as a versatile defensive back who moves from the box to the slot to the outside to deep safety in James Bettcher’s defense.

On the back end, the Giants will receive a significant boost deep with Antonie Bethea replacing Curtis Riley. It’s unclear the impact Jabrill Peppers will have replacing Landon Collins. If you look at Peppers’s numbers in the article linked above and Collins’s numbers in this one, they’re fairly similar. The biggest difference when looking into the details is Collins’s struggles mostly came in zone coverage (despite popular belief) which was impacted by those around him, while Peppers saw his against physical tight ends in man coverage last season. Peppers has also yet to show anything close to Collins’s impact in the non-coverage parts of the game, but could be helped in a better position under Bettcher than anything he did with Gregg Williams.

Middle concerns

One place the Giants didn’t really address during the offseason is the middle of the defense at inside linebacker. Ryan Connelly of Wisconsin was drafted in the fifth round but without standout coverage ability, he projects to make most of his impact on special teams.

The Giants appear to be comfortable with Alec Ogletree playing nearly every defensive snap despite his struggles in 2018. His five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns were great, but not sustainable, and tell a much different story than his down-to-down success rate.

There was arguably no team worse at defending the pass in the short and intermediate middle of the field than the Giants last season. Per SIS, no team allowed more yards (1,623) on passes that traveled three to 15 yards past the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field than the Giants last season. The Giants allowed the fourth-worst yards per attempt on those passes, allowed the second-most Expected Points Added, and the second-highest positive play rate.

So, what’s changed?

If we go position by position, the Giants are better on the interior defensive line than they were to end the season, but probably not where they were to start with Harrison in the lineup. The edge definitely lacks top end talent, but the healthy rotation and sack regression could help balance that out. The cornerbacks have the potential to be better, but it’s still a young group that might not really click until 2020. Free safety is a clear upgrade, but the Collins/Peppers tradeoff is a big unknown. Inside linebacker comes with the least amount of questions of who will play, but has quite a few about how they’ll play.

This defense was something that needed to improve and while there were steps taken in that direction and there are some pieces to like, it’s also hard to look past how moving on from the two best players on the 2018 defense was one of the steps used in the attempt to improve it. This won’t be a one-year fix.

It was just two seasons ago the Giants defense ranked second in DVOA. The roster has been reworked so much that Janoris Jenkins is the only main defensive contributor remaining from that team. It would be hard to bet on him still being on the roster the next time the Giants come close to that kind of defensive success.