Much of the New York Giants offseason has been spent wondering what the rebuilt secondary will look like in 2019. The Giants have invested heavily over the last year, signing veteran safety Antoine Bethea, trading for safety Jabrill Peppers, trading up to draft cornerback DeAndre Baker, drafting Sam Beal in the 2018 supplemental draft with a third-round selection, drafting corners Julian Love in the fourth round, and Corey Ballentine in the sixth round.
We finally got our chance to see the revamped secondary in action Thursday night.
Beal and starting slot corner (and 2018 UDFA) Grant Haley did not play against the New York Jets, which opened the door for Love to play with the starters. And that is what we are going to look at first, the Giants’ starting secondary against the Jets’ starting offense.
We’ll start with the first pass that Sam Darnold threw, and it very nearly became the first interception of the 2019 season for the Giants.
The Giants are lined up in their 4-2-5 nickel set, showing a standard Cover 2 look before the Jets motion a player across the offensive formation. Antoine Bethea and Jabrill Peppers are at safety, Janoris Jenkins and DeAndre Baker are the corners, and Julian Love is the slot.
DeAndre Baker wastes no time dropping to cover the deep third of the field, but also shows good recognition to break downhill on the out route.
This play was never designed to be a big one. The out route was run just past the first down marker and all the offense wanted was to move the chains and get into a good rhythm to begin the game. If the only defender in the area was Baker, this play might have been successful, though Baker did get a good enough jump that he could have contested the reception.
But Baker wasn’t the only defender in the area.
When the Jets send their player into motion, the Giants rotate their coverage in response, shifting from a Cover 2 look to a Cover 3 defense. The move brings Peppers down from covering a deep half of the field to covering a shallow zone underneath. Bringing Peppers down to cover the shallow zone puts him in perfect position to cover the quick out route run by the receiver who motions to that side.
Peppers shows solid awareness to recognize the quarterback’s intentions and get in position to make a play on the ball. But while he is able to easily undercut the route and get his hands on the ball, he is unable to come up with the interception. It’s a good play that would have been better if the Giants had stolen possession of the ball, but it’s difficult to call Peppers out for failing to come up with the ball. He has never been accused of being a ballhawk and only has three interceptions in the last five years (dating back to his time at Michigan).
This is a definite win for the Giants’ defense.
Unfortunately, things did not continue to go so well for the Giants’ defense. The Giants promptly give up 60 yards on the next two plays, allowing the Jets to quickly advance down the field.
There is a lot going on this play, and it will be easier to see what is happening if we look at the play diagram.
This looks to be a variation on the NCAA concept, which combines the post/dig route combination of the Mills concept with a shallow crossing route. The combination of the shallow cross and the dig route create something like a mesh concept, frustrating tight coverage, while also creating a high/low conflict for the deep safety.
The Jets send so many receivers in so many different directions that chaos immediately ensues in the Giants’ secondary. It is difficult to tell what, exactly, coverage they are playing. The deep safety — Bethea begins the play lined up off screen — and press coverage on the outside suggest a Cover 1 shell, and Janoris Jenkins does stay with the vertical route on the bottom of the screen. However, Baker quickly peels off the receiver on the top of the screen when he sees the crossing routes.
That suggests that the Giants might have been playing something like “banjo” coverage, in which the defensive backs disguise zone coverage by playing press at the snap of the ball, attempting to disrupt routes before dropping into zone coverage. Banjo coverage is a smart call against a bunch formation such as the Jets used, as it allows the defense to try and disrupt the offensive play, but still gives them flexibility.
However, there is nothing but confusion in the secondary as TE Chris Herndon runs down the field — to the point where the play ends with Peppers’ arms spread wide, as if asking what just happened.
A short while later the Jets are knocking on the door to the end zone and decide to put the Giants two rookie corners to the test.
The Giants remain in their nickel package with Bethea, Peppers, Jenkins, Baker, and Love on the field.
Baker is the cornerback to the top of the screen while Love is in the slot next to him. The Giants are running man coverage close to the goal line to try and throw off the offense’s timing in an area of the field where everything happens faster and margins are tighter.
Unfortunately, the Jets put the two rookies in as close to a no-win situation as you can get in the NFL by running a rub concept while also sliding the pocket to create an easier throwing angle for Darnold. The receivers run the route well enough that the officials can’t call a foul for an intentional pick play — though creating the traffic and separating Love from the slot receiver is absolutely the intention.
Rub routes such as this are next to impossible for even seasoned defenders to deal with because everything is compressed and the game gets even faster close to the end zone. Somewhat ironically this would have been a good time to call banjo coverage, allowing the two defenders to trade off receivers as they recognized the rub route developing and maintain tight coverage.
Even seasoned veterans would be hard pressed to deal with this play.
A secondary’s first responsibility is obviously pass coverage. And after a season in which the Giants’ pass rush was let down by the coverage behind it, that will be the focus of those of us watching the secondary. However, run support is an important duty as well.
Unfortunately, we have a very small sample size from the Giants’ starting defense defending the run against a starting offense. The Jets’ starting offense ran the ball twice against the Giants, once from their 25-yard line and once inside the 10 yard line. Let’s take a look at the first play of the game.
The Giants start the game in their nickel set with Julian Love as the nickel while Jabrill Peppers is lined up as the SAM linebacker. Janoris Jenkins and DeAndre Baker are the outside corners is lined up at free safety about 13 yards off the line of scrimmage.
The Jets run to the weak side, effectively taking Peppers out of the play. Peppers hesitates slightly before coming up to fill the right B gap, between the right guard and right tackle. However, thanks to the Giants’ defensive alignment, the left side of the field has far fewer defenders and that is where the running back goes. Peppers has to abandon his gap fit and scrape across the formation but gets caught in the trash and taken out by Alec Ogletree, who never stood a chance against the left guard.
On the play side, we have Love, who is in coverage against the slot receiver. Love recognizes the run and does a good job of undercutting the receiver to get inside and prevent him from trying to establish a block at the second level.
Ultimately, the tackle was made by Tae Davis, who was an unaccounted defender, and Dalvin Tomlinson, who did a great job of dealing with the right guard’s block, stacking and shedding before turning to help Davis make the tackle.
Neither defensive back was directly involved in the play, but things line awareness and discipline in run defense will be important to watch over the course of the preseason
This wasn’t a great showing for the Giants’ starting secondary. While there was active communication in the secondary, there were multiple breakdowns which gave up yards and points. The instances where it appeared as though the players weren’t sure what their assignments were and looked lost in coverage should be a teaching point going forward for the coaching staff.
However, it is also too soon to panic about the Giants’ rebuilt secondary. The Giants almost completely rebuilt their secondary over the 2019 offseason and this is the first time these five men have played together. Add in the fact that this is a new defensive scheme for four of them — though there are definite similarities between James Bettcher’s scheme and the defense in which DeAndre Baker played in college — and that two of the three starters are rookies, and this sort of thing is bound to happen in pre-season.
At this point the important thing isn’t that mistakes were made, mistakes are part of the learning process and its best to make them when the stakes are low. The important part is what happens next, how the secondary plays in the coming preseason games and whether these mistakes are cleaned up or prove to be consistent.
Next time we’ll take a look at the players down the depth chart.