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Film Study: Giants secondary, part 2 — the backups

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How did the Giants’ backup defensive backs fare against the Jets?

NFL: AUG 08 Preseason - Jets at Giants Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the New York Giants look ahead to both the regular season and their upcoming pre-season game against the Chicago Bears, they won’t just be depending on their starters in the defensive secondary. The Giants want to use sub packages and be aggressive with their blitz schemes when the games matter in September (and onward). For that to work, they will need strong play from players down their depth chart.

Rookie DB Julian Love will play both slot corner and free safety, depending on the package and play called, while safeties Michael Thomas, Sean Chandler could see plenty of reps in nickel and dime packages. Love’s fellow rookie, CB Corey Ballentine, has worked his way into being one of the Giants’ primary depth players and could be in line to start Friday night with DeAndre Baker and Sam Beal “probably” not playing.

Play 1

When the Giants drafted Julian Love out of Notre Dame, it was a surprise that he was still on the board. Love only has average athleticism for a corner, but makes up for it with quick feet, fluid hips, a good closing burst, and terrific ball skills. His skillset also gives him the versatility to play a variety of positions in the defensive secondary.

That was all on display at the end of the second quarter.

The Giants are in a nickel package, with Love on the field as the nickelback. They appear to be playing a Tampa 2 defense, with Love, Michael Thomas, and Sean Chandler covering the deep thirds of the field.

The Giants get good coverage underneath from Henre Toliver, while Ballentine shows discipline and passes off the tight end running through his zone to the safety behind him. QB Trevor Siemian scans the field and finds slot receiver Greg Dorch apparently open on an out-route about 15 yards down the field. And when Siemian throws the ball, Dorch IS open after his break at the top of his route. However, Love’s fluid hips let him follow Dorch and explode to slam the door shut on the pass, knocking the ball away.

There will be ups and downs for Love as he learns a new position in a new defense, but plays like this one show his potential.

Play 2

Sometimes the opposing team just makes plays and no one defender is at fault. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any fault to go around on the defense, but that several players can have slight breakdowns that add up to a successful play for the offense.

The Giants are in their nickel package with Love covering the slot receiver while safety Sean Chandler is lined up as a linebacker. The Giants are playing a Cover 1 defense with Michael Thomas in the deep middle of the field and the corners are playing man coverage underneath.

The play is made by the slot receiver on a crossing route with Love in coverage.

The Giants make a late adjustment, bringing linebacker Jonathan Anderson on a blitz to try and pressure the Jets’ quarterback. That pressure doesn’t get home, though Kareem Martin does eventually get free and tries to clog the passing lane on his way to the quarterback.

The Jets snap the ball just as Love checks inside and he isn’t able to react to the snap quite quick enough, and the slot receiver gets enough of a jump on him to be open. Meanwhile, the Jets use play-action to suck the Giants’ linebackers in, pulling both Ryan Connelly and Chandler out of position.

That motion from the Giants’ linebackers, and some quick eye manipulation from the quarterback, creates enough of a throwing window for Siemian to easily place the ball where the Giants’ defense just can’t make a play on it.

The defense doesn’t really do anything wrong here, though they would do well to continue to work on their communication. Perhaps better communication — and more experience — would let Love react quicker right at the very beginning of the play.

Chandler can’t help but be out of position thanks to the play-action, and that response is simply baked in to the DNA of a defense. Defenders will always honor their run fits, and that means play-action will always create opportunities for plays in the passing game. That’s why Bill Walsh loved play-action, and sometimes good play design and execution just can’t be defended.

Play 3

Rookie corner Corey Ballentine has been one of the Giants’ most pleasant surprises though camp and thus far in pre-season. While he was known for the tragedy that befell him on draft night, he is now being recognized as a player to watch. Despite being a late round pick from Washburn, Ballentine has stepped up and earned himself a position as one of the Giants’ top backups and even gotten some first team reps in practice.

But that isn’t to say his game doesn’t need work. He has all the tools, but he is still a rookie and will still have rookie moments.

The Giants start the play off showing a Cover 4 look, with both corners well off the line of scrimmage and both safeties in the deep middle of the field. As our gif picks up, the safeties have rotated into a more staggered alignment. And as it so happens, the Giants are actually playing Cover 1 — man coverage under a single high safety — with Sean Chandler rotating down to cover the slot receiver while Love is sent on a slot blitz.

The Jets run comeback routes on both sides of the formation, and both routes are open when the cornerback throws the ball. In fact, the comeback at the top of the screen might even have been a better choice as the corner covering it slips and falls as he breaks to come downhill. But, Siemian doesn’t see that as he makes the decision to throw to the receiver on the right as soon as Ballentine begins his backpedal.

It’s an easy decision to make — the route will be open and there are fewer defenders in the area.

Ballentine gets a good break downhill, very nearly arriving as the ball does. However, the receiver catches him flat-footed as he breaks down to make the tackle, and turns a short gain into a first down with a quick move to avoid Ballentine’s lunge.

Play 4

Circling back to the end of the second quarter, we come to the play immediately following Love’s pass defensed. Love gave the Giants the chance to get off the field on third down, but a good block from the Jets kept them on the field.

The Giants are still in their nickel package, playing either a Cover 1 or Cover 3 defense with a single high safety (off the screen). The Jets are still in an 11-personnel package, lining up in the shotgun with receivers stacked on the offensive left, the tight end in-line next to the right tackle, and one receiver at the bottom of the screen.

The Giants’ secondary starts the play off well. Safety Michael Thomas doesn’t hesitate a bit to come flying downhill and fill the right C-gap between the right tackle and tight end. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the receiver coming around and laying a crushing block. If Thomas had seen the receiver coming and managed to avoid the block, or if the receiver had missed, he probably could have made the tackle and saved the first down. However, that wasn’t a total loss for the Giants. Thomas’ presence forced the running back to change plans and cut to the outside. There, Corey Ballentine was in position to make the tackle for a loss and get the team off the field.

But for the second time this quarter, Ballentine’s tackling fails him. He takes a very aggressive angle to the ball carrier, which would have been fine if Thomas hadn’t been taken out by the receiver’s block. But with the back cutting to the outside, Ballentine’s angle is broken and all he can do is try and dive for the runningback’s legs.

Ballentine mentioned needing to improve his tackling in an interview after the game, and it should be a point of emphasis going forward.

Final thoughts

The Giants’ backups saw far more snaps against the Jets than the starters did. Part of that is the nature of the first pre-season game as well as the extended weather delay which felt like an early halftime. The Giants’ backups played far more snaps and played well overall.

Of course there were hiccups, breakdowns, and mistakes made. They are largely young players and that’s just the nature of pre-season. But the back-ups made plays as well, both good routine plays that don’t get noticed in the moment as well as spectacular plays like Ballentine’s interception.

There is still a ways to go before the regular season and the Giants’ backup DBs will get more chances to make plays and show growth as we get closer to opening weekend in September.