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James Bettcher on the process behind his defense and versatile rookies

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Defensive coordinator

NFL: New York Giants-Minicamp TODAY NETWORK

The New York Giants are starting to gear up for their first preseason game.

While this game is really more about setting the baseline for the coming weeks, it will still be a good test for James Bettcher and the Giants’ defense. Much of the onus for the Giants’ 5-11 season was placed at the feet of the defense at the end of the 2018 season. And after once again renovating much of the defense, the Giants want to see growth and progress in Bettcher’s second year.

Process determines results

When it comes to laying the ground work for the second year of his defense in New York, James Bettcher is approaching his installation from a very fundamental point of view. Defenses are constantly playing catch-up to offense, and players who don’t know the limitations of their scheme are easy prey for an offense that is trying to create (and exploit) responsibility conflicts.

Instead of focusing on what his plays, calls, and schemes are, he is trying to focus on why they are what they are.

“To develop young players now in this league, you need to teach them the process first. The process being, how can you take something from the meeting room and take it to walk-through. How can you take it from walk-through to your individual period? How can you take something from individual to team, and then run it full circle? To be able to do that on a Tuesday, on a Wednesday, on a Thursday, day after day for seven months to improve yourself as a player. I think their eagerness to learn, their ability to put their guard down and get coached, and know that it’s not about, Coach Shurmur always says, and I think he says it in a great way, ‘It’s not about attacking people, it’s attacking problems,’ and we’re trying to get better.”

“There is a good balance there,” Bettcher said, when asked about the balance between installing his defense and developing it. “That’s why we spend a lot of time sitting in and determining the order of installation on our defense. We don’t just call calls, we don’t just put coverages in. There is an order of them. There’s some progression in the learning so you can hope to take some of schematic stuff off the guys. Earlier on, just like we did in OTAs and phase two, it’s a lot about the ‘I.’ It’s a lot about my improvement, my fundamentals, my techniques, the things that I need to do to win my box and become a better player. Then as you go, it’s how my piece fits to your piece, and (then) we’re able to play together.”

Anyone who has ever had to go from studying a subject to teaching a subject knows the difference between reading material (in this case a playbook), and truly understanding the material and knowing how it all fits together. That second part — getting his defense to understand how everything fits together and why it fits — is one of Bettcher’s focuses in camp.

He said, “Not just knowing what to do, but why they are doing it. It’s one thing to say, ‘here’s a huddle call, here’s my job, here’s my responsibility,’ but why are we calling it? What are we trying to defend, what are the things that this call is really good against, and what are the weak spots on the call so we can play to some of the weaknesses that we may have in a particular huddle call. Everyone might want to stand up and say every huddle call stops everything on offense, but it doesn’t happen— just like guys on offense will tell you there are certain things that a huddle call on offense is not good against what the defense is in. But we need to understand that, understand why we are making those calls, and why we need to be in some of these adjustments. Beyond that, it’s the why and what to expect. What are you going to get out of this formation? What are you going to get out of this look? What’s different this week with this opponent versus the next opponent. Those are certainly things that we have to be able to do in year two to help us be a better defense.”

An inexperienced defense

While the Giants have tried to add veteran leadership at every position, the fact of the matter is that most of their defensive roster will be young and inexperienced in 2019. But while they don’t have much (or any) experience in the NFL, they bring other qualities.

“I’ll answer that in two parts,” Bettcher said, talking about his inexperienced players, “because when I look at guys that don’t have experience I think about a lot of different things, and I’ve said this to our group. I call plays for the first time, so everybody that’s been something has done it for the first time. You wrote a story for the first time at one point in time, and although some people might have thought that you couldn’t do it, you were able to write something that was maybe beyond other people’s expectations. We will never be limited by expectations of others, whether we are playing our first game or our 100th game in the National Football League. We’re not going to be limited by expectations.”

“The second part of that,” he added, “the thing that I think these guys make up for is they are just so eager to take in the information. I think one thing with young guys now is sometimes guys are guarded and they don’t want you to know what they don’t know, and I respect this group a lot because they have been very open. You look in their notebooks and it’s just filled, it really is. There are pages of things and guys are trying to organize their notes, and trying to take heed of some of the veteran advice and listen to their position coaches.”

But while many of Bettcher’s players are inexperienced they have other assets to bring to the defense, such as the versatility to play multiple roles and adapt to shifting offenses.

Dexter Lawrence

Perhaps one of the most surprising twists of the off-season and training camp is the use of 6-foot-4, 342-pound Dexter Lawrence as anything other than a nose tackle. Part of that is due to Dalvin Tomlinson being a good nose tackle already, but also Lawrence’s athleticism gives him the option of moving around the defensive line.

“He’s a three-position player,” Bettcher said. “He can play the five, he can play nose, he can play three. One of the things that happens, and offenses are creative enough, as a defensive guy we’ll give them a little bit of credit, they are going to motion to make you play more than one spot. They’re going to make you have to slide the front and move the front. A guy that’s a nose might have to become a three technique, and a guy that’s a three might have to become a nose. To say anymore that a guy is just a nose, you’re going to flip tackles and you’re going to do all that kind of stuff, it’s really not feasible with the way the game is right now. You need to be able to do that. I think he is, as we all have seen him running around, there’s not a lot of 300+ (pound) gentlemen who are as athletic as he is and as powerful as he is in the same breath. I think that’s one of the reasons, he has the ability to play three positions.”

Julian Love

The selection of Love was something of a surprise for Giants’ fans. Not because he was off the radar or considered an over-draft, but rather because he wasn’t expected to still be on the board when the Giants picked in the fourth round. Not only was Love a great cover corner in college, he has some of the best ball skills in his draft class.

The Giants want to have a safety with a cornerback’s skill set and are taking the opportunity to cross-train Love as both a slot corner and safety.

About Love, Bettcher said, “I think most, if not all, nickels play a second position. A guy that might be a primary nickel, his second position might be corner, or it might be safety. The last place I worked at, our nickel was also a safety, so that’s usually what comes with the territory with a nickel— that’s not the sole position that they are playing. That’s also one of the two positions they are going to play, corner nickel or safety nickel. He just happens to be playing some safety right now with it. I think for his development he needs to play behind, as well, because when you play in the slot, you’re involved in a lot of things. You could be involved in a run front at times, you’re going to be involved in a lot of mixed coverages, and by being able to play safety, you understand what the nickel is doing. As well as playing nickel, you have to understand what the safety is doing. Those will go hand-in-hand at times. He’s like the other guys. He’s really eager, he wants to learn, he wants to get better, he’s highly engaged, and he’s working on figuring out what his process is to be able to learn and be able to make himself a better player. As he continues to do that, like these other young guys, he’s going to keep getting better.”

Jake Carlock

Finally, if there is one intriguing under-the-radar player in Giants’ camp who could be a dark horse to make the final roster, it might be the 6-foot-3, 225-pound DB-turned-linebacker from LIU-Post. Carlock was a strong safety in college, but has transitioned to linebacker — even playing some EDGE — since being signed by the Giants as an undrafted free agent.

“(He’s) a guy that comes in,” Bettcher said, “and has never played the position, a guy that was primarily a safety. He played some linebacker, but he went from safety, to linebacker, to all of a sudden playing on the edge. He’s a really good learner, a great kid, he’s working exceptionally hard, and he’s falling in line with all of the other rookies that are trying to figure out their process.”