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Could the Giants copy the 49ers defensive blueprint?

The Giants look to be a long way from equaling San Francisco’s dominant defense

New York Giants v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Ahhh, Super Bowl Week! Media days mixed with extensive coverage and over analyzation, as we all sit here and eagerly await the big game. Every person can enjoy this spectacle, not just football fans. What commercials will wow us, and how good will the halftime show be are only a few non-football questions that surround this worldwide event.

Sadly, these last eight years haven’t provided much of a spark of any potential for the New York Giants to make it to this big occasion. Super Bowl Week seems like a distant memory for Giants fans, as we appreciate and commemorate the admirable career of Eli Manning this past week. Feb. 3, 2008, and Feb. 5, 2012, feel like centuries ago for many of us, but our expectations and anticipations are still demanding.

This year’s Super Bowl will showcase the Kansas City Chiefs, led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who are squaring up against the vaunted defense of the San Francisco 49ers, with their feared rushing attack. We all know the Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman puts a high precedent on establishing the run and stopping the run. I feel Gettleman does share a similar mindset to former Giants’ general manager Ernie Accorsi, and that mindset is you can never have too many pass rushers. The San Francisco 49ers understood this fact, and under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh the 49ers defense has finally lived up to the potential.

The 49ers pass rush is incredibly effective. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers ranked second in Adjusted Sack Rate, just behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, and tied for fifth in the league with the Minnesota Vikings in sacks. Their ability to generate pressure has been eye-opening and has earned Saleh a lot of praise, but this build all started years ago.

In 2015, the 49ers drafted a 6-foot-7, 292-pound defensive lineman out of Oregon named Arik Armstead in the first round (17th pick). The next year, they selected DeForest Buckner, a 6-7, 285-pound defensive lineman, also out of Oregon, with the seventh selection in that draft. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected 6-3, 273-pound defensive lineman Solomon Thomas out of Stanford with the third selection in the draft — a pick that has not exactly lived up to the hype but still has a role on this squad.

The foundation was already in place for a very youthful, long, and talented defensive front; which brings us to 2019’s draft where the 49ers selected one of the best pass rushers to ever come out of the draft at second overall in Nick Bosa from Ohio State. This is a lot of draft capital for a similar position group, but all of these players have different styles - styles that are all effective. Linebacker Fred Warner inexplicably fell to the 49ers in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Combine this drafting with a very judicious use of free agency by signing linebacker Kwon Alexander from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then executing an incredibly smart trade with the Chiefs by acquiring Dee Ford after he had a 13-sack season, which he followed up with a 6.5 sack season in his first year in the Bay Area. Add a few more role players to fill the gaps on the team and the 49ers found themselves an effective squad that is coached by the right man.

All this talk about the 49ers effective, and youthful, defense has me looking at the Giants, who could be looking at a lot of change in the next coming months along this defensive front. With Patrick Graham coming in as defensive coordinator we may see some new faces. I’m not convinced that Kareem Martin or Alec Ogletree will be back, and Markus Golden may have played his way out of the Giants’ price range, given what the market dictates for him after a very good season in New York. I hope the Giants will retain Leonard Williams as his ability to generate pressure from the interior should be a big part of what this team needs moving forward.

Above, watch what Buckner does on this play. He uses his lateral agility, combined with a powerful club/rip, to gain the edge on stud rookie Elgton Jenkins (74) of the Green Bay Packers. Buckner flushes Aaron Rodgers out of the pocket and allows Bosa to come off of his block to earn the sack. At this moment, and given the circumstances of the teams’ current rosters, Buckner is a more effective player than Williams, but there are similarities. Buckner is a taller, better mover than Williams, with 99th percentile hand size, which is more than evident in this clip, but let us not detract from Williams’s skill set. Williams can move well for a 300-plus pound individual, he has longer arms than Buckner, big hands, can bend at the waist through contact, and does have the ability to win against the run and pass at a consistent enough level, just like Buckner. I still detest trading the third-round pick for an impending free agent, but Williams’s future with this team can be bright, and he does provide a much different skill set, and profile, than the other defensive tackles on the Giants roster.

The Giants defensive front is a unit that consists of a lot more beef, which is advantageous when defending the interior gaps and stopping an inside rushing attack, especially in short-yardage situations, but we have seen it exposed by teams that ran outside zone with decisive running backs (i.e. Week 5 vs Minnesota and Week 9 against Dallas). Nevertheless, the Giants’ run defense finished the season strong, despite ranking 20th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The juxtaposition of the two squad’s defensive line is interesting; both have talent, although the 49ers have more of it, but the personnel of the fronts is interesting. Here is a list of the sizes of the personnel:


LDE: Arik Armstead, 6-7, 292; Dee Ford, 6-2, 252.

LDT: Sheldon Day, 6-1, 293; Solomon Thomass, 6-3, 273; Earl Mitchell, 6-2, 296.

RDT: DeForest Buckner, 6-7, 295; Kevin Givens, 6-1, 285.

RDE: Nick Bosa, 6-4, 266: Anthony Zettel, 6-4, 277.

There are no 300-pound defensive linemen on this front. They use speed, quickness, and length, yet they generate enough push at the point of attack to halt rushing attacks. San Francisco finished 11th on the year in rushing yards per game, allowing 104. Some of that is game flow dependent, but the squad still does an excellent job holding their own in short-yardage situations. Let’s look at how the Giants defensive line measures:


DE: Leonard Williams, 6-5, 302; BJ Hill. 6-3, 311; RJ McIntosh, 6-4, 283.

NT: Dexter Lawrence 6-4, 342; Chris Slayton, 6-4, 307.

DE: Dalvin Tomlinson, 6-3, 318.

EDGE: Markus Golden, 6-3, 260; Lorenzo Carter, 6-5, 250; Oshane Ximines, 6-4, 252.

The base defenses of the 49ers and Giants are different, but teams spend more time in nickel/dime sub-packages. This can contribute to some of the differences in measurables between the two squads, but these numbers are pretty drastic. The 49ers do not have a player on the defensive line who weighs more than 300 pounds, according to Ourlads and ESPN. The Giants have four such players above 300 pounds who are on a pretty consistent rotation, and one can argue that this is the strength of the Giants defense. Does the unit being big make them a liability? Absolutely not. The Giants are stout up front and these bigger players are very talented athletes for their size, but they’re still susceptible to outside runs to the field and lateral runs that stretch the defense and force the linebackers to scrape and read. This also isn’t helped by the EDGE group being so raw and unproven. Markus Golden may not be returning and the team may have played themselves out of a chance to draft Chase Young, so who is the true number one pass rusher on the Giants? Is it an interior guy like Leonard Williams? Maybe, but that’s not ideal.

The 49ers are built around converting speed to power and doing enough upfront to allow the linebackers to read, react, and attack downhill. These linebackers, Alexander, Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, flow over the top of this line to execute their run fits quickly and decisively. They don’t necessarily need 340-pound linemen to clog holes and hold up blockers because the line possesses the talent, lateral quickness, and speed. These players execute their assignments with the correct leverage and they maintain gap discipline.

The Giants have a strong core of big defensive linemen in Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson, and Hill, but the EDGE position is concerning, and the linebackers leave a lot to be desired. Mayo is a solid player against the run and Connelly played well in his limited duty, but Ogletree has been a liability. As currently constructed, there are too many holes upfront for this Giants team to compete at a playoff level. There’s talent, but only consistent talent in one area. The Giants are also lacking the backend talent the 49ers possess; Julian Love, DeAndre Baker, and Sam Beal have promise and Jabrill Peppers is a good alley defender coming up against the run, but the pass defense is still a huge question mark.

If the question is posed - how far off is the New York Giants defense from building something comparable to the 49ers, the answer would be pretty far off. That blueprint is in the rudimentary stage. There is a silver lining though, turnarounds happen quickly in the NFL. The Giants must upgrade all the positions around the defensive front, which will maximize the entire defense. The development of DeAndre Baker, Oshane Ximines, Ryan Connelly, and Lorenzo Carter is essential, as is bringing in new talent to compete and even some free agents. The Giants must add a prominent edge rusher that can be the true number one pass rusher for the defense, but sadly those pass rushers do not grow on trees. This will extract the most value out of Leonard Williams and also help Carter and Ximines. All three of these players will be forced to have one on one matchups if a player like Yannick Ngakoue comes to New York, or, if the Giants can only be so lucky, Chase Young falls to their pick at 4. The Linebackers must be addressed and I feel it’s been a gigantic hole for the Giants for quite some time. There’s no doubt the Giants have a long way to go, but they possess a lot of cap room and Gettleman has done well drafting in the past. We can hope the process can be expedited, but as currently constructed, the Giants defense has a ways to go.