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Film study: Giants safety Jabrill Peppers taking steps forward

Nick Falato shows improvements in Peppers’ game

NFL: SEP 20 Giants at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jabrill Peppers was a major asset that was acquired in the controversial Odell Beckham Jr. trade in March of 2019. Peppers had an adequate first season with New York until it was cut short by a back injury in week 12. However, 2020 has been a big step for the 25-year-old safety, and he is now an integral part of Patrick Graham’s versatile defense.

After realizing the personnel was too exploitable for full-time man coverage, Graham switched to a more zone-based team that plays a lot of Cover 3 as a base coverage. Peppers is tasked to execute a variety of key roles in both the running and passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, Peppers has lined up 227 times in the box, 128 times at slot corner, 83 times at free safety, 39 times on the line of scrimmage, and 21 times as a wide cornerback.

The alignment suggests versatility, but the responsibilities that Graham assigns to Peppers showcase just how trustworthy and reliable the former Michigan Wolverine is now in his 4th season. Against the run, Peppers excels as the alley defender, primary force defender, secondary force defender, and he’s done a much better job securing tackles in open space this season. His instinct to read his keys and aggressively come downhill into the alley is one of the many reasons why the Giants’ rush defense is so formidable.

Being a force/contain defender versus the run in a Cover 3 Buzz, or any Cover 3 for that matter, requires decisive decision making and incredible athletic ability. Peppers is coming along with his decisiveness, albeit there’s still room to grow, but the athletic ability of that force defender to drop to his zone after a play fake must be well above average. There are play variations where Kyler Fackrell is the force defender to the boundary, and he has to drop to the flats quickly on passing plays, which is not ideal. To the field though, Peppers does the same (although this isn’t exclusive and personnel is fluid).

Peppers is the secondary force defender to the field, at the apex. Watch how he jams the receiver and quickly accelerates underneath the route of Terry McLaurin to force a high pass from Kyle Allen that went incomplete. It may not seem like much, but this flat defender to the field has to be so quick and athletic, and Peppers possesses those necessary traits:

These are his athletic measurables relative to linebackers who used to be more prevalent as these curl/flat defenders. In today’s NFL, teams are looking for more hybrid types of defenders — a player just like Jabrill Peppers.

His athleticism also helps with disguised blitzing and pressure packages. Since Peppers lines up on the line of scrimmage, he can show blitz and still have the quickness to get to his zone. That same quickness and alignment can be combined to harass quarterbacks when he is given the green light to blitz. This ability allows Graham to call timely blitzes that may look similar to safer defenses’ that quarterbacks’ “saw” earlier in the game.

The curl/flat to the field is one of the many hats Peppers wears well in this defense, and it’s vital to the continuity of a Cover 3 defense. While the buzz defender is typically Logan Ryan, Peppers has shown that ability this season too. Peppers has the athleticism to drop to the deep half in the inverted Cover 2 that the Giants have been running the last few weeks. Peppers also plays middle zone well and is excellent at driving down on underneath routes. He’s done a solid job playing man coverage on tight ends. He surrendered the one touchdown against running back Boston Scott, where his technique was openly criticized by defensive backs’ coach Jerome Anderson. He also has 3 passes defensed and an interception.

Run support

Peppers looks faster than his 4.46 speed when he’s in pursuit, and he does such a good job expanding the running backs’ path wide due to this speed and excellent technique.

The Cowboys get creative and use an end around to Amari Cooper (19), but Peppers wasn’t fooled. Peppers patience and diagnosing skills are better in 2020, especially against the run. This is great for Peppers, who already possesses excellent pursuit skills and good tackling technique. He avoids the majority of the first block and out runs the lead blocking tight end to cut the angle of Cooper off and make an aggressive tackle.

Philadelphia employs a zone read play with backup quarterback Jalen Hurts (2). Kyler Fackrell bites down on the handoff to Boston Scott (35), leaving Hurts one-on-one with Peppers in space. Watch Peppers at the mesh point replace Fackrell, squat down in a tackling stance with his arms out, and just patiently wait for Hurts to make his move. Once Hurts keeps the ball, Peppers keeps his shoulders square, gets to the outside portion of Hurts to box him inside, and then makes another low tackle. Excellent technique.

Here’s another impressive rep against a zone read type of run from tight end Logan Thomas (82). Fackrell does a good job crashing inside and taking out the pulling backside guard. Peppers is put into a position where he has to choose which defender to eliminate; get sucked too far inside, then J.D. McKissic (41) has nothing but space. Peppers allows Thomas to feel comfortable keeping the ball, but Peppers’ athleticism shines. He quickly diagnoses the keep and swings inside to make an aggressive tackle for a loss. The next two plays aren’t necessarily running plays, but they showcase Peppers open field tackling ability:

Tampa Bay attempts to set up a screen to the field side where Peppers is the curl/flat defender. Peppers takes such a smart path to attack Leonard Fournette (28) in space. He gets to his depth and widens when he starts attacking downhill. By doing this, the lead blockers from the Buccaneers could never get in front of Fournette. Peppers sets up outside, forcing Fournette back inside towards rallying defenders, and then makes the impressive open field tackle while avoiding an offensive linemen with momentum.

This isn’t a screen, but it’s a short pass to the flat where Ronald Jones II (27) has a lot of space. Peppers uses excellent technique once again; squares his shoulders, lowers his base, sets up outside forcing Jones inside, and then makes a strong low wrap up tackle. When variations of Cover 3 are being run, a team needs a quick, two-way, type of player that is not a tackling liability - Peppers is far from that.

Peppers does a very good job filling off the edge. He avoids the blocking attempt of Mike Evans (13) and finds Fournette in the backfield with ease. He’s seeing through all the trash, feels the blocking attempt, slides around, and locates the running back while looking effortless.

He has a knack for beating blockers because of his quickness and we can see that above against Dallas. The two tight ends are double teaming Markus Golden (44) and it’s their responsibility to come off the double team when the second-level defender presents himself, but Peppers never really gives the tight ends that opportunity. Peppers sees the blocks, finds the hole, sets up outside, and flies into a tackling position to secure the tackle on Ezekiel Elliot (21) for minimal gain.

Peppers gets the best of Mike Evans again in this short-yardage situation. The Giants defensive line got an impressive push at the line of scrimmage to force the loss of yardage, but it was Peppers ability to penetrate and deliver the cherry on top for the defense that really stopped Fournette in his tracks. Peppers stays tight to David Mayo (55), lowers his center of gravity, and battles through the traffic to hit Fournette forcing the field goal on third-and-1, which gives Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense a chance to win.

Here we see Peppers from the center of the field come down and punish Fournette on a power/gap run to the outside. Fackrell does a good job meeting the first puller tight to the line of scrimmage in the backfield, but Mayo fails to execute his assignment, which gives Fournette the ability to break into space. Peppers takes a great angle outside and makes the tackle. The closing speed of the young safety is a very impressive trait that shows up on film every week.

Blake Martinez (54) does a very good job scraping over the top of blockers to help Peppers here, but watch how 21 sees the counter run, gets into position to make a tackle, lowers his body to help avoid the lead blocker, and then hits the running back low to assist Martinez with the tackle. Again, processing has improved and the physicality is still elite.

Here’s a similar counter run with a different look. Peppers is the strong side linebacker. He reads the counter, replaces Fackrell who goes a bit upfield, sets up about a half-yard behind the line of scrimmage to keep the path narrow while establishing outside leverage to allow Martinez to scrape over top and make a tackle. Peppers also goes low on the lead blocker and creates the traffic to assist with the tackle.

Peppers has also made a lot of tackles as a backside pursuit defender, which is mostly due to hustle, understanding of angles, and his sure tackling ability. Bears run outside zone and Peppers waits for the backside guard to engage in the double team before he goes underneath the block and makes another impressive tackle.

Pass defense

Against 2x2 and 3x1 sets, Peppers has done well establishing inside leverage and forcing receivers outside. He closes width with speed and is disruptive at the catch point. These next three clips are all man coverage:

Peppers is on tight end Logan Thomas. Peppers jams Thomas, gets on his inside hip, allows no separation, and then timely gets his hands into Thomas’ catch point to force an incompletion.

Peppers sets up inside on the No. 3 receiver again on the deep horizontal cross. Peppers senses the cross, closes on the receiver’s inside hip, flips his own hips, opens his stride, stays in phase, gets his head around, and forces Tom Brady to throw a low pass away from his coverage.

Peppers is on the backside receiver Logan Thomas while Washington is in a 3x1 BUNCH set. He’s aligned inside of Thomas and waits for the commitment inside before he limits the space. Once Thomas starts his drag, Peppers attacks the outside hip, keeps his hands on Thomas, eyes on Brady, and he doesn’t allow the receiver to create any separation. Thomas uses his big frame to almost come down with the football, but Peppers gets his hand into the catch point to force the incompletion.

This is a man coverage rep from the apex defender spot on shifty wide receiver Scottie Miller (10). The Giants show zone pre-snap, but the field side runs man coverage and Peppers runs stride for stride with Miller, cutting off the receivers’ angle to the sideline. Peppers gets inside of the route and whips his head, and arm, around at the last second to take away the back-shoulder throw. A very aware, and athletic, play from Peppers who seems to be playing much better in man coverage this year.

Peppers surrenders a catch in man coverage against the king of push offs, Mike Evans. Watch the technique of Peppers against the main receiver for Tampa Bay; he’s inside and starts his backpedal while watching Evans’ hips. Evans acts as if he’s running a deep horizontal cross and Peppers was in an excellent position to undercut and eliminate that route. Peppers is about to flip his hips before Evans hits him with a hard push off and turns the route into a curl. The positioning on the route was solid, and it seems Peppers’ reactionary quickness is much improved from last year, which assists his man coverage ability.

I’ve seen some mistakes this season in terms of reading route combinations, but he’s come along as the seasons progressed. We see him in zone coverage above. Eagles are in a 3x1 set, Peppers is on Dallas Goedert (88). His back is to the sideline and he’s dropping deep. He stays on top of Goedert’s out route and sinks his hips on the break, which doesn’t allow Goedert any space, but I love how Peppers keeps his eyes through the field to the strength. He sees the deep horizontal cross coming from the No. 3 receiver, so he looks to undercut the route and protect his deep portion of the field, showing good field and route awareness.

When playing deep half in cover 2 or 2 man under type of schemes, Peppers continues to show that he can come downhill and be a sure tackler from those two high positions. David Mayo does a very poor job slowing Rob Gronkowski (87) down and then fails to get any depth off the play fake. Peppers is the boundary safety and he sees Gronkowski break away from the linebackers before coming down aggressively and making a sure low tackle on the future Hall of Famer.

Peppers might have saved the first win against the Football Team with this excellent diagnosing ability and reaction to the delayed release from Dontrelle Inman (80). Peppers sees the release and already starts taking the angle to cut Inman off before he can break open near the sticks. This play forced a field goal which helped lead to the Giants win.

One thing that may expose Peppers from time to time is his overzealous nature in terms of aggressiveness. It’s a part of his nature, but it can lead to some blown coverages.

Washington runs an excellent fake screen to the field and Peppers bites down hard and allows The Football Teams’ receiver to run right past him for a large gain. I feel Peppers is better with this in 2020 as well, but it’ll still happen from time to time.

Blitzing

These are the two sacks that Peppers has accrued on the season:

There’s a relentless nature to Peppers as a blitzer which meshes very well with what Patrick Graham wants to do in certain pressure packages. He blitzes Peppers through the interior parts of the line, and also blitzes him a bit more often on the edge. Graham loves to bring that extra rusher off the edge, whether it’s Peppers, Darnay Holmes, or Logan Ryan.

Final Thoughts

Peppers continues to develop and is now having his best professional season in Patrick Graham’s defense. He is a two way hybrid player who excels as an alley defender, and is solid in coverage. The combination of Xavier McKinney and Peppers could be a longtime versatile duo of skilled second-level defenders who keep offenses on their toes, but we’ll have to wait for McKinney’s career to finally commence. As for Peppers, he’s under contract on the fifth-year option next year. I believe an injury to Peppers changes the complexion of the defense. If he can stay healthy and continue to ascend, the Giants may have to re-sign the talented young safety.