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Midseason review: Assessing Giants’ defense through 8 games

NFL: OCT 22 Giants at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The defense of the 2020 New York Giants has been a surprising unit led by the savvy defensive3 coordinator Patrick Graham. From the start of the offseason, the Giants lost cornerback DeAndre Baker to legal issues, cornerback Sam Beal to a COVID-19 opt out, second-round safety Xavier McKinney to a foot injury, rookie linebacker Tae Crowder to an injury, and both EDGE rushers, Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, to Injured Reserve.

With the rash of injuries, the ostensible lack of talent, and the ineffective consistency of the offense that leads to the defense playing far more snaps, one would summarize that Graham has all the excuses he needs for a sub-par defensive unit; But, to the contrary, the defense has been playing really well thanks to Graham’s coaching, a superior defensive line, and two key free agent signings, along with several players scratching the surface of their potential.

All offseason, we preached about Graham’s fluid third down defense that had second level defenders roaming the line of scrimmage, disguising their intentions until the snap occurred. We still see elements of that defense, and I believe the ascension of Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin may bring that back in a more frequent manner in obvious passing situations. The Giants tried this in Week 2 against the Bears and the pressure was non-existent, but Graham has adjusted and now uses Leonard Williams on the edge at times, while implementing long looping stunts, coffee-house stunts, and nickel blitzes in five-man pressure packages from the backside.

Despite the lack of presence in the EDGE department, the Giants still have 123 pressures through 8 weeks. For reference, Washington, with their stud pass rushers, only have 112, albeit they played one less game, but it goes to show that the 11 pressure difference is a fair comparison when looking at the apparent talent of the two squads. I don’t want to misconstrue the talent here, but applause must be applied to Graham and his ability to judiciously call blitzes, manipulate quarterbacks with back-end coverage looks, and call exotic stunts with four men while actually getting pressure with this personnel grouping.

Leonard Williams is a big contributor and he leads the team with 24 pressures. His versatility, length, competitive toughness, and pass rushing upside have helped the Giants a lot this season, and he’s still a very good run defender. However, I am interested to see how this Graham pressure package continues to unfold throughout the season with players like Jabaal Sheard and Trent Harris playing significant snaps.

The defense made multiple adjustments throughout the year and Graham has done a very good job adjusting in game. In week one against Pittsburgh, Graham employed a defense that featured heavy man coverage, something that Giants’ fans expected from his connections with Bill Belicheck and from what Graham did in Miami. The result of that coverage led to Ben Roethlisberger carving the Giants’ man coverage for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Pick, rub, and horizontal crosses were the death of the secondary in key spots.

Since that game, we have seen a much different defense. The Giants use a ton of 3-high, Cover 3, type of looks; the corners play outside leverage and funnel the receivers inside to the underneath defenders, deep safety, and, to the strength, the robber dropping down to eliminate inside breaking routes from the receivers.

There is a lot of spot drop and read the quarterback, and also a lot of zone match where the defenders are assigned a zone and they basically play man coverage when receiving threats come into their zone, and then pass receivers off to adjacent defenders when warranted. Blake Martinez, for all the flack he gets for lack of coverage ability, is important to this equation as a middle of the field defender who is tasked to sugar the A-Gap and bail quickly outside, cover the deep seam in Tampa Two looks, and be the middle hook rallying defender coming downhill on forced checkdowns. He wears a lot of hats in the middle of the defense.

The Giants run more middle of the field closed (MOFC) looks with a single high safety roving center field, but they do have middle of the field open (MOFO) plays they use. Last game against the Buccaneers, and in previous games, when in man coverage, the Giants tend to play 2 Man Under, if they’re not in the red zone. This allows corners inside of the divider lines to execute trail technique with help overtop which forces quarterbacks to use touch passes for completions. It also mitigates the risk of double moves burning corners, if there’s someone playing a deep half.

A coverage that isn’t as frequently used, but has appeared on tape, is the inverted Cover 2. The Giants will start in a MOFC look with a second safety dropping near the box; once the snap occurs, both corners bail towards their respective hashes, the middle of the field safety drops to be a buzz defender, and the box safety flies to the field side flat to take away that portion of the field.

The detail and slight differences to Graham’s coverages speak to his excellent football intelligence. Defensive play calls may seem the same, but are different depending on where certain receivers are aligned, the formation (2x2, 3x1 sets), and the down & distance. There’s a lot more quarter, quarter, half (Cover 6) against the 3x1 sets. The coverages are unique, yet simplified, and the most important thing about them is that they don’t take away from this team’s ability to execute in run support.

The combination of Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan, and I feel Xavier McKinney would be excellent here as well, allow Graham to call these coverages and not have to worry about giving the offense an advantage in the run. Peppers is a great alley defender who fills the B, C, and D-Gap aggressively and well when warranted. The defensive line does such a good job spilling the run to these outside defenders and allowing Blake Martinez to be a see ball, get ball, type of defender when the Giants run two gap.

The second cornerback position has been a big topic around Giants Twitter. Isaac Yiadom had his early struggles and I think he’s a liability in man coverage. I prefer Ryan Lewis, and he’s not an excellent option either, and he was just put on injured reserve. Yiadom filled in for Lewis against the Buccaneers and was solid; he had a nice recovery and pass break up. Lewis is good in zone, albeit he gave up the egregious catch to John Hightower which sprung the comeback by the Eagles. Neither of these players are long term solutions as of right now, but they’re both still young. I trust this defensive coaching staff, and defensive back coach Jerome Henderson to continue to groom and develop these players.

Darnay Holmes has been a pleasant upgrade over Grant Haley as the nickel back in coverage. The drop off in run support isn’t substantial and Holmes looks better every week. The defense missed him when he was injured which forced Ryan to play in the slot a bit more. Corey Ballentine hasn’t seen the defense since his struggles against the Eagles in week 7. Madre Harper has been the corner to fill in for Ballentine. Harper is a big, long, physical, corner and the Giants seem to want to get him involved. His head-scratching mistakes against the Eagles lacked discipline and the four snaps he received in the following week may be direct results of those infractions, and the presence of Holmes being back in the lineup.

Graham uses so many different personnel packages and fronts. A lot of tight, almost like a BEAR type of front, only with the strong side lineman in a 4i-Technique. There’s a lot of sub-packages and different types of fronts that he uses, which goes to show you that they’re not the typical “3-4” type of team. There certainly are more 3-4 aspects to the defense than 4-3, but Graham has used both. He uses 1-gap defenses and 2-gap defenses, and he has the personnel that can perform both at a high level up front.

The combination of Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Dalvin Tomlinson might as well be a wall up front. Offensive teams try to stretch them with wide zone, or pin them by running power to the C-Gap, but the outside defenders and the pursuit linebackers do a good job in clean up, if those three lineman can’t locate the ball carrier. In terms of rushing yards per game, the Giants rank 8th in the league right now, and that’s despite a few losing game scripts and a blowout loss to the 49ers.

Spell players like B.J. Hill and Austin Johnson have been playing well in their limited snaps. Hill has been winning at the point of attack and does a very good job attacking the half man as a pass rusher, and using his quickness/hand technique to shed and get upfield for penetration. Austin Johnson isn’t as quick as Hill, but he’s gap sound, solid at the point of attack, and has made a few really nice plays when he’s on the field. The strength of this team is on the defensive line, and I have little question that Hill could be a good starter, in the right situation, on another team.

Kyler Fackrell is a disciplined edge setting defender who isn’t fooled all that often. He plays with high intensity and is able to execute stunts well. He’s not a typical edge rusher that has a lot of bend or athletic ability, but he has crafty hands and does a solid job winning with counter moves. Speed up the edge of the arc is not his forte. I personally hope converted linebackers Brown and Coughlin can add new life to this position, and I think they will to an extent, but not to the level of what the Giants need. I am excited to see their development.

Teams have had more success using quick spacing concepts to move the football against New York; six yards here, 8 yards there. Offenses attempt to put the MOFC safety into conflict for shot plays, while also putting the flat defender to the field in conflict in 3-high defenses. Attacking the flat in Cover 3 type of defenses is a liability for the defense, but Graham has adjusted well to this every game. The Giants rank 23rd in the league in giving up passing yards.

The two free agent acquisitions, James Bradberry and Blake Martinez, have been astounding for this team. Bradberry has been one of the best corners in the league so far, and Blake Martinez is a tackling machine; he ranks No. 1 in the NFL in STOPS, a stat Pro Football Focus uses to determine negative plays. Martinez has 38 stops; the next closest player on the season is Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David with 33. Martinez is the fourth-ranked linebacker in terms of rush defense, and the 11th in terms of overall defense, according to PFF.

A return of McKinney would provide a lot more flexibility, lighter lineups that perhaps feature less Devonte Downs and David Mayo, and a more disguised look for who is dropping, blitzing, or covering certain areas. He’s another versatile piece that Graham can maximize. Overall, this defense is playing exceptionally well and it’s keeping a mediocre offense in games. Players like Martinez, Bradberry, Peppers, Holmes, and the defensive line are really solid building blocks. Decisions will have to be made in the offseason with impending free agents like Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Kyler Fackrell. Those are conversations for another day. If there’s one thing I take away from these 8 games on defense, it’s that I’m a big fan of Patrick Graham and this defensive coaching staff. I’m excited to see what they can do in the future wearing Blue.