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Midseason review: Giants’ defense finally rounding into its 2020 form

After slow start, Giants are playing more to expectation on defense

Las Vegas Raiders v New York Giants Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The New York Giants defense was anointed as a possible top-five unit heading into the 2021 season, rightfully so after a stirring late-season performance in 2020. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham produced career years from several of his defenders, and the 2020 Giants won games that were primarily attributed to the defense.

The defense did not pick up where they left off in the early stages of 2021. It allowed a touchdown to conclude the first half in six straight weeks. Offensive coordinators found ways to manipulate the Giants’ match coverages on the backend. There were communication mishaps, players were losing 1-on-1 matchups in man coverage, and the generation of pressure was inconsistent.

Questions about Graham’s ability to adjust his defense to counter opposing offenses began to be whispered. When the Giants hosted the Carolina Panthers in Week 7, though, New York’s defense terrorized Sam Darnold and the Panthers’ offense and won the game, 25-3.

”Yeah, but it was the Panthers,” was a common theme in the following week. A theme that made sense; up to that point, the Giants’ defense proved little with formulating consistent effective play in 2021.

Next, the Giants traveled to Arrowhead Stadium to play Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 8. Kansas City is an explosive offense that was, and still is, underperforming. Although the Chiefs are not playing their best football, the Giants’ secondary was all over wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.

The Giants pressured Mahomes 22 times - their third-highest pressure count on the season. The Giants had a lot of success with their 2-Man Double Buzz defensive look, a scheme they also used quite often against the Raiders.

We see the Giants in man coverage against a 3x1 set with both defensive backs setting outside of Hill and Kelce at the snap (outside leverage, forcing inside). Both safeties play the crossing routes from Hill and Kelce, Keion Crossen spies Mahomes, and the Giants have man coverage all over the field while only sending three rushers. New York has run several variations of this play down in the red zone; it’s one reason why they’re bend, don’t break.

The Giants drop eight again against this 3x1 set on a third-and-3 inside the 10-yard line. We see man coverage with Logan Ryan playing the inside breaking route from the one receiver side. Reggie Ragland plays the possible flat release from Kenyan Drake; once the running back goes inside, he passes the route to Ryan and spies Carr. The Giants bracket Hunter Renfrow to the three-receiver side. New York gets pressure with their three-man rush, and Carr can’t connect on the 1-on-1 matchup to Darren Waller against James Bradberry.

Here is a similar look in a tight 2x2 set on a third-and-6. It’s man coverage; both safeties play the goal line in the middle of the field. Again, the Giants send only three and spy Carr. The Giants were trusting their cornerbacks to win against their assignments outside in man coverage.

The execution of this concept in the red zone has allowed the Giants to force field goals in recent weeks, giving their rather ineffectual offense a chance to compete in football games.

Statistics

The better defensive play reflects in the season-long statistics; on the season, the Giants allow 24.0 points per game which ranks 18th in the league. Through the last three games, they allow an average of 13 points which ranks first in the NFL.

The bend don’t break nature of the defense gives the opposing offense solid yardage totals - the Raiders went north of 400 yards on Sunday. New York allows 372 yards per game on the year, 22nd in the league. Over the last three games, the defense has allowed 314 yards per game, eighth-best in the NFL.

The Giants’ pass defense ranks 19th in the NFL on the season with an average of 249 yards allowed per game; they’ve allowed an average of, giving up 122 yards per game. During the last three games, the are allowing 93 yards per contest.

We have to look at their previous three opponents to see the actual validity of this three-game progression. The Chiefs and Raiders average 24 points per game, ranking 15th and 16th in the NFL, while the Panthers average 19 points per game, ranking 26th in the NFL.

The Raiders and Chiefs are also back-to-back in offensive yards per game. Las Vegas averages 394 yards per game and the Chiefs average 393 yards per game - sixth and seventh in the NFL, respectively. However, Carolina ranks 27th in the NFL with an average of 318 yards per game.

It’s not unreasonable to say the Giants benefited from their opponent’s misfortunes, but I wouldn’t classify their recent success as circumstantial.

Yes, Carolina’s offense is abysmal, and Sam Darnold shouldn’t be a starting NFL quarterback. It’s also true that the Chiefs offense is playing poorly relative to the talent they possess. Although the Raiders were coming off the BYE week, it’s safe to assume the loss of Henry Ruggs III was both emotionally taxing and schematically unfortunate for the Raiders’ offensive identity.

These elements should be factored into this equation, but the Giants have won two of their last three games. The defense isn’t having the same issues that plagued it earlier in the year. The coverage is tighter, the pressure rate is higher, and the defense certainly playing more as a unit rather than a bunch of individual defensive players. The pass rush is married to the coverage, and they’re playing much more like the complete defense we hoped to see heading into this season.

Advanced statistics

One element of the Giants’ 2020 defense that may have been under-appreciated was their ability to be a sure tackling unit. In 2020, the Giants only had 97 missed tackles on the year, 10th-best in the NFL. Through the first nine games, the Giants have 63, which ranks sixth in total missed tackles. It’s not a huge discrepancy in numbers, but one that seemed noticeable in the film.

The pressure rate of the Giants defense has fallen from 2020 to 2021. Last season, the Giants ranked 10th in pressure rate with a 25.5 percent clip on all quarterback drop backs. They’re bottom five this season with an 18.9 percent pressure rate.

Over the last three weeks, however, the Giants have had a total of 68 pressures, with Leonard Williams accounting for 16 of them. According to Pro Football Focus, the Giants rank 23rd in pass rushing grade. They have a total of 152 pressures through nine games - they had 273 last season.

The Giants ranked 12th in sacks last season with 40 - they currently rank 15th with 19-sacks. Their blitz percentage has stayed relatively the same from 2020; last season, it was 26.9 percent, and now it’s at 25.3 percent this season.

There was quite a bit of speculation that the additions of Adoree’ Jackson, Aaron Robinson, and a healthy Xavier McKinney may lead to this Giants’ defense employing more man coverage. Theoretically, that could be the case since Robinson missed most of the year, but Graham is, once again, finding success with his zone match defense.

New York ranks in the bottom five of man coverage percentage. They only run man 17.2 percent of the time. It’s frequently used on third-and-short situations, and, as we noted earlier, when they’re down in the red zone with two safeties buzzing to rob the seams in the middle of the field.

Safety usage

The presence of Xavier McKinney at safety has led to more versatility when Graham does employ man coverage concepts. Against the Raiders and Chiefs, Graham used a lot of apex blitzes, with McKinney tasked to cover the No. 2 receiver from a depth of 15 yards.

McKinney’s ability to stay square to his target, click and close downhill, and use superior instincts and athletic ability allow him to be trusted in this creative manner. The Giants ran this play several times on Sunday. The Raiders eventually adjusted to the coverage that is often disguised as two-high, middle of the field open, right before the snap.

We see the quick adjustment by Carr to find Hunter Renfrow for a short gain. Graham uses a lot of variety on the backend of his defense to keep the quarterback guessing. There were several plays where McKinney dropped to a deep half responsibility or robbed the seam in a middle of the field closed look. As long as the blitz is disguised well by the apex defender, Darnay Holmes in this instance, then quarterbacks can be baited into the mistake of trying to squeeze a football past McKinney - see the previous play.

McKinney has also been used to carry vertical routes from the No. 3 position in 3x1 sets deep. He did this successfully against Tyreek Hill, and he was asked to cover the running back out to the flat from depth. His versatility allows Graham the freedom to call a lot of different coverages.

Graham uses Logan Ryan as a trap defender on inside breaking routes quite often as well. This play didn’t exactly work out for the Giants, but I like the idea.

Ryan is the strong safety in a Cover-6 look pre-snap. At the snap, he opens his hips outside and acts like he’s taking his deep-half role, but he keeps his eyes on Darren Waller as the No. 2 receiver in the 2x2 set. It ends up being a three-deep look with Ryan baiting the No. 2 receiver in the middle of the field. Once Carr hits his back foot, Ryan darts directly to Waller’s upfield hip. Carr doesn’t bite, and he’s patient to allow Waller to work open while taking a big shot from Quincy Roche. A lesser quarterback makes this throw, and the Giants could come away with a turnover.

The Giants cornerback play has also improved. James Bradberry has made several big plays this season, but he’s also struggled against receivers like Washington’s Terry McLaurin and Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb. They may not be perfect on the season, but the tandem of Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson gives me a lot of hope. Jackson has quietly been good this season - he’s rarely out of phase, executes better technique than I expected, and has some big plays in key spots. I just wish he hung onto a few more footballs. Darnay Holmes has also done well after being benched for Rodarius Williams after Week 2.

Azeez Ojulari has played well all season, and fellow rookie Quincy Roche has done an excellent job replacing the injured Lorenzo Carter. Roche has earned himself a significant role with this defense when everyone’s healthy. Dexter Lawrence continues to be a force in the middle of the defense; he’s a clutch run defender whose upfield burst meshes well with the Giants T/E stunts, which is usually paired with Williams, who continues to be a very good two-way player.

Role players like Austin Johnson and Julian Love have also flashed play-making ability in multiple spots. Johnson isn’t Dalvin Tomlinson, but he’s generally done well as a run defender (just don’t watch his two reps against Trey Smith in Kansas City). He’s also added value as a pass rusher. Love came away with a big interception on a tipped pass in Kansas City, but he also continues to be used all over the second-level. The loss of Jabrill Peppers is unfortunate, but the Giants’ depth behind Peppers — with Love and Aaron Robinson — helps them when these terrible injuries happen.

Final thoughts

Patrick Graham’s defense is starting to come into form. The usage of McKinney and Ryan on the backend is unpredictable and well disguised. The four-man pressure package of the Giants is filled with T/E and E/T STUNTS, with some linebackers also applying pressure from the second level.

The loss of Blake Martinez was devastating. Linebackers Tae Crowder, Reggie Ragland, and Benardrick McKinney have, collectively, been adequate without Martinez, but replacing a talent like Martinez is difficult.

The Atlanta Falcons currently hold the seventh wildcard spot at 4-4 - I know, gross. The Giants did lose to Atlanta, but they’re now 3-6 and somehow within reach of that final spot. If this team makes a late-season push, it will more than likely have to be their defense that leads the way.