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How the Giants defensive identity might change in 2021

PFF breaks down tendencies from last season

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Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus recently released a compilation of specific defensive schemes that were used in 2020. Galina did a great job analyzing all 32 teams based on their coverage, efficiency, and third-down tendencies. Here’s Galina’s breakdown of the New York Giants 2020 defense:

2020 Defensive Pass Efficiency Rank: 11
2020 Defensive Rush Efficiency Rank: 15
2020 Base Coverage: Cover 3 and Cover 2
2020 Third-Down Mentality: Sit back and play Cover 3 and Cover 1

Last season was a tale of two halves for Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. In the first eight weeks of the season, New York ranked 15th in defensive efficiency, posting a barely positive EPA (Expected Points Added) allowed per play mark (.056). But in the back half of the season, the unit slotted in at seventh-best, producing a negative EPA allowed per play mark (-0.040).

The Giants’ third-down defense improved by leaps and bounds in that same split, going from 23rd to 10th in EPA allowed per play. Graham cut down on some blitzing and played a ton less Cover 1, with the unit’s third-down rate dropping by 11 percentage points. Instead, he opted to sit in zone coverage and let everything play out in front of his defense.”

The tale of two halves that Galina demonstrates through the numbers is accurate. Patrick Graham quickly realized that the Giants secondary may not be apt for a large quantity of man coverage calls. Against Pittsburgh in Week 1, James Bradberry was in man coverage for 44.4 percent of the snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

The sub-package players were in man coverage for 50 percent of the snaps in that loss to the Steelers. Against Chicago in Week 2, Bradberry was in man coverage 33.3 percent of the time. If we average the man coverage of Bradberry through the first three weeks of the 2020 NFL season, the Giants end up with man coverage 41.3 percent of the time.

One reason for the lower rank in first-half efficiency was due to more man coverage calls that led to more offensive coordinators targeting the second boundary cornerback spot. Between Isaac Yiadom and Ryan Lewis, the Giants struggled to hold up in coverage, especially on third down.

Galina covers the topic and writes about how Graham stopped sending the five-man pressure package and relied on the twist/stunt game for pressure, while also running significantly less man coverage. The Giants were a Cover 3 team that could roll coverage away from Bradberry and towards the other cornerback.

The Giants also employed a lot of inverted Cover 2, or Cover 2 Robber, down the stretch of the season. This led to an important Alex Smith interception that sealed the second Giants victory over Washington, while also being a big reason why the Giants defeated the Seattle Seahawks on the road.

New York would confuse offenses with their split safety looks and the personnel is versatile enough to allow Graham to show pre-snap looks that end up confounding quarterbacks after the snap. Cornerbacks would assume deep half responsibilities and safeties would drop to robber roles to trap - this was difficult for some quarterbacks to decipher.

The fundamentals that are stressed ad nauseam by this Joe Judge-coached squad also helped with zone coverage. The Giants allowed checkdowns in front and rarely would surrender much YAC while in a zone; the team did an excellent job rallying to the football and making strong tackles.

According to SIS, the Giants ran man coverage 23 percent of the time by the season’s end, a precipitous from the early season coverages. The Giants ranked 26th in the league in man coverage calls. They would still run some Cover 1 in third down and short situations. The adjustments that Graham made through the year speaks to his coaching philosophy and his adjustment ability - he wasn’t trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

At mini-camp last week, Graham spoke about the importance of running man coverage, which was a big part of his Dolphins’ 2019 defense.

“I know we didn’t play a ton of man last year but we picked spots to play man. Again, like those guys last year, they did a good job of what we asked them to do. Like we mixed up more zone and then we had man in the pass. But again, I don’t know what the recipe is going to be for this year yet,” Graham said. “But I don’t want to be disrespectful of the guys that were here last year that aren’t here. I mean, Adoree’ [Jackson] brings another element, Aaron Robinson, Darnay [Holmes], they bring another element to it. Will we probably be in more man? Possibly.

“But it’s always good to have that problem, so we are going to try to do what’s best for that game, that game plan. But you need to play man-to-man coverage in this league, period, point-blank and obviously six wins last year, we didn’t do enough on defense, so the hell with that; we are looking at all options, whether it’s the blitz more, blitz less, play less zone, play more man, we need a whole lot of options. Six wins is not going to cut it.”

The Giants defense was far from the problem in 2020, but the team still put a priority on upgrading their pass coverage by adding several EDGE rushers and bringing in more coverage defenders. The addition of Adoree’ Jackson and Aaron Robinson should help this team run more man coverage.

Azeez Ojulari, Elerson Smith, Ifeadi Odenigbo, as well as the return of Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines should give the Giants more pressure in their four-man rush packages. This should, theoretically, make it easier on the secondary in man coverage who are tasked to stick to a receiver and not allow him to separate - the less time to cover, the less time to separate.

Graham initially attempted to run more man coverage, and, when it wasn’t working early in the season, he pivoted to a more zone-oriented approach which led to bigger plays in key situations, while not surrendering explosive plays. I expect Graham to still employ zone coverage, Cover 3, looks, but I also think the coverage package will be more diverse. Graham can trust this personnel more than the 2020 personnel, and they have more options at safety and cornerback if some of the players tend to struggle.

The X’s and O’s are married to the Jimmies and Joes, and the defense received more capable players to assist in the diversification of coverages. Graham was able to configure a respectable defense out of less desirable personnel, and an inefficient offense that required the defense to play an increased amount of snaps. Hopefully, the offense can possess the ball a bit more in 2021 which will allow the defense more rest time, and more time to discuss in-game adjustments. With Graham’s tutelage, play calling, and the new personnel additions that can allow for more effective coverage, the Giants’ defense can take a leap from a respectable 2020 defense to one of the top defenses in the league.