The highlight of the Giants' 2020 season (to me, anyway) was the resurgence of the defense, due in large part to Patrick Graham's imaginative defensive schemes. Graham is one of a few defensive coordinators at the forefront of a revolution that has developed to counter the increased emphasis on the pass in today's NFL.
The old "base" 4-3-4 defense that many of us grew up with is slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, and even the traditional 3-4-4 that the Giants used for years is now less common. Defensive formations with more DBs and fewer DLs/LBs are now common. The "nickel" defense (5 DBs) is now standard in the NFL, with 4-2-5, 3-3-5, and 2-4-5 looks accounting for about 60% of all plays:
Here is how NFL defensive personnel groupings have changed across seasons.— Tom Bliss (@DataWithBliss) January 26, 2021
While the 4-3-4 (4 DL, 3 LBs, 4 DBs) was the most popular grouping in 2007, the 4-2-5 (4 DL, 2 LBs, 5 DBs) was the most popular grouping in 2020. As teams pass more, we see more DBs on the field. pic.twitter.com/2kJYOFA7Vo
The so-called "dime" defense (6 DBs) has been less popular, accounting for only about 10% of all plays, and mostly in 3rd down passing situations. In the above chart it has grown slightly in usage, especially in the past 5 years, but not dramatically. A new article in PFF suggests that this should change - dime defenses should become much more common because their shutdown of the passing game outweighs any degradation in defending the run:
The article shows that while you wouldn't want to do that against "heavy" offensive formations (21, 12 personnel), it has definite advantages in expected points added per play against 11 and 10 sets, and the author makes the case that dime packages should be used a lot more on 1st and 2nd downs. Over 2018-2020, dime packages on 1st and 2nd down produced lower passer rating and pass yards per attempt, and higher QB pressure rate than nickel packages. Yes, higher QB presure.
Giants DC Patrick Graham obviously knows this. He used dime defense on 20% of all plays in 2020:
Another reason the Giants invested heavily in Adoree Jackson, with Bradberry/Holmes/Peppers/Ryan/McKinney already under contract?— NYGfaninCLT (@clt_ny) April 8, 2021
They played 80% of defensive snaps with 5 or more DBs on the field (72% 1st Downs, 85% 2nd Downs, 90% 3rd Downs).
Graham relies on his DBs. pic.twitter.com/XTL451JfaJ
including 9% of 1st down and 20% of 2nd down plays.
This is something to look for even more in 2021, because our secondary has changed in three important ways: The signing of Adoree' Jackson, the health of Xavier McKinney, who only played a few games at the end of last season, and the drafting of Aaron Robinson. We can now put 6 quality DBs on the field at the same time: Bradberry, Jackson, Robinson, Ryan, McKinney, Peppers. Even 7 or 8, if we add Love and Holmes. The secondary is the strength of this team.
On the flip side, we are not as deep at DL with the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson, though I expect Shelton/Hill/Johnson to do an adequate job. In 2020, even with Tomlinson, Graham ran out only 2 or even 1 DLs 46% of the time according to the chart above, plenty of them 1st and 2nd down. So maybe more dime defense is part of the calculus of not trying to re-sign Tomlinson.
You wouldn't want to do this against every team. Last year, according to @clt_ny, we did it a lot more against big passing teams (47% Cincinnati, 39% Seattle, 29% in the second Dallas game; McKinney played in 2 of these), but only 14% against Baltimore and 9% against Cleveland. But against passing teams that run a lot of 11 personnel on offense, I can imagine Graham making dime our standard defense. Who runs 11 personnel a lot? Here are the 2020 stats:
Teams we play in 2021 who like 11: KC (73% of plays in 2020), LA Chargers (71%), Dallas (71%), Washington (67%, and now with Fitz), LA Rams (65%, and now with Stafford), Tampa Bay (63%), Denver (61%), Atlanta (61%), Philadelphia (59%), Carolina (57%), Chicago (56%), Miami (55%), New Orleans (54%), Las Vegas (50%). That's all 17 of our games. We play none of the 6 teams that ran 11 personnel less than half the time in 2020. Of course teams change from year to year, so these stats may change in 2021, but probably not a lot for the teams that play 11 the most.
Imagine us putting 6 quality DBs out there at once with LW, Dexy, and Azeez rushing the QB. The Giants' fortunes could turn on a dime this year.