As the New York Giants get ready for their Week 5 trip to London, we’re (about) a quarter way through the 2022 season.
Thanks to the NFL’s decision to expand the season to 17 games, we can’t easily divide the season into halves or quarters, but we can come close. We normally use these occasions to take a step back and take stock of where the team is, and that’s what we’ll be doing here.
What have we learned about the Giants’ defensive coaches, scheme, and the various position groups through the first four games of the season?
Coaching and scheme
In many ways, there were fewer questions regarding the Giants’ defense heading into the season than the offense — at least when it came to the scheme.
While we didn’t really know what the combination of Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka would yield, nor did we really know how they would mold their concepts to the Giants’ offensive personnel.
On the other hand, we knew that Wink Martindale would be aggressive. We knew he would make heavy use of man coverage and would blitz first, blitz second, and when in doubt, blitz some more. While we knew that Martindale’s defense would be similar to Patrick Graham’s in that it’s based on a 3-man front and be very “multiple” in its personnel groupings, the overall approach is very different.
Where Graham’s defense focused on keeping the play in front of them and allowing the opposing offense room to make mistakes, Martindale seeks to pressure offenses into making mistakes.
The Giants lead the NFL in blitz rate after four games, sending blitzes on 45.3 percent of passing plays. And while they’re only in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks, they are among the Top 10 in hurry rate (fifth, 11.7 percent), pressure rate (sixth, 27.7 percent), and QB knockdown rate (eighth, 11.3 percent).
The Giants facilitate their blitzes with an aggressive coverage scheme that makes uses of both man and zone concepts. They move their safeties all around the defensive formation, using Xavier McKinney, Julian Love, and Dane Belton interchangeably to help disguise assignments. They also often rotate coverages after the snap or even have edge defenders drop into shallow coverages to muddy quarterbacks’ reads and disguise pressure sources.
The Giants’ scheme is probably best disguised as a high-risk, high-reward defense. They consciously weaken their coverage in order to send pressure from unexpected locations and angles. That has meant that explosive plays have been available for opposing offenses, but so far only the Cowboys have been able to consistently take advantage of the fact.
For our purposes here I’m going to group the Giants’ defensive tackles and edge defenders together as the “defensive front”.
The Giants’ fluid use of personnel and alignment makes assigning discrete position designations a bit of a headache. For instance, 290-pound Jihad Ward is listed as an “outside linebacker” on the Giants’ official roster, but he’s as likely to play from a 3-point stance as a 2-point stance. And even when he is playing from a 2-point stance, his responsibilities much more closely resemble a defensive end than a classic linebacker.
So taken as a whole, the Giants’ defensive front has been solid and the strength of the defense through the first four games.
They were hit with injury just before the season, with Kayvon Thibodeaux spraining his MCL and Azeez Ojulari suffering a calf injury during the preseason. The Giants also lost Leonard Williams to an MCL injury during the team’s Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers. Because of those injuries, the Giants have had to make due with what they have along the line of scrimmage.
They have been stout up the middle, giving up little in the way of yardage on the ground between the tackles. The defensive front did struggle to contain runs to the edges, though that improved in Week 4.
Nick Williams and D.J. Davidson have stepped up in Williams’ absence, while Ward and Oshane Ximines were impressive while the Giants waited for Thibodeaux and Ojulari’s return. But the star of the show for the Giants’ defensive front has been Dexter Lawrence II.
Lawrence has emerged as one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the NFL over the first four weeks of the season. He had his coming out party in Week 4 against the Bears, but he has been a consistent presence in opponents’ backfields throughout the first quarter of the season. While he hasn’t been Aaron Donald through the first four weeks, he has consistently ranked among the top 10 defensive tackles in the NFL in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate metric.
Leonard Williams will be back at some point, while Thibodeaux and Ojulari will continue to settle into the new scheme. While the Giants face a tough slate of matchups over the next four games, it’s exciting to envision what the defensive front could become.
The Giants’ 2022 season started off with a shocking report that the team and middle linebacker Blake Martinez had come to a mutual decision to part ways. While Martinez had been a key cog in the Giants’ defense under Patrick Graham, his role was diminished in Wink Martindale’s defense. As we noted above, Wink’s propensity for putting defensive backs on the field largely comes at the expense of the linebackers.
To put into context just where the Giants’ off-ball linebackers (as opposed to their edge defenders) stand in the defense as a whole, only Tae Crowder has played more than a third of the potential defensive snaps. Meanwhile, Austin Calitro has played about a third and Micah McFadden about a quarter of the defense’s snaps.
Considering how few snaps most the Giants’ off-ball linebackers have played, we want to be careful making sweeping remarks on them. However, it’s fair to say that the situation is an interesting one, and there are likely a few reasons why the Giants’ linebackers have been used as they have.
The first factor is likely completely schematic. Given how reliant Martindale’s defense is on both effective coverage and disguising coverage, using extra defensive backs just makes sense. We’ll get more into the nuts and bolts of that in the next section, but we heard all off-season that Martindale favors using defensive backs, and we’re seeing that play out.
The second factor is that even with the depth concerns regarding the Giants’ secondary, the Giants’ DBs are just better than their off-ball linebackers. They’re more athletic, more versatile, and seem to be better options — at least thus far in the season.
Micah McFadden has flashed on defense, particularly when he’s allowed to flow to the ball in run support. But while the arrow is pointing up for McFadden, he’s obviously still a rookie. Austin Calitro earned his way onto the Giants’ 53-man roster with inspired play throughout the pre-season, however in the regular season he’s looked like the high-effort journeyman he has been throughout his career.
Crowder has, by far played the most snaps of the Giants’ linebackers. Unfortunately, he has also struggled for much of the 2022 season. He is missing tackles at the highest rate of his career, allowing more yards per completion, and the highest passer rating of his career. The good news is that it’s still early in the season and, as I said before, still a small sample size. It’s entirely likely that his play will improve as he continues to settle into Martindale’s scheme — and the arrow seems to be pointing up if his game against the Chicago Bears is any indication.
That said, even if linebackers aren’t heavily involved in Martindale’s scheme, right now it still looks as though the Giants could benefit from adding to the position going forward.
While the defensive front has been the Giants’ best unit, their defense is schematically driven by their secondary. We’ve known all along that the Giants would play aggressively in their secondary, and the first quarter of the season has confirmed that.
Interestingly, however, the Giants have played a more zone defense than we might have assumed based on the Giants’ preseason. The Giants have played a lower rate of Cover 1 than the average for the rest of the NFL, and while they’ve played more 2-Man than league average, they usually seem to be in Cover 2, 3, or 4 shells — or at least start the play that way.
That said, those zone defenses are hardly “off and soft”. The Giants make heavy use of coverage rotations to disguise pressure packages, as well as zone drops from Front Seven players (such as Oshane Ximines in the first two weeks). Those coverage rotations serve the dual purpose of slowing down opposing quarterbacks as they try to read the Giants’ defense, as well as create opportunities for schemed pressure.
Martindale’s defense makes heavy use of Nickel and Dime sub-packages to help facilitate those coverage rotations. The Nickel (five defensive back) defense has become the de facto base defense of the NFL, but even so, the Giants’ use it a lot. As mentioned above, the Giants’ linebacker play has been a problem through the first four games of the season. Part of the Giants’ solution (as mentioned above) has been to make frequent use of personnel packages with three safeties, three corners, or three of each.
Being able to move versatile corners and safeties around the second and third levels of the defense adds that much more for offenses to track. Having five or six versatile defensive backs who are able to play coverage, come downhill to play the run, or rush into the backfield has allowed the Giants to present opposing offenses with unique looks and work around their struggling linebacker corps. It isn’t a perfect solution — no defense is perfect — and the Giants’ reliance on defensive backs in place of linebackers puts a heavy burden on the defensive line to keep offensive linemen out of the second level.
The Giants’ core defensive backs — Adoree’ Jackson, Xavier McKinney, and Julian Love — have been stalwarts for the Giants and among their best players at any position.
The Giants’ depth at cornerback was a concern through the off-season and pre-season, and it’s remained so through the first four games. Aaron Robinson and Darnay Holmes have been an adequate in their roles. Holmes hasn’t been targeted much in the slot, and hasn’t given up many completions when he has been targeted. However, he has given up yardage when the ball is completed. Robinson can hardly be blamed for his absence in Weeks 2 and 3 after suffering appendicitis. His absence has given us a look at rookie Cor’Dale Flott and veteran Fabian Moreau. Flott’s quickness and agility were on display, but so too were the concerns about his stature and ability to stand up to physical receivers. He’s able to get in phase well, but receivers are able to fight through his coverage and he struggled to bring them down. Moreau barely saw the field in the first two weeks, but had a larger role against the Dallas Cowboys. Overall he hasn’t played much, but he has looked like the journeyman he is when he has played.
The Giants’ safeties have, in general, been much more reliable than their cornerbacks. Love, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise for the Giants as he steps into a full-time starting role. The former fourth-round cornerback has embraced and built upon his role as a Swiss Army Knife of a safety and he really does “do it all” on the back end of the Giants’ defense. Love has been a good player since he was drafted out of Notre Dame, but how he has embraced his starting role has been pivotal to the Giants’ early defensive success. Xavier McKinney has played well in both the deep areas of the field and in zone coverage, and Love’s ability to handle everything thrown at him has allowed Martindale incredible freedom in how he deploys his safeties.
Like many areas of the Giants’ team, the defense as a whole is still a work in progress, but for the most part it has played better than expected.
The Giants’ run defense has been an issue at points in this young season, and big plays have been there for the teams that attempt them. However, their aggressive scheme and versatile personnel packages have allowed the Giants to frustrate the weaker passing offenses they saw through the first four games of the season.
The question of whether or not the Giants’ play on defense is more due to their efforts or a reflection of the offenses they’ve played. To be sure, we’ll get more of an answer on that over the coming weeks as the Giants see a jump in their level of competition. Over the next three weeks they’ll face the Green Bay Packers (in London), the Baltimore Ravens, and the suddenly formidable Jacksonville Jaguars. Assuming those offenses are healthy, we could have a much better idea of how the Giants’ defense stacks up.