A demand for exceptional linebacking play has been at the forefront of discussion amongst New York Giants’ fans for quite some time. The days of Antonio Pierce have long passed, and the Giants have not consistently had above-average inside linebacker since.
I’m not advocating for the Giants to spend a first-rounder on linebacker next draft, but the position group has needed an upgrade for years. The Giants have relied on 2020 Mr. Irrelevant selection, Tae Crowder. The former Georgia Bulldog has been far from irrelevant, but is likely more of a back-end linebacker rather than the face of the position group.
After the Giants surrendered 142 rushing yards against Jacksonville in Week 7 - and it would have been a lot more if not for Jacksonville’s inexperienced rushers - Jaylon Smith assumed duties as the MIKE, with Crowder moving to the WILL spot.
Against Seattle in Week 8, Crowder’s snap share was cut in half; he played a season-low 22 snaps. His snap share continued to decline in after the BYE in Week 10; Crowder played 2 defensive snaps.
Although the Giants love their quarter (7+ DBs on the field) personnel package with no inside linebackers, the desire to run those personnel packages was not the primary impetus to Crowder’s benching.
Against the Texans, the Giants ran quarter personnel 1.7 percent of the time. They were in their base defense 36.7 percent of the time (the highest since Week 4), and they ran nickel 26.7 percent of the time. Clearly, there was a prominent role for two inside linebackers against the Texans, but Crowder was not a primary choice.
Micah McFadden, the rookie fifth-round pick out of Indiana, assumed Crowder’s role and played a career-high 36 snaps against Houston. McFadden was listed on the depth chart as the starting MIKE, albeit Smith was still the primary linebacker.
The rookie had an up-and-down game. I appreciated the physicality he displayed, and liked how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale frequently blitzed McFadden through the A-Gap to cause interior disruption; McFadden was prompt when his number was called on the blitz and typically did not tip his hand.
There are, however, still things to clean up. McFadden was effectively benched against the Green Bay Packers for failing to be in the correct position to defend his assignment in coverage on two occasions through four plays. He did not see the defensive field again until Seattle, where he played 27 snaps and recorded his first career sack:
Rookie LB Micah McFadden records his first sack against rookie OT Charles Cross— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) October 31, 2022
McFadden hasn't seen the defense since Week 5. Great way to make an impact pic.twitter.com/1GU2z0N96T
We’re going to go over some individual plays from McFadden’s Week 10 performance, but here are just about all of his snaps from the Giants’ win over Houston (snaps where he wasn’t involved in the play were removed due to time restrictions):
[McFadden is No. 41]
Micah McFadden's snaps from week 10 pic.twitter.com/4tOJBw0VPE— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) November 15, 2022
Three aspects of McFadden’s game that inspire encouragement are his physical nature, his eye discipline, and his positioning within the box against the run.
Micah McFadden played a season-high 36 snaps— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) November 14, 2022
Here, he did a great job meeting the FB at the LOS to blow the Pierce run up. Good hard-nosed fill. pic.twitter.com/uJ0oWGwX9w
McFadden does a great job of keying Troy Hairston (34) on the weak side run to the back side of the double-Y set. McFadden is instinctive to fill the B-Gap, he gets skinny through the hole and low into contact to deliver a strong punch on Hairston that knocks the fullback behind the line of scrimmage.
Not only does McFadden shed and force Hairston to his right, but he then presents himself in the hole to his left, eliminating the B-Gap as a potential option. He makes the tackle along with several other Giants players. That is textbook linebacker play from McFadden.
The end result of this play isn’t as exceptional. It’s another weak side run on the backside of the YY set to the boundary. This time, the fullback motions to the play side, giving McFadden an opportunity to cheat.
The rookie delivers a good shot on the fullback, who slides off the block, but the pop from Hariston freezes McFadden. Leonard Williams (99) stacks his lineman and maneuvers to narrow the rushing lane to restrict a path for Dameon Pierce (31). McFadden gets tangled with Williams and falls down, which allows the fullback to seal Williams from Pierce.
It’s not McFadden’s best rep, albeit he displayed a physical hit at the line of scrimmage; he just wasn’t in the best position with Leonard Williams shaded inside the B-Gap as a 3-Technique pre-snap.
Phillip Dorsett (4) inserts into the C-Gap, as O.J. Howard (83) engages Tomon Fox (49) with the backside guard pulling to McFadden’s side on the shotgun run. Dane Belton is in the box, and he absorbs Dorsett’s block, which forces McFadden to close down on the line of scrimmage and face the pulling backside guard.
McFadden gets low into contact again and keeps the C-Gap rushing lane narrow off the double team block of Williams. However, since the Giants are in a nickel OVER front with two down linemen, and Houston uses Dorsett to insert on Belton, there are more options to choose from for Pierce, who saw a ton of TITE front and BASE personnel against New York.
McFadden gets absorbed and is eventually driven to the ground around a bunch of bodies. Still, he forces Pierce to alley defender Adoree’ Jackson (22), toward the direction of Belton, engaged in a block with Dorsett instead of allowing Pierce to run off the backside of Laremy Tunsil (78), who has easy access to intercept the pursuing Smith on the chip and climb from the backside of the rushing play.
McFadden is the backside linebacker behind the TITE front. He sets in the cut-back A-Gap and looks through the mess at the line of scrimmage. He engages his hands on the climbing center after positioning himself in his run fit. Pierce attempts to hit the strong side B-Gap with Jaylon Smith (54) engaged with a tight end. Pierce picks up a couple of yards, but Smith, McFadden, and Dane Belton (24) rally to tackle the rookie.
This play shows McFadden’s eye discipline on a zone-read play (easier for the linebacker to discern, especially with Davis Mills as the other rushing threat). Still, McFadden reacts to Pierce the entire way, and the rookie linebacker wins the cat and mouse game.
It’s also worth noting how disciplined and athletic Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) is on this play. He stays on his initial assignment of Mills on the zone read and then explodes through Pierce once he confirms the location of the football. He also pinches enough to restrict Pierce; look at how his hips are oriented during the mesh point - again, he only has to worry about Mills’ escapability.
The Texans run a pin-pull concept on a half-back toss to the weak side (field side). Darnay Holmes (30) is very aggressive, attacking downhill to blow this play up. McFadden - from the backside - engages his block against an offensive lineman in an adequate manner while not attempting to undercut the block, which would have removed him from the play.
Attacking the Giants’ run defense laterally has worked for many teams throughout the season, especially on pin-pull concepts with reduced wide receivers pinning. The Texans attempt that here with Chris Moore (15) and Nico Collins (12) to the field side with a motioning Jordan Akins (88) and Tunsil pulling into space.
McFadden quickly diagnoses the play design and meets Collins as the wide receiver is attempting to square up after a chip to Jackson. McFadden initially attempts to undercut the block - which gets him in trouble later in the game - but Collins adjusts to McFadden’s intentions. The rookie linebacker is able to shed Collins, thanks, in part, to the climbing center contacting Collins. Leonard Williams makes an incredible play in pursuit to stop the run near the line of scrimmage.
McFadden’s ability to penetrate against the run and blitz as a pass rusher were quality traits of his at Indiana. He recorded 96 total pressures with eight sacks while leading the Hoosiers' defense.
Martindale frequently used McFadden as an A-Gap penetrator at the snap in an attempt to stifle and create one-on-one matchups for the Giants’ defensive line in the TITE front. Jaylon Smith is the beneficiary on this play, as he knows to scrape around McFadden into a wide-open hole on the weak side run to the boundary.
McFadden’s ability to play low, stay low, and dip his outside shoulder around the contact to eventually separate are impressive traits that will lead to more interior rush attempts. He has good flexibility and a low center of gravity that can be leveraged in this defense.
Here’s another example of a weak side, boundary, A-Gap blitz. Watch how it forces the one-on-one matchups for the defensive line who play run off the play action before rushing the passer. McFadden hits the center square, and there’s pop as he explodes low to high and manoeuvers inside to pick the right guard, which allows Dexter Lawrence (97) to loop. Also, check out Smith and how he replaces McFadden’s position.
The previous two plays were designed run blitzes; here’s a pass blitz from nickel personnel. New York slants Lawrence, Williams, and Thibodeaux to the left, with McFadden and Belton pressuring from the right side. The objective is for Thibodeaux to attack through the inside shoulder of Tunsil, which will create a two-on-one situation in the Giants' favor against Pierce.
New York shows pressure with Holmes to the defensive left side. At the snap, Holmes and Fox bail into coverage to the field side. The Texans slide in Holmes’ direction, which is not the direction of Martindale’s pressure.
Essentially, the pre-snap alignment of the Giants forces the five offensive linemen to block three slanting Giants who are directing themselves away from the designed pressure that’s overloading a rookie running back. Martindale loves to waste blockers by manipulating protections to harass quarterbacks. Mills throws the football right into Lawrence’s paws as he leaps in the air to knock the pass down.
Positioning in coverage, specifically in man principles in the short areas of the field, was a problem for McFadden early in the season. He allowed Josiah Deguara to have a long catch up the sideline against the Packers, and the catch was the result of bad positioning.
Chris Moore makes a circus catch, and McFadden fails to come down with the interception when the ball hits him in the hands, but there are positives to take away from this play. I love how McFadden reacts to the play action pass. Right when it’s clear the run isn’t happening, he shoots his eyes to the left and then to the right before gaining depth. He notices Moore’s deep intermediate, so he continues to gain depth while keying on Mills. He should have caught the football, but he displays awareness, poise, and the ability to bait a quarterback into a risky throw. He just needs to finish the play next time.
This is the type of play that has plagued McFadden all season. His assignment in the passing game is Jordan Akins, who is running a play action screen to the field side. The play action earns attention from McFadden, which isn’t the issue. Laremy Tunsil is in the lap of McFadden quickly, but the rookie tries to undercut Tunsil, which is a mistake. Ideally, he would have surrendered a couple of yards but prevented a more explosive play by flowing over the top of Tunsil and forcing a quicker cutback inside from Akins; this would have led to easier pursuit angles for the rest of the Giants, who did make Akins look like vintage Gronk. It’s a well-designed play and not the worst thing in the world, but McFadden needs to improve on all things defending the tight end in the passing game in the short and intermediate parts of the field.
McFadden is still learning the speed, angles of approach, and some nuances of playing linebacker. He’s not in the Big 10 anymore. However, he flashes encouraging signs that can be improved. I appreciate how low he can get at the line of scrimmage and how much body control and physicality he shows when staying low and attacking downhill.
He narrowly missed an interception on the Moore catch, and I liked how active his eyes were while he was gaining depth in his zone. There’s upside with McFadden, who can still improve. If his snaps continue to ascend, I expect to see more of him in Martindale’s blitz packages; this week against Detroit, I wouldn’t be shocked to see McFadden filling the A-Gap at the snap to the boundary when the Giants are TITE if the Lions attempt to run weak side early in the game.