In an otherwise disastrous season for the Denver Broncos, one source of comfort has been their excellent secondary. The Broncos lead the NFL in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus with an outstanding 90.4 season grade to date. Three secondary members sport an elite coverage grade of 80 or higher, two more are above 70, and none are below 60.
The Broncos did suffer a major (ACL) injury to one starter, Ronald Darby, in Week 5, and several other starting defensive backs have missed one or more games. That’s life in the NFL. But the other four who started this past Sunday for them also started in Week 1, and rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis has played satisfactorily filling in for injured teammates. Although defensive guru Vic Fangio is gone, the Broncos still play zone defense about 80 percent of the time. They have only had one snap with as many as 7 DBs on the field. A good starting five in the secondary plus capable depth has gone a long way for them.
The Giants’ present situation
The secondary of the 2022 New York Giants is not like that. Under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s innovative “organized chaos” approach to defense, seemingly any number of DBs that is not larger than 11 might be on the field for any given play (a bit of an exaggeration, but not all that much). Below, courtesy of Joseph Hefner’s Team Formations app, is the Giants’ frequency of defensive personnel usage for 2022 and the DBs that have been on the field for each formation (edge defenders are counted as DLs in the formation designation):
The Giants have not run a traditional 4-3 defense even once all season; Denver has done it 110 times. The Giants have, though, put seven DBs on the field 85 times and eight DBs on the field seven times. (They have also run the very rare 3-3-4 and 4-4-2 formations once each, i.e., when they mistakenly got only 10 men onto the field before the snap. The gigantic opposition EPA/play values of 3.09 and 1.32 when down a man suggest that they might want to stick with 11 going forward.)
The overall statistics shown above are a bit misleading. In most individual games Martindale sticks to a much smaller number of coverages (four to six). The fewest he used all season was in the 20-20 tie with Washington, which saw only 2-4-5, 3-4-4, and 1-3-7 looks. Early in the season against Dallas, however, Cooper Rush saw eight different formations. Still, from week to week the game plan on defense changes markedly. It’s not an easy defense for inexperienced defensive backs to play.
Unlike Denver’s predominant zone defense, Martindale runs man and zone defense almost equally as often, the most often of any team in the NFL through Week 12:
(Individual player stats from PFF show that the Giants played about 40 percent man vs. Washington and about 60 percent vs. Philadelphia in Weeks 13 and 14.)
The combination of this plus the many varied formations places significant stress on DBs, who must be proficient in both man and zone and smart enough to keep assignments straight in the many different looks Martindale shows opposing offenses. Whether it is this complexity, or just the talent level on the current roster, the Giants’ secondary has not performed anywhere near as well as that of the Broncos:
The Giants do not have a single cornerback or safety who has played at an elite level by PFF standards. Of those with at least 100 coverage snaps, only Adoree’ Jackson has been above average. The rest have been subpar, and Darnay Holmes and Dane Belton have been very poor (although Belton has one of the rare Giants’ interceptions this season). This matters a lot in a Martindale defense, because forcing the opposing quarterback to hold the ball increases the odds of the pass rush either getting to the quarterback or forcing him to throw before he is ready.
Complicating matters is the fact that some defensive backs play one type of defense well and the other poorly, yet all the DBs are asked to play almost as often in both. The most striking example is Darnay Holmes, an absolute liability in man coverage (28.8) but borderline elite in zone coverage (81.0) to date. We can see something similar in the scores of Cor’Dale Flott, Tony Jefferson and Rodarius Williams as well, though in very small samples. The DBs seeing the field the most have been better in man than in zone; this may not be an accident.
Other than quality, the big difference between the Giants and the Broncos is health. The Giants have cycled through 15 DBs already this season, the Broncos only 11. As the final two columns of the chart above indicate (S = starter, P = played but did not start), only two of the secondary players who started against the Titans in Week 1 were still on the field to start against the Eagles in Week 14 (Julian Love and Darnay Holmes). Aaron Robinson is done for the season; it’s possible Xavier McKinney is too. Jackson, the secondary’s most reliable player, has not yet returned from an injury that did not occur while he was playing defense. The five Giants DBs with the most playing time have been on the field for a total of 1,729 snaps, as opposed to 2,092 for Denver’s top five.
Giants’ fans saw this past Sunday that the secondary as things stand now just cannot compete against elite wide receivers. It wasn’t much better the previous week against Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson, whom they will see again next Sunday. After that it will be Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in Minnesota. And then A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith again if they play in Week 18. Hopefully at least Jackson returns soon. It would help if McKinney played again this season.
Planning for 2023
During Martindale’s time in Baltimore, the Ravens invested in high draft picks for the secondary, either their own or others acquired in trade. Below are the starting five defensive backs at the start of each of Baltimore’s first three seasons under Martindale, when his defense was at or near the top of the NFL rankings (draft year/round listed):
(There was no designated slot corner in 2018.) Two things stand out. First, there were always at least two first or second round picks starting in his secondary. Second, all the starters had at least two years experience before they made it to the starting lineup; some like Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Eric Weddle, and Earl Thomas had almost a decade of experience.
What Martindale is trying to do with the Giants is different. The only first-round pick on the roster with significant experience is Jackson. The only second-round pick is Xavier McKinney, who has not yet played two seasons’ worth of games. Fabian Moreau and Tony Jefferson are both experienced but have only been part-time starters during their careers.
The tragedy of the Giants’ injuries in the secondary is not how it has compromised their playoff chances this year - it has, but this year was never going to be about a deep playoff run. Rather, it’s the experience in Martindale’s system and the opportunity to evaluate young players in the system that has been lost. How do the Giants plan for the future given this uncertainty? Here are some thoughts.
Jackson will be in the final year of his three-year $39M contract, but unfortunately he will create a cap hit of $19.5M in 2023 and has a void 2024 year with a $3M cap hit, part of the maneuvering Joe Schoen had to do to operate during 2022. It doesn’t matter. Jackson is a very good cornerback even though he is not a ballhawk. He has allowed only a 53.7 percent completion rate, has broken up seven passes, and quarterbacks have only an 85.7 passer rating when targeting him. He is the only Giants’ cornerback who has any business covering an opponent’s WR1. He plays man coverage well. Despite his cost, he should be retained. Ideally Schoen would extend him a couple of years and spread the 2023 cap hit out a bit.
Robinson is the great unknown of the Giants’ secondary. When he has played, he has performed well, but he just hasn’t been on the field enough in either of his two seasons to really know. We found out last week that the injury he suffered against Chicago, right after returning from an appendectomy, was a partially torn ACL and MCL:
The knee injury that Giants CB Aaron Robinson suffered in Week 4 was a partially torn ACL and a torn MCL, per source. Robinson had surgery four weeks ago and is looking at a recovery timeline of approximately nine months. Injuries have been a hurdle for the 2021 third-round pick.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) December 9, 2022
That would put ARob on track to return early next season. But will he be healthy enough to start the season? Has he just been unlucky or is he injury-prone? Is he capable of being a starting boundary corner or should he be moved to slot CB?
Jackson and Robinson vs. A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith might have at least been a fair fight. Against Fabian Moreau and Nick McCloud it was no contest. Moreau is a good cornerback and should be brought back next season. He just should not be covering a team’s WR1.
Given the uncertainty in Robinson’s health and the paucity of game tape to go on, the Giants will probably prioritize cornerback in the offseason. There is every reason to support the idea of Schoen using his first-round pick on a cornerback. The Giants’ only swing at that in the past five years was the DeAndre Baker debacle in 2019, and given Martindale’s tenure in Baltimore, having high draft picks lead his secondary is probably something he would favor. The problem is that the Giants may also be shopping for a wide receiver, an interior offensive lineman, or possibly even a quarterback, in the first round as well. Whether in Round 1, 2, or 3, there are intriguing cornerback prospects available, several of them with the length (6-foot-2 or more) the Giants currently lack in their secondary. Here’s a list from the NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board:
The Giants might instead go shopping in the free agency bin, since they are on track to have $45.9M of cap space in 2023 after signing their draft class according the Over The Cap. In a previous piece, we mentioned Jonathan Jones of the Patriots, a possible impending free agent, as a good fit as someone who has played well in Bill Belichick’s man-heavy defense. Marcus Peters, who came to the Ravens in a trade and played under Martindale and has experience in his system, is another possibility, but he has had his problems in man defense this season after missing the 2021 season due to an ACL tear. Nearing age 30 and in his second year of recovery in 2023, would he be worth taking a flyer on if he can be had at a reasonable price?
Darnay Holmes may be the odd man out if the Giants acquire a top flight boundary cornerback. He has improved since his rookie year, but he is much more effective in zone than man coverage. It is possible that should the Giants acquire a boundary CB in the draft or free agency, they would move Robinson to the slot, for which he may be best suited. Holmes will only count $1.2M against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal and could still be retained for depth, but it would be a surprise not to at least see competition for him on the roster next summer since he seems ill-suited to what Martindale does.
None of this rules out the possibilities of recent draftees Flott or Rodarius Williams competing for significant playing time in 2023. Flott in particular, as a Schoen draftee, is unlikely to be jettisoned before his rookie contract ends. He has been adequate in the small sample he has put on film but whether he can be an impact CB is still unknown. Williams is at more risk as a draftee of the previous regime, and he has not played after a good performance including an interception against Dallas.
At safety, the Giants’ situation seems settled. Despite his poor judgment during the bye week, McKinney appears to be set as the Giants free safety for the foreseeable future. The only question is whether his ATV escapade will delay the Giants’ pursuit of a second contract, and what the numbers of that contract will be. Getting back on the field and performing well as the Giants seek a wild card berth would help his cause. Julian Love seems certain to return next year with a second contract in hand, despite his whiff on Devonta Smith’s TD catch last Sunday. Love has been one of the most versatile and important Giants’ defenders this season and has emerged as a team leader. Jefferson seems likely to return too as a seasoned veteran with experience in Martindale’s system despite time missed due to injury. Belton, like Cor’Dale Flott a surprise and relatively unheralded mid-round draft pick in 2021, has had rookie growing pains and seems not ready to be a starter, but will surely be back next season.