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Wink Martindale’s defensive philosophy and the 2022 NFL Draft

Forget everything you thought you knew about defense

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2022 NFL draft nears, everyone has an opinion about what the New York Giants’ needs are and how GM Joe Schoen should approach meeting them. There’s a lot of talk about seeking the best player available rather than reaching to meet a need, but really the goal is to try to have value meet need. That’s why teams create horizontal draft big boards that make it easier to compare value at different positions.

But this year, at least on defense, things are different. A Don ‘Wink’ Martindale defense operates on different principles than those we are used to. These were laid out in an excellent story last summer on the Ravens’ SB Nation site, Baltimore Beatdown.

A couple of the rules of a Martindale defense are:

The first rule of defense is: You do not talk about positions on defense.

The second rule of defense is: You do not talk about positions on defense.

The third rule of defense is: Sacks are not that important. Just hit the QB, the fight is over.

A few quotes by Martindale from that story:

“If you’re the owner of a team and I’m your head coach and it comes down to what do you want, I want as many cover corners as you can have.”

“And I think sacks — we’re talking philosophical now; this is my opinion on it — I think sacks are one of the most superficial rankings there is.”

“My philosophy is, personally, I’d rather have a corner that can cover than a guy that can rush,” he said, “because I’ll get guys to hit quarterbacks.”

Martindale wins on defense with “organized chaos.” Scheming pressure, playing “position-less defense”, and getting “all 11 players to blitz from the time we get off the bus.”

Lessons from the Ravens under Wink

League-wide rankings from Martindale’s first three years as Ravens’ defensive coordinator illustrate this nicely (numbers courtesy of Pro Football Reference):

Ravens’ Defensive Rankings

Year Points allowed Yards allowed Blitzes Pressures Sacks
Year Points allowed Yards allowed Blitzes Pressures Sacks
2018 2nd 1st 1st 2nd (tied) 11th (tied)
2019 3rd 4th 1st 18th 21st
2020 2nd 7th 1st 4th 14th

Two things are constant from year to year: Martindale’s defenses always lead the NFL in blitzes, and they are always near the top in points allowed - which is, after all, the goal of a defense. Yards allowed have been in the top 10, and pressures sometimes but not always among the league leaders. But the Ravens were always middle of the league in sacks. Martindale wants the blockers not to know where pressure is coming from, wants to force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, and wants his defensive backs - at least those not rushing the passer on a given play - to deny completions when they are isolated against a receiver. That last goal leads to a preference for defensive backs who excel in man coverage.

The chart below shows yearly statistics for the Ravens’ top six (by snaps) defensive backs that capture how Wink uses his defensive backfield.

Ravens’ DBs Performance

 "Position" Man % PFF grade (M,Z) Pass rush % Pass rush prod
 "Position" Man % PFF grade (M,Z) Pass rush % Pass rush prod
Eric Weddle S 33.5 70.9, 71.2 5.2 11.8
Brandon Carr CB 33.8 55.0, 81.5 2.4 14.3
Tony Jefferson S 30.5 80.5, 57.7 5.5 11.3
Marlon Humphrey CB 34.6 68.2, 85.8 0.4 0
Jimmy Smith CB 34.7 55.9, 65.9 0.7 16.7
Tavon Young CB 35.4 51.0, 71.3 11.1 6.8
Marcus Peters CB 38.2 79.5, 79.4 0.5 0
Marlon Humphrey CB 49.7 74.4, 69.1 6.5 7.7
Earl Thomas S 44.7 79.6, 73.9 10.3 11
Brandon Carr CB 46.1 66.5, 68.0 7.3 22.2
Chuck Clark S 46.4 82.0, 66.5 22.7 6.6
Jimmy Smith CB 53 62.2, 65.1 0.4 100
Chuck Clark S 45.3 73.6, 64.6 8.4 13.9
DeShon Elliott S 45.4 70.4, 63.9 8.4 9.2
Marlon Humphrey CB 49.2 47.4, 91.5 3.6 14.6
Marcus Peters CB 46.9 76.5, 66.1 0.6 25
Jimmy Smith CB 48.8 65.3, 72.8 1.1 25
Pierre Desir CB 27 28.8, 58.6 0.4 0

Martindale’s defensive identity began to show itself in 2018, but he really pushed his chips forward in 2019 and 2020. In 2018, Martindale’s defensive backs played man coverage about one-third of the time, some excelling in man and others being mediocre. By 2019 and 2020, though, he was using man coverage a little less than half the time, with his defensive backs posting good to excellent man grades almost across the board. Defensive backs were used to rush the passer 203, 295, and 164 times over the three years. Several of them had good “pass rush productivity” (a PFF metric that combines sacks, hits, and hurries relative to total pass rush snaps, with sacks being weighted more heavily; a double-digit PRP puts a DB in the top 30 or so across the NFL).

How do the Giants compare?

The chart below shows the same statistics for every defensive backs that played for the Giants in 2021:

Giants’ DBs Performance

 "Position" Man % PFF grade (M,Z) Pass rush % Pass rush prod
 "Position" Man % PFF grade (M,Z) Pass rush % Pass rush prod
James Bradberry CB 22..5 40.1, 79.1 0.2 0
Xavier McKinney S 21.8 81.8, 74.8 0.6 12.5
Logan Ryan S 20.3 44.5, 51.9 5.7 12.1
Adoree' Jackson CB 23.6 64.3, 84.5 0.4 25
Julian Love S 23.4 44.3, 65.2 5.5 10
Darnay Holmes CB 21.6 59.2, 59.8 7.5 10
Aaron Robinson CB 32.9 58.4, 54.1 4.7 12.5
Jabrill Peppers S 31.1 34.2, 66.4 14.8 18.2
Jarren Williams CB 17.2 51.0, 73.6 0.9 0
Rodarius Williams CB 65 36.8, 55.2 0 0
J.R. Reed S 52.6 72.7, 63.7 5.3 0
Keion Crossen CB 4.8 60.0, 60.0 5 0
Steven Parker S 33.3 76.6, 39.1 5.6 0

The first thing that stands out is that the Giants under Patrick Graham played relatively little man coverage, with only Aaron Robinson and Jabrill Peppers exceeding 30 percent among defensive backs with a significant number of snaps. The reason is that the Giants currently have very few defensive backs who are proficient in man coverage. Xavier McKinney had an excellent 2021, scoring 81.8 in man (while also playing well in zone), and Adoree’ Jackson was pretty good in man at 64.3 although he really excelled in zone (84.5). The only other Giants defensive backs who played man coverage well were safeties J.R. Reed and Steven Parker, who played very few snaps.

This chart may partly explain why Logan Ryan was released and why the Giants did not seek to re-sign Peppers. Both were terrible in man coverage and thus may have been judged poor fits for what Martindale wants to do. It also highlights why (in addition to his cap hit) Joe Schoen would like to trade James Bradberry.

One other thing to note is that Graham put his defensive backs in pass rush much less often (110 times in 2021) than Martindale did with the Ravens. When he did, it was mostly with safeties (Ryan, Peppers, and Love, but hardly ever McKinney), although Darnay Holmes and Aaron Robinson rushed the passer a decent number of times for the limited number of snaps they played. Martindale rushed his safeties more than his cornerbacks, although Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, and especially Tavon Young did a good bit of rushing the passer from what is traditionally the cornerback position. In a Wink Martindale defense, it’s not just EDGEs and ILBs that rush the passer - it can be anyone, including the safeties and cornerbacks, on any given play. Position-less defense.

What does this mean for the draft?

If that is the case, the type of defensive backs that Joe Schoen might be looking for in the 2022 draft are versatile ones who can play man at the NFL level. @JoeGoodberry has compiled a list of prominent college cornerbacks in the 2022 draft along with how often they played man coverage in 2021 and how well they did according to PFF grade:

Derek Stingley Jr. and Sauce Gardner not surprisingly stand out as cornerbacks who played a lot of man coverage and excelled at it. This is why they are the almost unanimous choices to be the first two cornerbacks off the board and why the Giants are expected to have interest in both. Others that may appeal to Martindale are Kyler Gordon, Trent McDuffie, and even Marcus Jones, who doesn’t have prototypical size but nonetheless played excellent man coverage in 2021.

Among safeties, Kyle Hamilton is the do-it-all prospect. The conventional wisdom is that safeties have too low a positional value to draft in the top 10. But in a Wink Martindale defense, a safety with the versatility to play single-high and come crashing down equally well, with unmatched play speed and football instincts to affect every area of the field, might be too irresistible to pass up at No. 7, especially if right tackle has been addressed at No. 5 and Gardner is off the board. Among the group of safeties expected to be taken in late Round 1 - early Round 2, Lewis Cine may be the one with the most versatility to appeal to the Giants. If the Giants wait longer to address the safety position, Nick Cross may be the most appropriate for the type of defense the Giants are likely to field in 2022.

If we take Wink Martindale at his word, don’t be surprised if the Giants go OT, CB, and S with their first three picks, in some order, if the value is there when it’s their turn to pick. What about EDGE? Martindale may be happy to just “get guys to hit quarterbacks” in Round 3.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Formely known as ‘TarkentonToJones,’ Tony Del Genio is now part of the Big Blue View front-page staff.]