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What’s the plan? Piecing together the Giants’ secondary

How will the Giants cover behind Wink Martindale’s aggressive blitz schemes?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 LSU at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants are embarking on a pretty massive rebuilding program. There’s going to be some big changes on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Last time we talked about how the Giants were trying to cobble a mostly-functional offense out of a dysfunctional mess.

The thing with the Giants’ offense is that we don’t really have much of a track record to go on. Brian Daboll’s background is in the Erhardt-Perkins system which stresses flexibility on offense. That adaptability suggests that we can’t rely on his past offenses the way we could someone from a WCO or Air Coryell offense as a roadmap for 2022 and beyond. Likewise, Mike Kafka was a quarterback and quarterbacks coach under Andy Reid. And while Reid is, broadly speaking, a “West Coast” guy, his evolution has involved him taking elements from pretty much every offensive scheme. So not only have we never seen a “Mike Kafka offense,” his background lends precious little in the way of clues as to what kind of offense he prefers.

With Wink Martindale, on the other hand, we have a solid track record on tape as well as his own words. Unlike on the offensive side of the ball, we have something of a road map to forecast how the Giants’ defense could come together.

We’re going to start speculating on the Giants’ defense in the secondary.

Broadly speaking, both Wink Martindale and Patrick Graham approach defense with similar starting points: They both use coverage to drive everything they do on defense. The two men also like to scheme blitzes from unexpected areas of the field. That’s about where the similarities end, but it’s a good-enough starting point for our purposes. Particularly since the Giants were forced to cut James Bradberry so they could sign their rookie class.

Bradberry was a mainstay in Graham’s defense and his ability to bait quarterbacks into throws then slam receiving windows shut from off-coverage was a big factor in the Giants’ defensive success over the last two seasons. While his skill set isn’t a perfect fit for Martindale’s defensive philosophy, his departure still leaves a pretty big hole for the Giants to fill.

As we’ve covered in the past, Martindale simply loves man coverage. He maintained his commitment to calling man coverage despite having to deal with the Baltimore Ravens’ injury-ravaged secondary a year ago.

Despite the injuries, Martindale called higher than league-average rates of Cover-1 and 2-Man, and much higher than league-average rates of the highly aggressive Cover-0.

When he had a healthy secondary in 2020, Martindale’s defense was rabidly aggressive.

That aggressive use of man coverage suggests that the hole left by Bradberry will likely be filled by second year corner Aaron Robinson on most downs. Robinson was drafted to play slot corner in Graham’s defense, but he had some experience as an outside corner in college. More importantly, he was drafted to bring a more physical edge to the slot position and that could translate to Martindale’s schemes. Robinson has the versatility to play in both man and zone schemes, but he is a naturally aggressive and physical player who was more effective in tight man coverage than when playing off.

This, of course, leads us to the question of who plays slot receiver. The simple answer here is 2020 fourth round pick Darnay Holmes. Holmes has played in 23 games with 9 starts since being drafted. He was on the field for 55 percent of the defensive snaps in 2020, which dropped to 37 percent in 2021 as he shared time with Robinson in the slot. His experience as the second-most veteran player in the Giants’ secondary makes him a likely candidate to be their primary slot corner — a de facto starting job in the modern NFL.

However, we could also see a solution that’s less straight forward. And in fact, that might even be more likely than simply bumping Holmes up the depth chart.

As Nick Falato details, much of Martindale’s defensive scheme is based around creating confusion (and therefore chaos) on the offensive side of the ball. Man coverage, late coverage rotations, unexpected drops into coverage, and blitzes are all tools in Martindale’s defensive toolbox, and we should expect him to have them all at the ready. Defenders showing one look before rotating coverage shells late, or playing multiple positions to disguise coverage and pressure packages requires a measure of versatility in their skill sets. As it so happens, the Giants have a trio of defenders who have played multiple positions in the secondary.

Julian Love, Jarren Williams, and Cordale Flott all have experience playing both cornerback and safety at the college and NFL (for Love and Williams) levels.

Flott was, obviously drafted by the current regime and is the most likely challenger to Holmes in a head-to-head competition at slot corner. While Flott has no experience at the NFL level — and has an undeniably slight build — he has more experience as a slot corner than anyone else in this draft class. Flott lined up in the slot on 60 percent of his snaps last year (per Sports Info Solutions), the next highest rate was Washington’s Kyler Gordon at 40 percent. Likewise, his aggressive demeanor and play style should mesh well with Martindale’s attacking philosophy. Flott also has some experience playing the free safety position as well as boundary corner. His experience dropping into deep coverage zones or playing outside could give him an edge over Holmes, who has primarily been a zone coverage slot defender.

Julian Love was a cornerback at Notre Dame but transitioned to safety at the NFL level. He has played all over the Giants’ secondary since being drafted and figures to be one of the Giants’ starting safeties this year. His experience as a slot defender could put him in the mix as a slot defender in certain defensive packages. Martindale simply loves Cover 1 defenses, which leaves a safety at the second level. If that’s Love, he could fill the slot corner role in three-safety sets or base defenses. The Giants are undeniably thin in the secondary, and that means Love’s versatility will almost certainly ensure he has a big and varied role.

Jarren Williams likely figures as depth and a special teams contributor, however he proved to be something of a bright spot after being elevated to the game-day roster last year. Williams has similar versatility to Love, and could be the “next man up” to fill a similar role.

This finally brings us to their other rookie DB, safety Dane Belton. Depending on where Williams plays and whether UDFA safeties Yusuf Corker and Trenton Thompson make the final roster, the Giants might have just three safeties at their disposal. Xavier McKinney and Julian Lover are, obviously, the starters. Belton, by virtue of his draft position, is the de facto primary depth and third safety on the Giants’ roster.

Like Wan’Dale Robinson on the offense, Belton is an outlier. His selection at 114th overall was widely seen as a reach — he ranked 198th on the Consensus Board, one spot below Corker at 197th. But as with Robinson, Belton’s status as an outlier could tell us something about the Giants’ plans for his unit.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Belton lined up in the slot on 52 percent of his snaps last year. He was also one of the most frequently blitzing safeties in last year’s draft. Belton blitzed on 6 percent of his snaps last year, which might not sound like much, but was still good for eighth-most in his draft class.

While the Giants’ secondary is thin, their linebacking corps might be even thinner. Their off-ball linebacker group is as follows:

  • Blake Martinez
  • Tae Crowder
  • TJ Brunson
  • Justin Hilliard
  • Darrian Beavers
  • Micah McFadden

We might also be able to add Carter Coughlin (who was an EDGE before attempting to convert to an off-ball role last year), or Cam Brown (who was an off-ball linebacker in college before attempting to convert to EDGE with the Giants). But where they play — if they even make the roster — might not be apparent until training camp or pre-season.

With that in mind, let’s take a second look at the collection of versatile defenders the Giants have in the secondary.

It’s likely that the Giants will spend most of their time in a nickel package of one kind or another. We could see both Holmes and Flott platooned in the slot depending on the coverage schemes called. We could also see Love and Williams on the field at the same time, using their versatile skill sets to help disguise coverages and pressure packages. And speaking of pressure packages, it’s likely that Belton will see the field a fair bit. Martindale is fond of three safety sets, and Belton will likely be the first (true) safety off the bench. He might not be suited to frequent coverage as a slot defender, but he’s an experienced blitzer from the slot. Given that Martindale loves to blitz (Baltimore had the sixth-highest blitz rate in 2021 and by far the highest blitz rate in 2020), we should plan on seeing Belton rushing opposing quarterbacks frequently.

The Giants’ secondary is still precariously thin after parting ways with Bradberry, but they do seem to have a plan for piecing together a coherent secondary. There’s always a high rate of attrition among defensive backs, and the Giants could be one or two injuries away from disaster. The Giants are also going to be relying on a lot of young players and moving parts in their secondary this year. That will surely invite tests from opposing offenses.

The Giants seem to have a clear vision of the types of players they want and how it all fits together. That said, it remains to be seen if the plan will pay off this year or if they’ll need another off-season for everything to come together.