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What’s the plan? How might the Giants’ defensive front take shape?

What might the Giants’ defensive front look like in 2022?

2022 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

The New York Giants new regime has maintained throughout the 2022 offseason that they have a plan. They’ve given the sense that there’s overarching vision for the team, some primary plans, and then a series of contingency plans in place.

We may never know exactly which plans came to fruition and which plans went up in smoke — though we can probably make some educated guesses.

But trusting that the new front office and coaching staff has a plan (or series of plans) has given us a starting point from which we can speculate how the 2022 Giants will take shape. So far we’ve looked at how the Giants might employ their offensive skill position players, block up front, and cover on the back end of their defense.

Now it’s time to take a look at how the Giants’ defensive front can come together.

Martindale’s tendencies

It shouldn’t be news to Giants fans that Don ‘Wink’ Martindale loves aggressive defense. But there are a bunch of different ways to be aggressive on defense, how does Martindale prefer to do it?

We know from last time that Martindale loves man coverage, using Cover-0, Cover-1, and 2-Man shells at a higher (or much higher, in some years) rate than the NFL average.

Last year the Ravens made heavy use of 3-3-5 and 4-3-4 personnel groupings. They also commonly used 2-3-6 and 2-4-5 personnel groupings, though not at the same rate as the rest of the NFL on average.

Martindale leaned into nickel and dime packages even more when his defense was healthy in 2020.

While he didn’t use them often, Martindale made use of 1-4-6 and 1-5-5 fronts quite a bit more frequently than the rest of the NFL.

We should note that the personnel grouping nomenclature refers to the number of down defensive linemen, defenders at the linebacker position, and defenders in the secondary. So it tells us how many defenders are at each level of the defense, but it doesn’t tell us how many of them are rushing, how many are dropping into coverage, and how many are actually defensive linemen, linebackers, or defensive backs.

For a bit more context, let’s look at how many pass rushers Martindale sent the previous three years.

While the general shape of the graphs are similar, the scaling is definitely different from 2019 to 2021. Martindale sent far more four-man rushes in 2021 than he did in 2020 or 2019. That’s explained by the injuries that ravaged the Ravens’ defense last year.

As Nick Falato detailed before, Martindale’s defense thrives on deception and misdirection to create confusion and chaos. Much of that involves unexpected coverage drops and blitzes from unexpected locations. So while he might send four rushers on most passing downs, linebackers and defensive backs are frequently rushing the quarterback. For instance, last year the Ravens had 22 different players get at least one QB hit, while in 2020, they had 19 different players with at least one QB hit.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Giants’ personnel and how they might fit together.

The obvious starting point is Kayvon Thibodeaux. As with Evan Neal, Thibodeaux is good enough, and his skill set is well-rounded enough, that his selection doesn’t actually tell us all that much about the Giants’ plans. He’s a good player who can rush the passer, set the edge in the run game, and drop into coverage when necessary. Thibodeaux will almost certainly spend most of his time on the field playing downhill, either rushing the passer or defending the run. The Giants have needed a defender who can win quickly off the edge with speed, and that could help create opportunities for the Giants’ other rushers.

However, his ability to drop into coverage on occasion will be useful for Martindale’s blitz schemes.

Linebacker Micah McFadden, on the other hand, could tell us something about Martindale’s plans for the front seven.

As we noted in our look at the secondary, the Giants’ linebacker corps is thin. Blake Martinez still projects as the Giants’ starting MIKE, with Tae Crowder, T.J. Brunson and Darrian Beavers as the Giants’ depth at off-ball linebacker.

McFadden was one of the Giants’ many surprising picks after the first round. He likely won’t play a particularly significant role in the Giants’ defense this year.

However, his skillset suggests that linebacker blitzes could be an important part of Martindale’s plan for 2022. McFadden was listed as a “WILL” linebacker on Indiana’s defense, but he blitzed on 33 percent of his snaps last year. That ranks as the third most among off-ball linebackers in last year’s draft. He was just ahead of players like Devin Lloyd (32 percent), Channing Tindall (31 percent), and Nakobe Dean (27 percent).

McFadden was also an effective blitzer, with the fifth-highest pressure rate (28 percent), third-most pressures per game (2.9), and fourth-most sacks per game (0.5) among off-ball linebackers per Sports Info Solutions.

Combined with what we saw from safety Dane Belton (who had one of the highest blitz rates among safeties in this year’s draft class) in our look at the defensive secondary, the picture of a defense that makes heavy use of nickel and dime packages and frequently uses blitzes from the second level takes shape.

This could be a boon for Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown. Coughlin’s background as an edge defender at Minnesota could give him added value as a blitzer. He is an athletic defender and began the process of transitioning from edge to an off-ball role last year. Brown, on the other hand, was an off-ball linebacker in college and has been transitioning to more of an edge role at the NFL level. While the two have opposite paths to this point, they have somewhat similar skill sets. Their ability to effectively play in space while also threaten as pass rushers could earn them sub-package roles in Martindale’s defense.

The defensive line

Looking at Martindale’s trends over the last few years, we can see that his defensive fronts are best described as “multiple.” Martindale used a high rate of fronts with two, three, and four down linemen over the last three years. He only used relatively high rates of each alignment last year, but his history since 2019 shows that each alignment is in his arsenal.

Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, and Quincy Roche will certainly see plenty of reps as true 7-technique defensive ends in four-man fronts. Likewise, we’ll assume that Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence III will see the field a lot. Players like Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, and Calais Campbell have each played between 40 and 65 percent of the defensive snaps under Martindale. We can probably expect Williams and Lawrence to play at the higher end of that range.

Jihad Ward, who spent 2020 and most of 2019 on the Ravens’ defense, will likely be the first defensive tackle off the bench. We will likely see him rotated on the field to give one of the starters a rest. He played 55 of his potential snaps in 2019 and 40 percent in 2020.

Justin Ellis, the Giants’ other free agent defensive lineman who played under Martindale will likely be the team’s primary nose tackle. How much he (and rookie D.J. Davidson) play might depend on how much each front is called. Ellis played between 30 and 40 percent of the defensive snaps as a primary depth player at Baltimore, and their primary nose tackles played roughly 40 to 50 percent of their snaps. It’s also possible that Martindale wants to try Lawrence at nose tackle. While he certainly has the size and strength, Lawrence doesn’t have much of a background at the 0 or 1-technique. He largely played defensive end or 3-technique in college, and has struggled at nose tackle in the NFL.

The Giants made heavy use of TITE fronts under Patrick Graham, which are useful against offenses that use inside running games. However, we don’t yet have a good handle on just what alignments Martindale will favor for the Giants. Given that the Giants haven’t made significant investments at the nose tackle position, it’s fair to wonder just how big a role it will have in their defense.

Overall, we will probably see a defensive front that facilitates Martindale’s aggressiveness. Unbalanced fronts, strategic use of 2-gap players, and unpredictable zone drops will all be in play.