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Giants at Vikings, 2023 playoffs: What will change for the Giants’ defense?

The Giants will be healthier in the secondary — how might that change the game?

New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The New York Giants suffered a 27-24, last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings on a 61-yard field goal mere weeks ago on Christmas Eve. Big Blue struggled to contain star wide receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson, both of who had more than 10 catches and 100 yards receiving in the game, with three scores between them.

Containing the sixth-best passing offense in the league (passing yards per game) is no easy feat. Still, the Giants should be receiving reinforcements that they could have desperately used in their Christmas Eve loss.

Xavier McKinney returned to the lineup in Week 17 against the Colts before resting in Week 18. His presence alone surely helps a Giants secondary that surrendered 299 passing yards to Kirk Cousins in Week 16.

Star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is the name to monitor, though. Jackson has not confirmed if he’ll be available for the wildcard matchup after suffering a knee injury on special teams in Week 11. Jackson practiced this week in a limited fashion, and there’s hope he’ll be available, but it’s not a certainty.

McKinney and Jackson drastically improve the Giants' chances of containing the Vikings' scary passing attack. Not only will it help their man coverage plays against Justin Jefferson - the Giants ran Cover-1 only 7 percent of the time in Week 16, a season low - but it could help New York slow down Hockenson as well.

Bracket Jefferson

The Giants adjusted their Week 15 game plan against the Washington Commanders after star wide receiver Terry McLaurin recorded eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown in Week 13.

Instead of relying on Fabian Moreau and Nick McCloud to single up McLaurin, Martindale employed a coverage that he frequently used in the subsequent week against the Vikings - Cover-6.

(from weekly spiral)

Cover-6, also known as Quarter-Quarter-Half, is a mixture of Cover-4 to one side of the field and Cover-2 to the other side. Typically speaking, although this can fluctuate depending on scheme, personnel, and a variety of other variables, the Cover-4 side assumes the field (wide side), with the Cover-2 side taking the boundary (short side).

This allowed the Giants to have multiple secondary pieces playing top-down on in-breaking routes while also allowing New York to focus multiple sets of eyes on Jefferson. To the Cover-2 side, the Giants would put Moreau in a trail position with a safety over the top. New York also employed a similar technique in Cover-3 Cloud, although the Giants only ran Cover-3 16.9 percent of the time, which tied for the second lowest on the season.

I get it. You may read this and think - why would the Giants replicate a predominate coverage that allowed Jefferson to catch 12 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown?

Fair question; however, Jefferson did little damage when the Giants employed Cover-6. Justin Jefferson caught four passes for 18 yards when the Giants ran Cover-6 in Week 16.

The Green Bay Packers followed a similar approach in Week 17; they understood the exacting standards of Jefferson’s skillset in a must-win game where they held Jefferson to one catch for 15 yards. Just like Wink Martindale, they used Cover-6 more than any other game in 2022. The Packers also used Cover-6 the second most against the Miami Dolphins in Week 16 on Christmas day; they held Tyreek Hill to four catches, albeit one of them was for 52 yards, which put him at 104 on the day.

Hockenson only caught three balls for 26 yards against the Giants' Cover-6 defense. Furthermore, the almost interception by Cor’Dale Flott was in Cover-6 with Flott assuming a deep fourth and undercutting the dig route with the underneath curl-flat defender taking the responsibility of Johnny Mundt’s wheel off the chip and release; that curl-flat BOX defender was cornerback Nick McCloud, another reason why the Giants love to use quarter defensive personnel package. Here’s a quick breakdown of that play:

The Giants can’t consistently run Cover-6 all game, for they would find themselves susceptible to the rushing attack. And that my friends is where we segue like Paul Blart to Dalvin Cook and the Vikings' rushing attack.

More Vikings’ rushing attempts?

The Vikings averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the first game, but they were mostly successful whenever the Giants employed their Cover-6 look. Dalvin Cook averaged 6.6 yards per carry on six rushes against Cover-6. That’s a scary amount of sixs, not going to lie.

The Vikings' longest rush was an 18-yard rush on the second play of the game out of 12 personnel against Cover-6. Cook also had a 7, 8, and 4-yard rush against the look. Alexander Mattison only gained three yards on two rushes against the look.

However, I’m interested to see if Vikings’ head coach Kevin O’Connell adjusts his approach to take what Wink Martindale is giving him up front. The Vikings ranked 24th in offensive rush EPA (Expected Points Added). Their inability to consistently run the rock all season has been an issue.

Although they averaged 4.1 yards per carry on the year, ranking them 26th in the NFL, the Vikings ran the fourth most play-action passes at a 19.3 percent rate. The Giants were third in the NFL in play-action rate.

It’s plausible to assume the Vikings may look to give Dalvin Cook more work on the ground if the Giants keep aligning in more middle-of-the-field open looks. It’s important to also note the Giants love quarter personnel packages that consist of seven defensive backs; New York employed the package at a 31 percent rate against Minnesota, which ranked third most on the season.

Theoretically, teams can run the football against those lighter personnel looks. However, as Wink Martindale has stated, this is a position-less defense. Players like Landon Collins are safeties by trade, but the Giants list him as a WILL linebacker on their official depth chart.

Collins’ play has increased, and he seems very comfortable in the defense. His dual skill set and ability to execute assignments in run support are valuable to the defense.

To quarter, or not to quarter

As previously mentioned, the Giants used quarter personnel at a high rate against Minnesota. Thrty-one percent of their defensive snaps were in quarter personnel.

New York’s biggest liability on defense is its inability to stop the run. They’ve allowed the sixth most rushing yards per game, an average of 144 yards. However, we have to get specific with their struggles.

Teams that employ power/gap and counter-rushing attacks have a more deleterious effect on the Giants' vulnerabilities at the second level. Keying & diagnosing blocks and leveraging gaps are the big issues; eye candy from teams like Dallas (176 and 169 rushing yards), Baltimore (211), Jacksonville (142), Detroit (160), Washington (165 and 159), and Philadelphia (253) gave the Giants issues.

But teams like Tennessee (97), Seattle (87), and Minnesota (83), who employ a more zone-based rushing attack, haven’t had as much success. The Giants have used quarter personnel successfully all season due to the rotating door at linebacker. I’m not certain if Jarrad Davis’ presence will change that, albeit Davis knows the Vikings well after spending several seasons in Minnesota - he game-planned for the Vikings twice this year.

Final thoughts

The Giants used Cover-1 at a season-low 7 percent rate against Minnesota in Week 16. That may change with the possible return of Jackson and the presence of McKinney, but the Giants should employ Cover-6 to get multiple sets of eyes on Jefferson.

New York ran Cover-0 9% of the time against the Vikings and blitzed on a total of 45 percent of their defensive snaps; they were able to get pressure on Cousins during 35 percent of their total snaps. Wink is going to Wink like Kathryn Hahn in Wandavision, meaning he’s going to bring pressure, it’s in his football DNA, but it doesn’t have to be at a 45 percent rate.

The Giants are facing an offensive line with question marks at right tackle after the Week 17 injury to Brian O’Neill. The center position may have a third-string player if Garrett Bradbury can’t return to the game (he practiced this week for the first time in weeks). The Giants could realistically get pressure with a four-man pass-rush and deceptive presnap alignment.

New York was burnt on their two last third downs of the game for 17 and 16-yard completions that set up Greg Joseph’s field goal. I’m fine with Martindale sticking to his guns, and he’s deviated from his heavy-pressure looks before (Week 7 against Jacksonville); still, it’s not unreasonable to believe a healthier Azeez Ojulari and Leonard Williams, along with Kayvon Thibodeaux and Dexter Lawrence won’t get pressure with four, especially with the brilliance of Martindale’s presnap pressure looks.

I’m sure we’ll see Simulated Pressure and maybe some Fire Zone blitzes, and those will be necessary at certain points. Blitzing and pressuring Cousins will, and should, be part of the game plan, but I’m curious to see how much pressure the Giants can generate with their big-four pass-rushers. Either way, I trust Wink Martindale.