The New York Giants have advanced to the Divisional Round of the 2023 NFC Playoffs for a third encounter with their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Big Blue faced the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field two weeks ago and lost 22-16. The Eagles played their starters to the final whistle, while the Giants rested key players.
It was obvious that coach Nick Sirianni and the Eagles did not want to use Jalen Hurts’ rushing ability, for the MVP candidate was ailing with a shoulder issue that rendered him inactive in Weeks 16 and 17. However, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale doesn’t expect that to be the case this time.
“He’s off the injury report, so I’m expecting Jalen Hurts the MVP candidate,” Martindale said. “I think if you expect anything less, you’re kidding yourself because the guy’s definitely a competitor.”
The earned bye week that’s awarded to the number one seed should allow the Eagles to get healthy. Not only is Jalen Hurts dealing with a sprained SC joint in his throwing shoulder, but star right tackle Lane Johnson’s groin is still an issue. Hurts was a full participant in practice, but Johnson was limited on Tuesday.
Defensive tackle Linval Joseph and edge defender Robert Quinn were also limited in practice with calf and back injuries, respectively. Nickel cornerback Avonte Maddox did not practice with a toe injury.
Wink didn’t Wink
Chris Pflum and I host the Big Blue View show, deemed The Chris & Nick Show - I know, creative, right? A common phrase relating to Giants’ defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is Wink will Wink, meaning Martindale traditionally doesn’t stray away from his preponderance of blitz calls with middle-of-the-field-closed (MOFC) looks.
The NFL is trending toward more quarters and split safety looks, with match principles, to prevent explosive plays. During the season, Martindale stuck to his philosophy and ran Cover-1 (man coverage) on 29.2 percent of his snaps, which was the second-highest rate in the league behind the Detroit Lions.
Martindale also ran Cover-0 (no safety; typically with multiple extra rushers) more than any other team in the NFL. True to his identity, Martindale blitzed more than any other coordinator in the NFL. The Giants blitzed on 43.9 percent of defensive snaps; the Dolphins were second with a blitz rate of 37.2 percent. Martindale also only ran Cover-2 (Man and Zone) on 4.3 percent of snaps.
However, despite his nature, Martindale altered his defensive approach to stifle the Minnesota Vikings’ explosive passing attack. When the two teams met in Week 16, Martindale employed more Cover 6 than he did in any other game in 2022. In the Wildcard win, he used Cover 6 on one play.
Here’s an article detailing some of the responsibilities and liabilities with Cover 6:
Instead of a reliance on Cover 6 (a coverage with two deep players splitting a fourth of the field with another deep player assuming a deep half role), Martindale implemented more quarters coverage (four players assuming a fourth of the deep portions of the field). Within quarters, there are plenty of match rules and principles that typically require a lot of practice.
Here’s an article detailing some of the responsibilities and liabilities with quarters, which, in some manner, is also referred to as Cover 4:
The Giants were methodical in their approach to passing routes off while keeping multiple sets of eyes on Justin Jefferson. New York ran quarters on 48.2 percent of their snaps - the highest by far on the season. The defensive approach was a success and deviated from Martindale’s traditional tendencies.
However, that was last week against Minnesota - will that same type of approach work against Philadelphia?
I understand the last matchup was a glorified exhibition game from the Giants' standpoint, but forcing five field goals was a complete success for New York. Philadelphia was five of 14 on third down, with two of the five conversions happening early in the first quarter.
New York sacked Jalen Hurts for a loss of eleven, and Dane Belton intercepted Hurts on a third-and-7. The Giants' defense on money-downs is a big reason why they’re so successful this season, despite holes on the roster.
The Giants did not have defensive lineman Leonard Williams, safety Xavier McKinney, or cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in either of their two losses to the Eagles this year. Their presence alone will give Martindale the freedom to diversify his coverages a bit more than we saw when these teams met in the regular season. Both are crucial assets to Martindale’s game plan, but multiple sets of eyes on one superstar in a split-safety game plan will be difficult to execute against Philadelphia.
The trio of AJ Brown, DeVonta Smith, and tight end Dallas Goedert poses a bigger threat to the Giants than Minnesota’s talent. Smith is a substantial upgrade over Adam Thielen and KJ Osbourn, and Philadelphia’s ability to run the football in a multitude of different ways exacerbates the issue.
Jalen Hurts only had one loss on the season - a Monday Night Football game against Washington where the Commanders controlled the clock and forced four Eagles’ turnovers in a 32-21 upset at the Link. Washington only averaged 3.1 yards on the ground, but the Eagles still signed defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to help their run defense. A confluence of events broke in the Commanders’ favor, and they seized the day. New York can’t rely on four Eagles turnovers, but the Giants have to capitalize on Philadelphia’s mishaps.
Quarters and other split-safety looks will help prevent the explosive plays, but that will concede space for a quick-hitting passing attack in the short areas, as well as the dangerous rushing offense that ranked fifth in yards per game.
If the Giants use split-safety looks again, as often as they did against Minnesota, they must be dialed into their run keys. The importance of Giants' linebackers, and the safeties filling the alley, will be vital keys to stopping a potent rushing attack.
The apex/nickel defender will be in conflicted scenarios where his decisive decision-making could make a huge difference; his ability to discern run or pass can give the Giants a numbers advantage in the box when it is run, but the play action element will be difficult to decipher. New York must also remain disciplined on the zone read; the end man on the line of scrimmage away from the mesh point has to respect the threat of Hurts keeping the ball.
The Giants will almost certainly see a lot of GH-Counter and power-gap concepts from Philadelphia. The Giants defense significantly struggles to fit any rushing attempts that involve pullers. The Eagles rushed for 253 yards in Week 14. Hopefully the addition of Jarrad Davis will assist the Giants second level in defending power-gap, but that remains to be seen.
New York must remain aggressively smart with contain contingencies to stop Hurts’ rushing ability. The Giants averaged a blitz rate of 49 percent against the Eagles on the season; that number may be a bit inflated due to Philadelphia’s blowout win in Week 14, but hitting Hurts is a necessary path to victory.
I think we’ll see a more aggressive approach against Philadelphia than we saw against Minnesota. Martindale has used drastic safety rotation with seven guys crowding the line of scrimmage this season; we may see some of that in certain third-down situations. New York should also continue to match and prevent the explosive play, which will put a burden on the big guys up front.
Adjustments should be made accordingly throughout the game, but New York cannot allow the Eagles to achieve the explosive touchdowns as they did in Week 14.
When in man coverage
The Giants will still run man coverage in certain situations. Martindale is going to send the heat with Cover-0 blitzes, and he’ll run Cover-1. Against the Vikings, anytime the Giants ran Cover-1, they buzzed Julian Love inside of Justin Jefferson, with Adoree Jackson playing high/outside leverage. I appreciate this approach, but it may be difficult to consistently employ against AJ Brown.
New York’s corners must remain disciplined on double moves and trust the technique that coach Henderson instills in them. It could be a long day, and Hurts must be accounted for by the edge rushers in contain or a spy when the Giants are in man.
Adoree Jackson should follow AJ Brown, and I also believe that Xavier McKinney should be assigned Dallas Goedert like he was TJ Hockenson in the fourth quarter. This will place a burden of responsibility on Fabian Moreau to handle DeVonta Smith.
Depending on the contain ability and how each corner is comporting itself throughout the game should determine where/how the buzz or rat in the hole shades for help.
Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell did a good job, at times, forcing New York out of their quarter personnel package (7+ defensive backs, not to be confused with quarters coverage). The Giants ran quarter more than any other team in the league. Martindale wants speed on the field, and the Giants' linebackers aren’t exactly difference-making players.
The Giants only played BASE personnel (three down linemen, four linebackers, four DBs) when they faced 22 personnel with FB CJ Ham on the field. I think the Giants will play more BASE against the Eagles when they are in 12 personnel.
Depending on the down and distance, New York matched Philadelphia with BASE when the Eagles employed their 12-personnel package. 12-personnel in anything less than five yards was mostly matched by BASE. So, the more negative plays on early downs for the Eagles' offense means more of the desired personnel on the field for the Giants' defense.
Playing the Eagles is no easy task for a defense. Teams who play against the Giants know full well - handling rushing quarterbacks is difficult. On top of that, the Eagles have three very good pass catchers, an explosive threat in Quez Watkins, and one of the better-rushing attacks in the league behind a top-tier offensive line.
New York was burned for two long touchdowns in Week 14, both of which were against Cover-1. Big Blue may attempt to create the same umbrella defense they used against Minnesota, but Philadelphia’s rushing attack may quickly force a transition, and that’s one of my keys to the game - be flexible.
Wink Martindale is a very smart defensive mind, and he’s not giving enough credit for his pliability. The additions of Jackson and McKinney are important, and the health of Azeez Ojulari would certainly help the Giants' four-man pass rush.
Still, adjustments must be made to alter a very comprehensive and effective offense. Make Jalen Hurts uncomfortable in the backfield while making him think twice whenever he decides to leave the pocket.