The New York Giants secured their first playoff berth since 2016 after a 38-10 Week 17 beatdown of the Indianapolis Colts. The stature of Indianapolis was dismal at that time. The Colts were 4-11-1, had fired their head coach earlier in the season, were on their third starting quarterback, and allowed the biggest comeback in NFL history two weeks prior.
The Giants took a 31-3 lead and revealed the reality of a post-season appearance. Not everyone in MetLife Stadium felt joy, nor did everyone on the Colts mail it in. Former Colt and newly signed New York Giants’ linebacker Bobby Okereke took immense pride in his game and competed till the final whistle blew.
According to Pro Football Focus, Okereke had his second-highest graded 2022 game against the Giants, as the 26-year-old linebacker recorded 17 tackles for the Colts. He was all over the field for Indianapolis, and now he’ll bring that energy to the New York Football Giants.
New York signed Okereke to a four-year, $40 million with $22 million guaranteed contract after a career year. Okereke recorded 151 total tackles, 99 solo, six tackles for a loss, and 53 STOPs in 2022.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Okereke generated 75 defensive stops in 2022, tied for 10th-most among LB. The Giants' linebackers combined for 87 defensive stops last season, 19 fewer than any other defense. He was a tackling machine for Gus Bradley’s defense.
Okereke played with Bradley in 2022 and assumed a larger role that was vacated due to the injured Shaq Leonard. Okereke, who was typically a WILL linebacker in Matt Eberflus’ defense, assumed the role of MIKE and manned the middle of Bradley’s defense.
It was obvious the Giants needed to address their inability to stop the run. New York ranked 28th in rushing yards allowed, with an average of 146.3 yards per game. The Giants' futile efforts to fit and stop power/gap and pin-pull rushing concepts were evident starting in Week 3 against the Cowboys where Tony Pollard rushed for 105 yards, and Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 73.
Kellen Moore, the former Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, called crack toss, G-Lead, and weak side runs that forced linebackers Tae Crowder and Austin Calitro to read, scrape, and locate - it didn’t work well for the Giants. Although the Giants upgraded from Crowder and Calitro with Jaylon Smith, the issues at the position persisted.
However, hopefully, the inability to fit power-gap at a consistent level is over. Here are a bunch of Bobby Okereke plays against power-gap and pin-pull concepts:
The #Giants critical defensive vulnerability in 2022 was their helplessness fitting Power/Gap & Pin-Pull concepts— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) March 14, 2023
With that said, let's enjoy these 2022 Bobby Okereke plays against those concepts pic.twitter.com/YJ6xildAIO
There are a few traits worth highlighting. For starters, discernment! Okereke understands where and when to be in a specific location to mitigate the risk and give himself an opportunity to make a tackle. The mental side of the Giants’ 2022 linebacker position was an issue. And, as we saw from several clips in the video, Okereke is a physical linebacker with the ability to play through contact.
In order to effectively leverage one’s responsibility at the second level, the linebacker has to absorb force like rubber and have the wherewithal to locate and close width on ball carriers. Okereke’s length, strength, and athletic profile allow him to execute those pivotal assignments.
He has a very large tackle radius that is combined with good change of direction and overall body control. Okereke also possesses sideline-to-sideline speed. Sure, there are faster linebackers in the NFL, but his speed is plenty sufficient to operate successfully, as we saw throughout the video. He takes good angles in pursuit, works through trash smoothly, and does well to protect his chest from climbing offensive linemen.
Here’s another successful play against a power-gap run versus the Giants. New York uses Daniel Bellinger (82) and Isaiah Hodgins to block down (the latter has to expand outward), while Richie James (80), Andrew Thomas (78), and Nick Gates (65, so long partner!) kick into space around the down blocks. Back side guard Mark Glowinski (63) climbs to Okereke and takes a good angle to restrict the Colt from getting to the play side. However, the linebacker takes the contact, continues to move laterally, boxes Matt Breida (31) inside, and makes the tackle near the numbers.
Plays through contact
Left guard Ezra Cleveland (72) chips and climbs to Okereke on the inside zone run out of shotgun. Okereke reads the play and is square to Cleveland; the former Stanford Cardinal makes contact with the offensive linemen and continues outside to shorten the angle for running back Dalvin Cook (4). Cleveland hits Okereke but does little to deter the linebacker from bringing Cook down for a minimal gain.
Okereke exercises excellent patience on this run by Josh Jacobs (28). He sees the double team climbing into his lap but understands his teammates and knows their position in relation to their gap control. Grover Stewart (90) has the weak side B-Gap, and the fullback of the Raiders is attacking Zaire Franklin (44). Okereke does not over-commit and flow outside; he waits, engages the climbing guard, and allows Jacobs to cut back. He quickly sheds the block and makes the tackle in the hole. Okereke trusts his eyes and his ability to keep his chest clean.
I appreciate how Okereke is quick to trigger downhill if openings appear; he’s opportunistic in that manner, which coincides well with Martindale’s scheme. He thought he had an opening against Dallas on the play above, but Sean McKeon (84) was tasked to eliminate the penetration from his H-Back spot. Okereke presses the line of scrimmage against inside zone and easily fights off McKeon to work through the contact and right into Ezekiel Elliott (21).
Watch how Okereke keeps his chest clean from the climbing Washington offensive lineman. Simultaneously, he sees the path of the ball and the offensive lineman. Okereke beats the OL to the setpoint and dips his inside shoulder, reducing the accessible nature of his own chest; as he does that, he gets low and leans into the contact, forcing the offensive lineman to reach and lose balance. The next thing Okereke knows, he’s square to the running back and in position to make the tackle.
Mental processing was one of the pivotal traits that the linebackers of the Giants seemed to lack last season. Okereke does not lack the ability to key and diagnose running concepts and react accordingly. Above, we see Okereke dialed into the running back and following the ball carrier as he attempts to cut back. Okereke displays disciplined and trained eyes that typically don’t allow him to be out of position too often.
Okereke wasn’t asked to blitz often in Bradley or Eberflus’ defense. He has 23 pressures in his career and only one season with four or more pressures. Still, there are elements of his game that suggest success in a more blitz-oriented role. He was an effective blitzing linebacker at Stanford, who finished his four seasons with 43 pressures and eleven sacks - that’s something!
Throughout his film, there are plays where the A or B-Gap comes open, and he quickly bursts downhill to make a tackle at the line of scrimmage. He’s quick when asked to blitz at the snap, and it’s easy to perceive how his suddenness coming downhill in run support can be leveraged as a blitzer in Wink Martindale’s scheme.
Against the Patriots above, Okereke quickly sees the A-Gap open, and he meets Rhamondre Stevenson (38) in the backfield for a loss. A relatively easy play when considering we just reviewed a bunch of reps with him working through contact.
We see a similar outcome for the Pittsburgh Steelers above; Okereke notices the shotgun run and takes a direct path into the A-Gap, with the double teams taking too much time on the 2i and 1-technique. More so in this play than the other, this appeared to be a judgment call on Okereke’s part, not a blitz. If that is the case, great job, and execution by the 26-year-old linebacker.
Both Franklin and Okereke do very well against a run-oriented team on the play above. Franklin forced the double team on Stewart to expire while forcing Derrick Henry (22) to cut back toward the field side where the Colts had plenty of defenders. Okereke was also on the field side, and he got tight to the line of scrimmage, beating the climbing offensive linemen downhill. Okereke waited for a split-second in his gap and quickly tackled Henry for no gain.
This play doesn’t display Okereke’s penetration ability, but it showed his understanding of defensive continuity. The Giants have two extra gaps to account for on the boundary side since the tight end, and Darius Slayton (86) are on that side, with Slayton reduced. The Colts blitz a defensive back and No. 51 through the two extra gaps, slanting them inside toward Saquon Barkley (26). Okereke steps forward unblocked and sets to the outside of Barkely, forcing the running back to bounce back inside toward other Colts; however, Okereke just makes the tackle himself by positioning himself exactly where he needed to be. Sometimes, it’s best not to do too much, and Okereke seems to understand that.
Everyone wants a Fred Warner, but those players are not easy to locate. Okereke is a good athlete with elite length for the position, which closes already tight throwing windows for opposing quarterbacks. Teams were encouraged to check down against the Colts' zone coverage, which led to a lot of receptions surrendered by Okereke.
According to Pro Football Focus, Okereke allowed 73 catches on 93 targets (78.5 percent). He allowed 651 total yards, which ranked the eighth-highest of all other linebackers. I do, however, believe a lot of this was due to scheme and check-down passes. Next Gen Stats had an excellent tweet about Okereke’s coverage ability:
Bobby Okereke was tested often in 2022, facing the most targets of any linebacker (78).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 13, 2023
Okereke held his own in coverage, allowing -2.3 receptions over expected and 5.9 yards/target.#TogetherBlue https://t.co/NYgshzCiTh pic.twitter.com/VAExS59vsT
According to Next Gen Stats, Okereke faced the most targets of any linebacker, and he allowed -2.3 receptions over expected. Those are positive marks in the favor of Okereke’s pass coverage ability.
A lot of Okereke’s tackles were off check downs and passes that he quickly rallied toward. Okereke had 151 tackles in 2022, 66 of them were on passing plays.
Okereke delivers a big shot on Saquon Barkley, beating Jon Feliciano (76) to his set point outside to stop what could have been a huge gain. That was read well by Okereke, as was this open-field tackle off a screen against Derrick Henry.
This play is a good example of how Okereke’s length can make a difference. He positions himself well to tackle Henry, but the bruising back does a good job to cut inside; despite that, Okereke is able to grab the inside of his shoulder pads and take the 250-pound back down to the deck.
The Chargers run a designed play to Austin Ekeler (30) off the play-action pass. Los Angeles clears out the flat route to Ekeler in order to isolate the talented ball carrier in space against a linebacker. It was all by design, but Okereke does an excellent job judging his angle and attacking Ekeler right as he catches the football.
The Eagles attempt to do the same thing from an EMPTY set. Pre-snap, Jalen Hurts (1) sees that A.J. Brown (11) has a linebacker over him as the No. 3 WR to the field. Outside that hash, the Eagles have a three-on-three matchup with Brown against a linebacker - piece of cake! Too bad for Philadelphia - Okereke was hungry too. He flowed outside of the bubble and stayed square to Brown with patience. His fellow Colts defender did a great job attacking downhill and putting Brown in a poor position to cut inside to Okereke, where the linebacker made the open-field tackle.
The Colts didn’t use a lot of extreme sub-packages, so their linebacker were on the field often. This would, at times, put Okereke against wide receivers in space. In typically late-season Giants form, Mike Kafka flared Barkley outside to expand a defender and open up a quick easy completion on a hitch route to the receiver closest to the blockers on the line of scrimmage. The genius in the simplicity against a defense in off-leverage is Bellinger’s inside release; the tight end draws the attention of the linebacker and leaves a wider opening as the safety rotating down expands outside to match Barkley. Jones quickly throws to Slayton, but Okereke comes off Bellinger and punches the football loose for a turnover.
The New York Giants needed to find a true linebacker to fortify their defensive front, and they did just that by adding Bobby Okereke to their roster. Okereke becomes the 13th highest-paid linebacker in the league. It’s a heftier price than other teams paid for respectable talent at the position. Still, the cap will continue to increase, and the Giants could not enter 2023 without addressing the linebacker position with heavy investment.
Okereke is a competent starting three-down linebacker who understands how to deconstruct and dodge blocks while possessing the requisite athletic ability, football intelligence, and competitive toughness to start in the NFL. I’m pleased the Giants addressed the position, and Okereke seems to have the right temperament for this Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll led team and the correct skill profile to thrive in Wink Martindale’s system.