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How far are the Giants from having a championship defense?

A Wink Martindale championship defense, that is

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In today’s offense-crazy NFL, it may seem that the old football mantra “Defense wins championships” first proclaimed by legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant has gone out of vogue. Current Alabama coach Nick Saban certainly feels that way:

But Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers feels differently:

Most of the projections for the New York Giants in 2023 focus on whether their offense has improved enough through free agency, the draft, and one big trade to begin to compete with the best offenses in the NFL. In the off-season, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, after only one year in that role, got four head coaching interviews. Veteran defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale got one. Five of the last six NFL No. 1 draft picks have been offensive players (specifically, quarterbacks), and quarterbacks are far and away the highest paid positions in the NFL.

Twelve of the 14 playoff teams in the 2022 season were in the top half of the NFL in scoring (the lowest being the Giants at No. 16 - nonetheless, a whole lot better than their No. 31 rank in 2020 and 2021). Thirteen of 14 finished in the top half in yards gained (the Giants at No. 18 were the outlier). Only nine playoff teams finished in the top half of the league in points allowed (the Giants were No. 18), and only eight were in the top half in yards allowed (the Giants were No. 25).

Yet defense still means something when it comes to winning championships. Consider the past five Super Bowls:

  • 2018: The Patriots stifled the prolific offense of the Rams by using a lot of two-high safety looks, the Vic Fangio approach that has now taken over much of the NFL.
  • 2019: The Chiefs came back in the fourth quarter against the 49ers and then put consistent pressure on San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who could not drive the team downfield at crunch time in the face of the Kansas City pass rush.
  • 2020: The Buccaneers routed Kansas City primarily because their relentless pressure made Patrick Mahomes look mortal through most of the game.
  • 2021: The Bengals were one play away from the winning score when Aaron Donald sacked Joe Burrow on fourth down to seal the win for the Rams.

Only the most recent Super Bowl between the Chiefs and Eagles was not won by great defense when the game was on the line.

Wink Martindale’s history in Baltimore

Martindale started out as linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens and was made defensive coordinator in 2018. The Ravens’ defense under Martindale in 2018 was among the best in the NFL, in both points and yards allowed. They ranked No. 2 in points (stats from Pro Football Reference):

Data from Pro Football Reference

And they were No. 1 in yards allowed:

Data from Pro Football Reference

We know how to stop offenses in today’s pass-heavy NFL: Sack the quarterback and get interceptions. Martindale’s “pressure breaks pipes” philosophy is designed to achieve that, right? Well, actually not. It’s just intended to make the quarterback get rid of the ball before he’s ready by generating pressure. He schemes his pass rushers to have a clear path to the quarterback and hurry him into premature or inaccurate throws, and he asks his cornerbacks to stay with receivers long enough to give the pass rushers time to create that pressure. Sacks and interceptions are nice, but they are not the primary goal.

Here is the sack ranking for that suffocating 2018 Ravens defense:

Data from Pro Football Reference

Tied for 11th. Not bad, but not what you’d expect from the second best defense in the NFL.

Interceptions? Fuhgeddaboudit. The 2018 Ravens were tied for 18th in interceptions with 12, less than the 16 accumulated by the terrible 2018 Giants defense:

Data from Pro Football Reference

But passes defensed? Third in the NFL in 2018:

Data from Pro Football Reference

Tied for second in quarterback pressures:

Data from Pro Football Reference

Lowest in completion percentage allowed:

Data from Pro Football Reference

And second lowest in passer rating against:

Data from Pro Football Reference

A Martindale defense has nothing against sacks and interceptions, but they are infrequent occurrences and unstable statistics from game to game and season to season. What Wink cares about is making the opposing offense unproductive, however that gets done. Causing a quarterback to throw before he wants to and/or to a receiver that is well-covered is something he feels he can make happen on a regular basis...with the right personnel.

Martindale never quite duplicated those 2018 numbers, but his 2019 defense was almost as effective anyway, and his 2020 defense (which overwhelmed the Giants’ offensive line) was not much worse. It wasn’t until 2021, when his top cornerbacks suffered injuries, that his defense performed poorly and he and John Harbaugh decided to go their separate ways.

Where the Giants’ defense needs help

The 2022 Giants defense under Martindale was not terrible. It was just mediocre: Tied for 17th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed (15th in passing yards allowed but 27th in rushing yards allowed), 18th in passer rating against.

You might think that was the fault of the pass rush: Kayvon Thibodeaux missed the first two games and was on a learning curve. Azeez Ojulari missed nine games, Leonard Williams missed four, and the rest of the edge and interior defensive line left much to be desired. Many analysts thought the Giants might draft an edge defender this year, but it didn’t work out that way.

But actually, the pass rush wasn’t bad. The Giants finished eighth in quarterback pressures:

Data from Pro Football Reference

And 13th in sacks:

Data from Pro Football Reference

The problems were that 27th ranked run defense, and the pass coverage. The Giants were actually tied for seventh in completion rate allowed (61.4%) but were 18th in passer rating against (89.9), which tells us that they were giving up a lot of yards and touchdowns when passes were completed, and were not getting many interceptions.

2018 Ravens’ vs. 2022 Giants’ defensive performances

Let’s compare the individual statistics of the two teams’ defensive players to see what needs to be done:


Here are the 2018 Ravens’ defensive back stats for all players who played at least 20% of passing snaps, from Pro Football Focus:

Data from Pro Football Focus

No Raven defensive back in 2018 had more than two interceptions. That tied for 51st in the NFL. They did though have five DBs who played regularly who had a PFF coverage score above average, two more with average grades, and one slightly below average. Their four top cornerbacks had 51 forced incompletions (“FI” in the chart above, which includes pass breakups and interceptions but also balls thrown away or out of bounds due to tight coverage). Their top four DBs in PFF grade all had passer ratings against (“NFL” in the chart) of less than 80.

Here are the same stats for the 2022 Giants’ defensive backs (in order of PFF grade as for Baltimore except that I added new Giant Bobby McCain at the bottom):

Data from Pro Football Focus

The Giants only had three DBs with an above average PFF coverage grade, two more with an average grade, three below average, and two with terrible coverage grades (one of them, Darnay Holmes, a starter). Their five top cornerbacks had only 37 forced incompletions. They only had one DB with a passer rating against below 80. And it’s not as if they made up for it with lots of interceptions - only two players, one now gone (Julian Love), had any interceptions at all. I did not include new Giant Amani Oruwariye, who is expected to have a minor role if he even makes the 53, but for the record, he had a terrible 31.3 coverage score in 2022.

This is why Wink Martindale was giving bear hugs when Joe Schoen traded up to draft cornerback Tae Banks in the first round. Per the PFF 2023 NFL Draft Guide, Banks had only one interception last season - but that’s not what Wink cares about. What he did have was 13 forced incompletions, a 43.3% completion rate against, and a PFF coverage grade of 74.3 (in addition to missing only one tackle all season).

It is hoped that Banks will step in as a starter in Week 1 and become the Giants’ CB1. But even if that happens it’s not enough for Wink to replicate what he had in Baltimore in 2018. Adoree’ Jackson, who doesn’t intercept passes much but is very good in coverage, is another piece of the cornerback puzzle, so with luck CB1 and CB2 are settled.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. By now it seems clear that Darnay Holmes is not the answer at slot cornerback. Aaron Robinson might be if he could ever stay healthy for an entire season. Cor’Dale Flott showed flashes, including a big third down pass breakup late in the Minnesota playoff game, but hardly played in the playoffs otherwise. Until the Giants have an answer to that question they will be vulnerable to teams with deep wide receiver rooms.

The situation at safety is even more muddled. Everyone thinks that Xavier McKinney is a championship-caliber player, but there is limited evidence to support that opinion. McKinney missed most of his first season with an injury, but started to break out in year two (78.4 coverage grade, 5 interceptions, 79.2 passer rating against). He then missed half the 2022 season due to his ill-advised ATV ride and generally played poorly in the Martindale defense before that: A 58.8 coverage grade and no games with an above average score.

Beyond McKinney it’s a toss-up. Dane Belton had two interceptions but was otherwise terrible in pass coverage and played very little after Week 11. Bobby McCain is not that big a dropoff from Julian Love, but he’s not a long-term solution either. Perhaps Jason Pinnock will emerge, or one of the Giants’ late-round draft picks, Tre Hawkins III or Gervarrius Owens, will.

Run defense

The 2018 Ravens’ front line defense was impenetrable against the run, with six players grading above average, two of them (Michael Pierce and C.J. Mosley) playing at an elite level:

Data from Pro Football Focus

The 2022 Giants were far from impenetrable against the run when Dexter Lawrence or Leonard Williams were not on the field (I have added new Giants Bobby Okereke, A’Shawn Robinson, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches):

Data from Pro Football Focus

Lawrence, Thibodeaux, and Williams were all very good stopping the run (Williams’ score was higher early in the season before his neck injury). But beyond them, the Giants had a couple of players with at best average play against the run and a whole bunch of players who were downright bad run defenders.

Things should be much better in 2023. Okereke and Robinson immediately upgrade the run defense (Robinson was injured part of 2022; his run grade in 2021 was 78.3). Nunez-Roches is only an average player but still better than many of the Giants who got significant snaps in 2022. The 2023 Giants might not be the 2018 Ravens against the run, but the sight of running backs slicing through the first level of defense at will in 2022 should be a distant memory by September.

Pass rush

Baltimore had a good but not great pass rush in 2018, mostly confined to their top three of Za’Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Matt Judon:

Data from Pro Football Focus

The Giants’ 2022 pass rush was about as effective, but with sacks somewhat more widely distributed:

Data from Pro Football Focus

There is a narrative out there that Kayvon Thibodeaux needs to take the next step to be a dominant pass rusher, that Leonard Williams no longer provides much in pass rush, and that Azeez Ojulari needs to develop from his rookie year promise (and stay healthy). All of those things would be nice to see in 2023, but if the 2018 Ravens are a guide, they aren’t necessary for the Giants defense to dominate.

New Giants A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches don’t provide much in pass rush (although again it should be noted that when he was healthy in 2021, Robinson had four sacks). Bobby Okereke hasn’t either thus far in his career, but he was rarely asked to rush the passer as a Colt (only 24 times in 2022). It will be interesting to see whether Martindale uses him differently, since the foundation of his pass rush is the unpredictability of which player(s) will rush on any given down.

Rebirth of the 2018 Ravens defense at MetLife in 2023?

Probably not. Two of the required pieces - a versatile pass rush and a stout run defense - should be there in blue every week. But there’s work yet to be done in pass coverage, even if Tae Banks is as advertised and becomes CB1 right from the start. The Giants will have to find a slot cornerback somewhere. Xavier McKinney will have to fulfill his promise, and someone will have to step up as the second safety. Given the gauntlet of great wide receivers that the Giants will see in 2023, the sooner this happens, the better.