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Wink Martindale’s defense is an outlier, but is it a good idea in the NFC East?

The Giants’ division opponents are built to give his style of defense problems

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New York Giants v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

New York Giants fans were mostly thrilled when new head coach Brian Daboll made Don “Wink” Martindale one of his first hires, as defensive coordinator. There is probably no defense more fun to watch than one based on Martindale’s “pressure breaks pipes” philosophy. His teams lead the league in blitzes, with pass rushers disguised before the snap and then one or two schemed to get open paths to the quarterback after the snap.

Martindale’s defenses were among the best in the NFL in his first three years as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens (2018-2020). Those Ravens teams never reached the Super Bowl but were always a serious contender. Giants fans saw first-hand the havoc that Martindale’s approach can create when the teams played in 2020 and the Ravens’ pass rush overwhelmed the Giants’ offensive line.

Martindale’s philosophy is diametrically opposed to what Giants’ fans had become used to during the Joe Judge years, with former defensive coordinator Patrick Graham employing a more passive zone defense designed to confuse quarterbacks rather than offensive lines. That defense reached its apex in the Giants’ 2020 game in Seattle, when Graham absolutely flummoxed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and enabled the Giants to escape with a win despite Colt McCoy starting for an injured Daniel Jones.

The Giants’ defense in Martindale’s first year was not great. It finished 25th in yards allowed, but tied for 17th in points surrendered. Considering all the injuries on defense, though, especially in the secondary, and the lack of talent at linebacker, the defense performed reasonably well in most games. The NFL was not that impressed, however. The highly experienced Martindale got only one head coaching interview in the offseason, while his offensive counterpart, Mike Kafka, a first-time coordinator who shared offensive planning with head coach Brian Daboll, got four.

Perhaps this is explained by the insatiable hunger of NFL teams today for cutting-edge offenses. The rules now favor the offense over the defense so dramatically that teams are always looking for the next offensive genius to exploit them. Still, defensive coordinators DeMeco Ryans and Jonathan Gannon got head coaching jobs, so there may be another reason.

Martindale seeks to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as soon as possible, but the extra potential pass rusher he often puts up front means one less player in coverage. That puts a premium on defensive backs who can play on an island in man coverage long enough for the pressure to either get to the quarterback or force him to throw to a receiver who is not yet open. The Giants were among the league leaders in percentage of defensive snaps played in man coverage (around 50%), and that was despite a series of injuries that kept their best defensive backs off the field for a good fraction of the season. That goes against the raging NFL trend toward the Vic Fangio-style zone defense approach that seeks to disguise coverage rather than pass rushers and shows a lot of two-high shells prior to the snap. League-wide, about two-thirds of dropbacks since 2020 have been against zone defenses.

Do NFL wide receivers prefer to face man or zone defense?

We can’t ask them all, but people who watch them for a living can tell us how well they play against the two styles of defense. It’s not easy to isolate the performance of a receiver from that of the quarterback throwing to him. Traditional statistics such as receptions, yards, and touchdowns are not always the best indicators of the players on either end of a pass attempt (as fans of Daniel Jones are quick to attest).

Pro Football Focus tries to address this by separating receiver performance into three categories: routes run, contested catch success, and yards after catch. The first of these (the RECV grade in PFF tables) is just a measure of how successful a receiver is in getting open. It is the most independent of the quarterback of the three measures and correlates well with how often receivers are targeted, completion percentage, and yards gained. For example:

Courtesy Timo Riske/Pro Football Focus

Here are the 2022 regular season RECV grades facing man vs. zone defenses for all wide receivers that were targeted at least 30 times:

Data from Pro Football Focus

The green diagonal is the 1:1 line and the dashed blue is the trend line. The slope of the trend line is positive, i.e., the zeroth order statement is there are good, average, and subpar receivers regardless of how you defend them. But there is obviously a lot of scatter too, so the type of defense does matter to individual receivers.

Receivers above and to the left of the 1:1 line (49 of them) do better against zone than man, and those below and to the right (64 of them) do better against man than zone. So there is an overall preference among receivers to face man defense than zone. This explains the < 1 slope of the trend line, i.e., receivers who are a lot better than their counterparts when facing man defense are not necessarily much better than them when they face zone coverage. This is one basic reason that Fangio-style defenses, especially those that change at the snap, have proliferated in the NFL.

How does this affect the Giants in 2023?

Martindale is going against that trend by using so much man defense. Is that a good idea if you’re coaching in the NFC East? I have labeled some points in the diagram above for wide receivers of note that the Giants will face this season. First and foremost, let’s consider the Giants’ NFC East rivals, against whom the Giants went 1-4-1 in 2022:

  • Better against man: CeeDee Lamb, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Jahan Dotson, Curtis Samuel
  • Better against zone: Terry McLaurin, Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup (but only barely), Quez Watkins

That’s five vs. four, so on the surface not much of a preference. The problem is that the five who do better against man include four of the five elite, or potentially elite, receivers in the division that the Giants will see twice.

You could argue that the NFC East, of all divisions, is not a place to be playing man defense a lot. Lamb, Brown, and Smith are above average against zone defenses, but they are among the best of the best when they see man coverage. This didn’t faze Brian Daboll, who was quick to hire Martindale and didn’t even interview Fangio when he became head coach.

How much man vs. zone a team plays doesn’t always matter. Some of the greatest receivers could care less what defense you throw at them. Among Giants’ 2023 opponents, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Garrett Wilson, and Chris Olave all posted elite (80+) route running grades against both man and zone. The list of pass catchers who are elite against zone is overall pretty small, though - only 13 players (and the Giants will face most of them this season). By contrast, there are 23 receivers with elite grades against man (the Giants will face about half of them). Some 2023 Giants opponents (San Francisco, Seattle) have one receiver who excels against zone and another who excels against man.

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

So in the long run, maybe it doesn’t matter that much if you’re a heavy man defense - as long as you are flexible enough to adjust to specific opponents. In 2022, Martindale didn’t seem to have that flexibility early on. After playing man only 41% and 35% in his first two games, he played 50-60% man in nine consecutive games (at least).

Maybe he changed some later in the season, though. Here’s one possible example where Wink may have gone to school on a previous team’s success. The Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson dominated opposing defenses all season against both man and zone defenses. (Jefferson is the point in the upper right corner right next to Tyreek Hill in the scatter plot above.). He began in Week 1 against the division rival Green Bay Packers with nine receptions in 10 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns, and a 91.3 PFF RECV grade. When the teams met again in Week 17, though, Jefferson caught only one pass in four targets for 15 yards and a 55.5 RECV grade. What changed?

According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay switched from mainly playing a soft zone in Week 1 to more disguised coverages in Week 1 but with one thing in common: Always having a second player ready to bracket Jefferson with inside and outside leverage.

Did the NFL notice? Here are Jefferson’s stats for the Vikings’ final six games:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Through Week 16, the Giants’ regular season loss in Minnesota, Jefferson maintained his almost weekly destruction of NFL defenses. The next game was the one in which Green Bay figured out how to contain him, and after that he was ineffective in his final two games, including the Giants’ Wild Card victory over the Vikings.

In that game the Giants blitzed less than expected and followed the Packers’ playbook of bracketing Jefferson with two defenders as often as possible. It worked. Jefferson caught 7 passes but none longer than 11 yards:

Data from Pro Football Focus

You have to pick your poison. Tight end T.J. Hockenson caught all 10 of his targets for 129 yards, but he failed on the one that mattered most, when quarterback Kirk Cousins checked down to him on fourth-and-8 rather than prematurely throwing downfield to a double-covered Jefferson and Xavier McKinney held him to a 3-yard gain.

That’s a trade-off a defense will take any time. It suggests that perhaps Martindale has recognized the limitations of what he can accomplish in the absence of having two shutdown man coverage cornerbacks on the roster. It also suggests that you need two such cornerbacks anyway. The Vikings were susceptible to that type of scheme because their WR2, Adam Thielen, was no longer the threat he was in his early career. This presumably is why Minnesota drafted Jordan Addison in the first round.

Are the Giants prepared for these matchups?

At the moment, it’s hard to say that things look good. Here is the 2022 performance of Giants’ cornerbacks and safeties in man and zone coverage:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Only Adoree’ Jackson played above average in man defense in 2022, although Aaron Robinson and Jason Pinnock (in limited samples) were close. First round draft pick Deonte Banks (whose 2022 college grades are shown) was selected specifically because of his man coverage skills, but he actually played better in zone coverage in 2022. Assuming he becomes a skilled man coverage defender at the NFL level, the Giants might finally have two cornerbacks who can play man defense the way Wink likes - IF the Giants bring back Jackson in 2024.

This is a new season, though, and with a year of experience in Martindale’s system, we might expect to see some improvement elsewhere on the roster. Jackson, Robinson, and Pinnock are promising enough in man coverage for Giants’ fans to at least hope that they can be up to the task, and the expectation is that Banks will fit well into this type of defense.

Xavier McKinney is one of the biggest keys to the season on defense. In 2020 he was the first of five safeties drafted in the second round. He missed most of his rookie season, then showed great promise as a second year player. Last year, though, he regressed quite a bit before irresponsibly being injured during the bye week. He came back in time to make the game-saving play at the end of the Minnesota Wild Card game. His lackluster play in the first half of the season, though, calls into question whether he is suited to Martindale’s style of defense. To this point, he has been greatly outplayed by Jeremy Chinn and Antoine Winfield Jr., who were both on the board when the Giants selected him. How he performs in Martindale’s system this year may be a key to its success or failure.

Of all the Giants’ defensive backs, Darnay Holmes, who was terrible in man coverage and excellent in zone coverage, seems like a square peg in a round hole in a Martindale defense, although even Wink plays zone 40-50% of the time, depending on the game. That said, someone has to step up and win the slot cornerback job. The logical candidate is Aaron Robinson, but he first has to show he can stay on the field.

In two games against the Giants in 2022, CeeDee Lamb caught 14 passes in 22 targets for 193 yards and one touchdown. A.J. Brown caught 11 of 20 for 187 yards and one touchdown, and DeVonta Smith 18 of 26 for 192 yards and two touchdowns, in three games against the Giants. These are not egregiously bad numbers for the Giants’ pass defense, but if you watched the games you know that some of these were daggers in the heart of the Giants’ hopes, coming at crucial times when the game was up for grabs or the opponent was beginning to pull away.

The missing piece here is the pass rush. A Martindale defense is a delicate balance between defenders sticking with their man long enough and rushers getting to the quarterback fast enough that the receivers don’t have enough time to win their routes before the passer is forced to get rid of the ball. The Giants’ pass rush grades against division opponents in their 2022 games were:

Coincidentally, the only game in which the pass rush was above average was the Giants’ only division win.

So is Wink Martindale the best choice of defensive coordinator for a team in the NFC East? It’s only his second year, so given his past success in Baltimore, it’s unfair to judge just yet. The stakes are high, though, when you have six teams on your schedule every year whose offenses match up well with the type of defense you like to play. It’s probably no accident that Joe Schoen’s first pick in both of his drafts so far was on the defensive side of the ball despite the NFL being an offense-dominated league and the Giants having big needs on offense.

Martindale’s high-risk, high-reward approach to defense sure is exciting to watch. Will it begin to translate into more success against division rivals? Is Martindale flexible enough to adapt it to his and his opponents’ personnel if not? The Giants’ prospects to win the NFC East in the next few years will depend on it. Martindale’s chances of becoming an NFL head coach some day may, too.