During the 2023 offseason, GM Joe Schoen had several priorities to improve the New York Giants’ roster. Wide receiver was the most prominent offensive area, but close behind was the Giants’ putrid run defense. It is rare for a team to rank dead last in anything and still make the playoffs, but that’s what the Giants did. It ultimately came back to bite them when the Eagles put up 268 rushing yards at a 6.1 yards-per-carry clip, all the way to a 38-7 Divisional Round exit.
Schoen attempted to make robust upgrades in this area, bringing in Bobby Okereke, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, and A’Shawn Robinson to shore up the front seven. The question is if that will translate to concrete results on the field. Will the Giants’ run defense improve?
In the 2022 regular season, the Giants gave up the sixth-most cumulative rushing yards in the NFL with 2,451. The 5.2 yards per carry they allowed tied for 30th, ahead of only the Chargers. They ranked 20th in giving up 16 rushing touchdowns and 28th in allowing 134 rushing first downs on a 28.6% rate, which was last. Their 6.68% explosive run rate ranked 28th.
The efficiency numbers for the Giants were just as bad. They ranked last in rush defense DVOA at 12.1% and second-to-last in EPA per rush (not including kneels) at 0.0979, per nflfastR data.
Does it matter?
The bigger question is how much run defense matters. Three 2022 playoff teams (Giants, Chargers, and Seahawks) ranked in the bottom 10 in rush defense DVOA, and the average run defense DVOA rank of playoff teams was 14.3. The team that ranked first, the Tennessee Titans, did not make the playoffs.
In 2021, the average rank was slightly higher at 13.6, and there were only two playoff teams, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, that were in the bottom 10. In 2020, the first season in which there were seven playoff teams per conference as opposed to six, the average rank was just 11.1, with seven of the top 10 teams making the playoffs and just one in the bottom 10 (Kansas City at 31).
On average, it seems that playoff teams are at least near the middle of the league in stopping the run. They’re not necessarily elite, but they’re usually at least average. Although the Giants did make the playoffs in 2022 with their terrible run defense, that generally stands as an outlier (as did much of their 2022 season).
Therefore, it’s likely a fair assessment to say that run defense does matter, at least to a certain extent.
Assessing run defense
One of the problems in figuring out if the Giants have improved their run defense is the lack of solid quantifying metrics to evaluate individual players. Outside of Pro Football Focus grades, which are based on subjective film study and not inherently statistical, there are few numbers to point to and definitively say whether a player does his job in the run game.
ESPN Analytics has run stop win rate as an attempt to quantify if a player “wins” a run defense rep. Besides the fact that the data is proprietary and not released on a granular level, some of the data that is available is suspect, at best.
A classic example of this is ex-Jets and current Saints defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd. ESPN ranked him second among defensive tackles in run stop win rate. However, a cursory glance at the film indicates that he is a terrible run defender—far from second-best, he is likely closer to the second-worst. In fact, Shepherd’s 58.6 PFF run defense grade, which ranked 38th out of 73 interior defensive linemen (min. 200 run defense snaps), is too kind to him. (See my colleague Michael Nania’s full breakdown of the Jets’ run defense for a further explanation.)
The reason for this discrepancy is simple: win rates do not indicate whether or not a player actually did their job. In the Jets’ penetrating 4-3 system, one-gapping defensive linemen are meant to quickly penetrate into the backfield. However, if they do not maintain gap integrity, it is easy for offenses to simply let the penetrator’s momentum carry them out of the play, completely nullifying the effect of the penetration.
The Giants play a two-gapping, 3-4 defense, which makes positional leverage even harder to gauge. For example, Dexter Lawrence was not rated in the top 10 in run stop win rate for defensive tackles. However, he had the highest PFF run defense grade at the position, posting an 81.9 mark. Lawrence was often tasked with eating up blocks and maintaining leverage to allow others to make the tackle.
This is the exact issue with many other run defense metrics. PFF has a metric called stop rate, which indicates what percentage of the player’s tackles constituted a “failure” by the offense. They define a failure as gaining less than 40% of the required yardage on first down, less than 50% on second down, and less than 100% on third and fourth down.
This statistic can be misleading in a few ways: first, if a player doesn’t make many tackles, it’s a sample-size issue. Even the missed tackle metric doesn’t tell us where those missed tackles occurred or how many potential stops the defensive player whiffed on.
Furthermore, stop rate measures only the result, not the process; a player can get credit for a stop while merely cleaning up a different player’s dirty work. That’s why Lawrence’s 8.3% stop rate ranked 21st among defensive linemen: many of his best plays did not result in his own tackles.
Average depth of tackle (AVDT) is a particularly insidious statistic without context. Here, Kayvon Thibodeaux is a classic example of how hustle and effort can show up poorly in the box score. Thibodeaux’s 5.0 AVDT ranked last out of 72 qualified edge rushers, yet his 70.1 PFF run defense grade ranked 21st. The likely reason is that Thibodeaux can make tackles farther downfield than many other edge rushers due to his speed, awareness, and, yes, hustle.
Tackles and tackles for loss
Tackles as a whole are almost a completely useless stat for the reasons mentioned above. They don’t give any context about where and how the tackle was made or whether the player maintained gap integrity. Tackles for loss (TFLs) have a similar issue: many TFLs do not actually point to the player who made the play possible, and some come from a player who was simply unblocked.
Therefore, the best metric to evaluate a player’s run defense without watching every play is simply PFF’s run defense grade. As stated earlier, calling it a “metric” is dubious when it is merely an aggregation of subjective film study, but it is the best data available, to my knowledge.
Did the Giants improve?
In 2022, here were the Giants’ defenders PFF run defense grades in order of snap count.
Interior defensive line
Traditionally, when you think of run defense, you think of the big guys in the middle. It was incredible that the Giants’ run defense was so poor in 2021 considering how well Lawrence played, leading all interior defensive linemen in PFF run defense grade. That’s even more remarkable when you look at Leonard Williams, who played the second-most interior snaps in run defense and had a 72.0 grade, which ranked 13th-best at the position.
One likely explanation is the other players who substituted along the defensive line. Justin Ellis took 187 interior run defense snaps and posted a 30.3 grade, while Henry Mondeaux’s 143 snaps resulted in a 29.0 grade. Ryder Anderson’s 84 snaps resulted in a 36.3 score. Nick Williams was better at 63.2 on 104 snaps, but overall, that’s a lot of poor run defense from the interior, particularly if the Giants went with three defensive linemen on a given play.
Overall, taking a weighted average of a team’s interior defensive line by accounting for their total snap counts, the Giants’ interior line ranked 14th with a 58.6 run defense grade. That would seem to indicate that their line was not the main cause of their run defense issues. Therefore, bringing in Nuñez-Roches (58.5 run defense grade in 2022) and Robinson (68.7) may not have as much of an impact as the team would hope.
Still, taking 436 run defense snaps and having those two players replace Ellis, Mondeaux, and Nick Williams (434 total run defense snaps) would have changed the Giants’ weighted average to 68.1, which would have been the second-best defensive line run grade in the NFL. It’s worth noting, though, that the No. 1 team was the Vikings at 68.5—and their run defense was 19th in DVOA. This would tend to indicate that run defense is dependent on a lot more than just the interior defensive line.
Thibodeaux comes with a reputation as a solid run defender, and he delivered on that in his rookie season. It would appear that the only place he has to go is up as he builds strength and learns to utilize leverage to his advantage.
Azeez Ojulari played just 74 run defense snaps in 2022, posting a 61.3 grade. That was very similar to his 62.5 grade on 289 run defense snaps in 2021, which ranked 36th out of 73 qualified edge defenders. Ojulari appears to be an average run defender.
Meanwhile, the Giants also like Jihad Ward, who did not fare nearly as well in run defense. Ward posted a 53.7 run defense grade in 2022, which ranked 64th among edge defenders. Perhaps simply getting Ojulari out there for more snaps will do some good in run defense as well as edge rushing. Still, Oshane Ximines fell into the same range as Ojulari with a 61.0 grade on 180 snaps, so he roughly made up for Ojulari’s missing snaps.
Tomon Fox posted even poorer numbers than Ward on the edge with a 45.0 run defense grade in 151 snaps. Fox would appear to have the inside track on a roster spot, though, simply because the Giants’ only other players at the position are oft-injured Elerson Smith and undrafted free agent Habakkuk Baldonado. That is somewhat worrisome for the run defense.
Overall in 2022, the Giants’ edge defenders ranked 27th with a 58.7 run defense grade, and they don’t seem to have made that many improvements. Thibodeaux did miss the first two weeks of the season, but that likely accounts for roughly 35-40 run defense snaps. Ojulari played only 74 snaps, but Ximines made up for all but approximately 35 of them with a similar level of play. Ward will still most likely receive a decent chunk of the snaps, although Fox’s role could be diminished if Ojulari can stay healthy.
The biggest change for the Giants’ defense is replacing whatever mix of inside linebackers they had in 2022 with Bobby Okereke. Okereke ranked 15th out of 71 linebackers with a 79.3 run defense grade in 2022. However, his grades had not been nearly as good in the prior two seasons, as he posted 44.1 and 51.6 grades as a run defender in the two prior seasons. He did have a 67.5 grade in 2019 as a rookie.
As a whole, the Giants had a number of linebackers perform quite poorly as run defenders. Jaylon Smith was the best of the bunch at 62.7 on 317 snaps, which ranked 45th out of 71 linebackers. Micah McFadden had a 51.4 grade on 218 snaps, and Tae Crowder was at 28.2 on 204 snaps. Landon Collins was still listed as a safety on PFF, but 104 of his 160 total snaps came at linebacker; he had a 29.4 grade on 32 run defense reps. Jarrad Davis was at 53.9 on 30 snaps.
It appears that the linebacker position was a significant culprit for the Giants’ run defense issues. Okereke can be a massive upgrade on that score if he maintains his 2022 level of play.
The other off-ball linebacker position is a mystery: with Davis out, Darrian Beavers seems to have a big advantage over McFadden toward starting. Beavers posted run defense grades of 46.8, 64.1, 78.6, and 72.4 during his four college seasons with significant snaps. If Beavers can improve over Crowder and McFadden from 2022, that can also be a big plus for the Giants.
The Giants’ linebackers ranked 23rd with a 57.7 PFF grade in 2022. If you have Okereke’s 415 snaps replace Smith and half of Crowder’s snaps (419 snaps), the grade would improve to 63.3, which would have ranked 20th. Along with that, if Beavers can post just a 60 grade—which would have been significantly below average for 2022 linebackers, ranking 51st out of 71 qualifiers—and replace the rest of Crowder’s snaps and half of McFadden’s (211 total run defense snaps), their grade would go all the way up to 68.5. That would have ranked 12th among linebacker groups in 2022.
While not traditionally considered a key position in run defense, cornerback support is nevertheless critical for a run fit. Adoree’ Jackson, who returns as the Giants’ CB1, was decent in this area, posting a 68.2 grade that ranked 30th out of 75 qualified corners.
Between injuries to Jackson, Aaron Robinson, and various other players, the Giants played a hodgepodge of corners in 2022. Nick McCloud played 225 run defense snaps at cornerback and posted a 71.4 run defense grade, but he will be moving over to safety full-time. Fabian Moreau’s 274 run defense snaps produced a 56.8 grade, which ranked 48th.
Deonte Banks takes over the Giants’ CB2 role, and it remains to be seen what his run defense will be like. His 57.7 run defense grade in college a year ago was one of the worst in the FBS, ranking 128th out of 149 cornerbacks. He was marginally better in 2020 with a 62.2 grade in a smaller sample size of 133 reps. The only year where his run defense was solid was his freshman season in 2019 when he posted a 69.8 run defense grade on 246 reps, which would have ranked in the 60th percentile among qualifiers.
Two other Giants cornerbacks who saw notable run defense action, Darnay Holmes (170 snaps) and Cor’Dale Flott (141), did not fare well as run defenders. Holmes posted a 28.5 PFF grade, while Flott’s was 42.9. There’s a decent chance that Holmes gets cut this offseason, but Flott may have a larger role.
Robinson returns to compete for a significant role in the Giants’ defense. In 2021, he posted a 75.3 run defense grade on 90 run defense reps, which is a nice start for a small sample size. Prior to that in college, Robinson had back-to-back seasons where he ranked in the 82nd and 92nd percentile, respectively, in cornerback run defense.
Since Ed Valentine’s most recent 53-man roster projection has Tre’ Hawkins III making the roster, it’s worth noting that Hawkins had the second-best FBS cornerback run defense grade in 2022 at 90.1. He ranked 18th the year before with an 80.0 grade. Perhaps he can help somewhat in the run game, as well.
Overall, Giants cornerbacks ranked 24th in 2022 with a 55.4 PFF run defense grade. Robinson and Hawkins offer an opportunity to improve that, while Banks and an increased role from Flott could hurt it. Jackson staying healthy could help, as well.
What is immediately noticeable is that the player with the most run defense snaps in 2022, Julian Love, is no longer with the team. However, Love’s 63.4 PFF run defense grade ranked 41st out of 64 qualified safeties, so perhaps the Giants were able to upgrade in that area.
The problem is that Love’s most natural replacement, Bobby McCain, had an atrocious run defense grade in 2022. He ranked dead last with a 33.9 grade. Love’s and McCain’s positional alignments differed somewhat in 2022, as Love took a higher percentage of snaps in the box compared to McCain’s higher rate at slot corner. Additionally, McCain had never been close to that bad in run defense in years prior, including a 66.8 run defense grade in 2021.
Furthermore, McCain has significant competition at the safety position. McCloud is transitioning over to the position full-time; his 71.4 PFF run grade ranked 20th out of 69 qualified cornerbacks. McCloud did play 22.9% of his snaps at the box safety position last season, perhaps giving some indication of how he can perform as a run defender at safety.
Meanwhile, Jason Pinnock is another contender for an increased safety role. The converted cornerback posted an excellent 76.6 run defense grade in 2022, which ranked 17th out of 73 safeties with at least 180 run defense snaps. He has a solid history as a run defender going back to his college days, where he posted grades between 69.4 and 73.6 in all three of his seasons as a starter. It’s coverage where Pinnock has his biggest struggles.
Dane Belton figures to be somewhere in the safety conversation, as well. Belton had a 28.9 run defense grade on 122 snaps, which will not help his cause to get on the field, especially with McCloud and Pinnock playing so much better against the run.
At the other safety position, Xavier McKinney is somewhat of a mystery. His 56.1 run defense grade ranked 58th among safeties, one year after ranking 30th with a 68.0 grade. Perhaps a usage difference could account for some of that: he played 71.1% of his snaps at deep safety in 2021 compared to 57.9% in 2022, and he played in the box a lot more last season at 21.8% vs. 13.1% in 2021.
The whole safety position could go in many ways depending on who gets snaps and which previous level of performance they imitate. In 2022, Giants safeties ranked 27th with a 58.6 weighted PFF run grade. There are too many variations to possibly do a one-for-one replacement for 2023.
Which changes will matter the most?
Isolating the absolute impact of each defensive position will take more time and analysis than this article can evaluate. A couple of thumbnail substitutes I looked at suggested that edge defender could be the most important, but since safety was ranked a fairly-close second, you can take from it what you will.
Additionally, PFF grades can be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. On the flip side, there is a general urge to evaluate players based on watching the game on TV or going to the game, which provides an incomplete picture of how a player truly performs. When PFF grades seem to contradict what the naked eye shows, a more thorough look at the film is likely in order. Alas, that is also beyond the scope of this article. As stated earlier, the grades are likely the best we have in evaluating individual player performance in run defense.
The problem is that if edge defender really is the most important position in run defense, the Giants may not have that much room to improve based purely on personnel. They upgraded at linebacker and their defensive line depth and made some changes at cornerback and safety that could go either way. They seemingly mostly neglected the edge, perhaps a nod to their belief in both Thibodeaux and Ojulari and/or their fondness for Ward.
Ultimately, it can’t really be argued that run defense is more important for winning than pass defense. Therefore, with many holes on defense and not enough cap or draft capital to competently fill all of them, the Giants seemingly split the difference between their run and pass games. They are also hoping that some of their injured players from 2022, particularly Beavers, can make a big difference to the overall outcomes.
Overall, the Giants’ run defense has the tools to be better in 2023, perhaps even significantly so. Some of that has to do with who wins positional battles and how the playing time is divided. Health will obviously be a major factor, as it has so often been for the Giants. Still, it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff chooses to approach playing time and how much run defense factors into their decisions.