When you ask New York Giants fans about the team’s defensive philosophy, two phrases will come to mind: blitz and man coverage. It’s the chief reason that they drafted Deonte Banks in the first round, to Wink Martindale’s delight, and it might also be a contributing factor to Jason Pinnock’s starting safety job. Indeed, the 2022 Giants played the highest rate of man coverage in the NFL at 45.5%.
Looking through the Giants’ coverage tendencies, though, I was surprised to see another above-average coverage rate, one that I would not associate with a man-based coverage philosophy. They ranked 11th in running Cover 4 zone, or quarters coverage, at 18.4%. That’s usually associated with a less aggressive defensive philosophy, as it involves two deep safeties, corners playing off, and three underneath defenders.
While they weren’t in the top 10 in that area, the fact that the Giants were just outside it made me wonder. In what situations did they use man vs. quarters? Will they continue to run a fair amount of it even as they commit to man coverage?
Pros and cons of Cover 4
Quarters coverage is considered a “bend but don’t break” type of defense, designed to limit deeper throws while providing more space underneath. The base alignment involves four deep players, each playing a quarter of the field, and three underneath zone defenders.
The biggest issue with Cover 4 is all the space available in the short and middle area of the field. With fewer defenders in the short area and the cornerbacks bailing deep, flats, hitches, and quick outs are often hard to access. Therefore, quarters is usually played in longer down-and-distance situations. When it’s run on earlier downs, the deep zone players (usually two cornerbacks and two safeties) try to cheat up in some way to stop the run, which can leave them flat-footed against play-action and lead to big plays.
A more thorough description of Cover 4 can be found here.
How much more?
The league average for quarters was 15.8%, so the Giants’ 18.4% rate was not as far above average as their man rate (45.5% compared to the 29% average). Still, they ranked 27th in Cover 3, 20th in Cover 6, and 32nd in zone as a whole, so the fact that they ran more Cover 4 in comparison to the rest of the league while running other zones less is unusual.
On the whole, the Giants didn’t use quarters as their predominant coverage, but the fact that it was above average is noteworthy.
The Giants actually did pretty well when they played quarters coverage. Here were some of their numbers and ranks, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
- 79.5 quarterback rating (9th)
- -3.6% completion percentage over expected (8th)
- 6.2 yards per attempt (14th)
- -0.23 EPA per dropback (3rd)
- 58.9% defensive success rate (12th)
- 6.3% sack rate (13th)
The Giants’ performance in quarters hints at the success of Wink Martindale’s strategy as a whole. The team blitzed 34.8% of the time out of Cover 4, the second-highest rate in the league. As a result, they forced a 2.61 average time to throw, the fifth-fastest. This likely contributed to the poor efficiency metrics that offenses put up against it; the quarterback had to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid the rush, meaning that they completed passes at a lower rate than expected and generally did not gain much out of it.
The Giants ran Cover 0 the second-most in the NFL at 10.3%, behind only the Miami Dolphins. Cover 0 is classic Martindale: the ultimate boom-or-bust coverage. It is man coverage across the board with no deep safety. The reward is usually quick pressure on the quarterback, but the risk is a huge play if the passer can get off a screen or a deep ball.
Most NFL teams employ Cover 0 sparingly, preferring to use it only in the red zone where the risks of a game-breaking play are not as great due to the limited space. The Giants did not limit their usage to that area, though. Martindale went for broke.
Considering how often the Giants used it, I expected to find that they gave up big chunks of yardage with it. However, they were actually pretty successful in employing it.
- -8.9% completion percentage over expected (12th)
- 3.3 yards per attempt (15th)
- 7.9% sack rate (10th)
- -0.38 EPA per dropback (T-9th)
- 66.7% defensive success rate (T-9th)
- 77.7 quarterback rating (9th)
Despite allowing five touchdowns against one interception while playing Cover 0, the Giants held passers to a 77.7 quarterback rating. That likely indicates that the touchdowns came in the red zone (where you would expect there to be more touchdowns than interceptions), while the rest of the plays against it were highly ineffective.
General man coverage
The Giants played more man coverage than any other team in the NFL at 45.5%. Considering that they had only one above-average man corner in Adoree’ Jackson, they had a surprising amount of success with it. Credit Martindale once more for making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
- 87.6 quarterback rating (8th)
- -5.2% completion percentage over expected (5th)
- 5.9 yards per attempt (T-7th)
- -0.09 EPA per pass (11th)
- 62.1% defensive success rate (6th)
- 37.2% quarterback pressure rate (1st)
The biggest issue is that the Giants gave up 18 touchdowns against three interceptions out of man coverage. However, their passing touchdown rate of 6.5% was the eighth-best, and the rest of their efficiency metrics follow that they were successful in man coverage.
If even one of Banks and Tre Hawkins can be reasonably successful as a rookie, the potential of this defense is higher than it seems. They played man or quarters 63.9% of the time and had a nice amount of success with both. The one caveat is that Julian Love had the fifth-best Pro Football Focus man coverage grade at 73.7, while Jason Pinnock’s 58.5 grade ranked 49th.
Still, with Martindale’s creativity as a defensive coordinator and the reinforcements at all levels, there is a reason to believe that the Giants’ defense can be better than expected.