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Kayvon Thibodeaux, problem? No, the Giants have a defensive problem

It’s easy to blame Thibodeaux, but Giants’ defensive problems go deeper than one player

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals
Kayvon Thibodeaux
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

It is fashionable in the New York Giants fan base these days to rip on Kayvon Thibodeaux. Has Thibodeaux been under-productive in his first two games of the season? Yes. Do the Giants have a Thibodeaux problem?

No, not really. They have a defensive problem.

I touched on the defensive issues, of which Thibodeaux’s lack of obvious production is one, in Tuesday’s Giants-49ers storylines post. The intent here is to delve into a deeper discussion of what is going on with the Giants’ defense.

Because trashing Thibodeaux is all the rage with the cool (not cool? Misinformed?) Giants fans these days, let’s discuss Thibodeaux first. Radio talk show types like Tiki Barber and Boomer Esiason can’t stop talking about him. Fans are wondering if Thibodeaux cares after a viral video of him separated from the team during Sunday’s comeback circulated.

Thibodeaux explained that on Tuesday by saying he was “meditating and visualizing what we’re going to do as a team.”

That’s a little strange perhaps in the heat of an emotional moment, but OK. I have been around Thibodeaux enough to know that he is a different kind of character, gregarious and talkative at times, introverted and unapproachable at others.

If you want to have a problem with anything Thibodeaux has said or done, have a problem with him on Tuesday being critical of Giants fans in Arizona for booing the team in the first half.

“Even early in the game our own fans are booing us and giving up on us,” Thibodeaux said. “You start to realize that the only people that matter are the people in the room and the people who are really here for us, is us.”

Those are the same Giants fans who were in Arizona, not New Jersey. The same Giants fans who might have outnumbered Cardinals fans. The same fans who watched the Giants play historically ugly football for six quarters, starting the season being outscored 60-0. They should have been booing. The Giants deserved to be booed.

Thibodeaux should have been thanking the fans for turning out in droves for a road game across the country, and for their wild second-half support. Not being dismissive of them. The rest of his teammates were effusively thankful to the fans.

Still, all of that is getting sidetracked from the performance issue.

Yes, Thibodeaux’s only contribution to the stat sheet on Sunday was one measly quarterback pressure. Yes, in two games Thibodeaux has just one pressure, four tackles, a terrible pass rush win percentage of 2.6 (101st out of 104 qualifying pass rushers graded by Pro Football Focus), and one ‘Wet Willie.’

I spent time looking at Thibodeaux film this week with Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman. Again and again as we watched Thibodeaux’s pass rushes from the season’s first two games we saw Thibodeaux gain an early advantage with power or speed (almost always power), then give it back by not having a plan for a secondary move, not using his hands properly (or at all), or simply by taking a bad path to the quarterback when he did have an opportunity.

Here are some of Hatman’s comments regarding Thibodeaux during our session:

“No plan.”

“He’s not stacking ‘em [moves] right now.”

“He’s only doing one thing at a time.”

He’s “not maximizing” his advantages.

“He just doesn’t seem to have a plan right now.”

“He’s not putting these things [moves] together in a way that’s useful.”

“His hands are just not very precise right now.”

So, yes, Thibodeaux. should be better. He needs to be better. He has the skills, the arsenal to be better. For whatever reason, when he has had opportunities he hasn’t used his full arsenal to this point.

The usage reality

Still, Thibodeaux is not THE PROBLEM. His numbers thus far are partially on him (a 2.6% win rate is pitiful), but also largely a symptom of other problems within the Giants’ defense and of how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale uses edge defenders.

Thibodeaux is not Micah Parsons. Stylistically, he isn’t a fly-around-the-edge speed rusher like former Giant Osi Umenyiora. He’s more grinder, more power, more effort pass rusher — more like Justin Tuck was.

The reality is that Wink Martindale does not necessarily run a defense that turns edge defenders into stars.

  • Matthew Judon had 4, 8, 7, 9.5 and 6 sacks playing for Martindale. Over the past two seasons with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots he has had 12.5 and 15.5.
  • Za’Darius Smith had 5.5, 1, 3.5 and 8.5 sacks playing for Martindale. With the Green Bay Packers the last two seasons he had 13.5 and 12.5.

Martindale has referred to Thibodeaux as a “can opener” who helps everyone else be successful because of the many things he can do. Thibodeaux is often tasked with dropping into coverage as Martindale blitzes from elsewhere, or barreling into linemen to clear a path for someone else.

In four full seasons with Martindale, the fewest times Judon dropped into coverage was 107. With the Patriots, he dropped into coverage 94 and 73 times the past two seasons.

Thibodeaux dropped into coverage 71 times in 2022. In two games this season, he has dropped into coverage 13 times while rushing 43 times. Over 17 games at that pace, he would be in coverage on 110 snaps.

Thibodeaux hinted at his multi-faceted role here:

Aidan Hutchinson of the Detroit Lions, a player Thibodeaux is often measured against, has dropped into coverage three times while rushing the passer 88 times this season. Thibodeaux has rushed 10 times vs. what PFF defines as true pass sets, while Hutchinson has rushed 54 times in those situations.

For reference, here is how PFF defines a ‘true pass set’:

Pro Football Focus divides all pass-blocking reps into two categories: true pass sets (TPS) and non-true pass sets. True pass sets exclude plays that are designed to negate the pass rush, such as quick passes (under 2 seconds), screens, play action rollouts, and RPOs.

Usage and opportunity are obviously real things when it comes to Thibodeaux’s numbers. Detroit uses Hutchinson differently, as more of a conventional pass rush-first edge defender, while Martindale uses Thibodeaux in a larger variety of ways, with pass rush only being part of his job.

Why is it that Thibodeaux and the Giants have had so many fewer real pass rush opportunities than Hutchinson and the Lions?

The defensive issue

Much of what I wrote on Tuesday about the issues on defense is valid to this discussion. So, rather than re-invent the wheel, here it is:

After two weeks, the Giants are last in the league in points allowed (68). They don’t have a quarterback sack. They have yet to force a turnover. They are 26th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (136.5). They are 25th in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.6). Teams have run the ball 51.3% of the time against the Giants, with only three teams being run on more often. The Giants missed 12 tackles Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, per Pro Football Focus. While the pass coverage hasn’t been horrendous per most metrics, the Giants are 28th in the league in yards allowed per completion (10.9).

Run defense

The Giants were 31st in the league last season, giving up 5.2 yards per rushing attempt. They signed linebacker Bobby Okereke, and veteran backup defensive tackles Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson in free agency to address that issue. Thus far to minimal impact.

To be fair, Nunez-Roches (51.3 PFF grade in 30 run defense snaps) and Robinson (60.7 in 24 run defense snaps) battled injuries in training camp, did not practice consistently, and played little in preseason. To his credit, Nunez-Roches in 10th among interior defensive linemen in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate stat at 40%. Based on their careers, both should get better as the season progresses.

Okereke was a force late in the game against Arizona, but has missed five tackles over two games. The Giants need him to be the player he was down the stretch vs. the Cardinals. Micah McFadden missed four tackles against the Cardinals. He was in position to make plays, he just didn’t make them. Veteran edge defender Jihad Ward has a team-worst 32.8 grade in 36 run defense snaps. Arizona took advantage of Ward for several long runs to his side Sunday. Even Leonard Williams, whose 52.4 PFF run grade is 14 points lower than his 2022 career worst, has yet to make an impact.

The run defense has to be better to give the pass rush more opportunities.

Pass rush

Here, again, is a smidgen of what I wrote on Tuesday:

The Giants have no sacks and just 13 quarterback hurries in two games. Awful. Kayvon Thibodeaux has been invisible thus far. Azeez Ojulari is hurt. Leonard Williams is off to a sluggish start. Isaiah Simmons has rushed the passer just nine times in two games.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has dialed up the blitz 42.1% of the time thus far after doing so a league-leading 39.7% of the time a season ago. The Giants are 18th in the league in pressure percentage at 19.3%. That’s not horrible, but they haven’t had enough opportunities.

Remember that definition of ‘true pass set’ from above? In two games, the Giants’ defense has faced a true pass set from the opposing offense just 13 times.

13 times!!!!

That’s what happens when you can’t defend the run and you get outscored 60-0 over six quarters. The opposing offense never has to try and push the ball down the field. They never have to put the quarterback, and the ball, at risk.

All of those screens and RPOs and quick throws not only work to negate the pass rush, they are more difficult to create interceptions on. Turnovers most often come in long-yardage situations, and when a team is trailing. The Giants have held a lead for all of 19 seconds over two games.

That confluence of events means that the Giants have not put opposing offenses in difficult situations nearly often enough over two games. Thibodeaux is part of the problem, but not nearly all of it.

The Giants have simply created very few situations where the opposing offense was uncomfortable.

One other issue when it comes to interceptions. Who on the Giants is going to make them?

Adoree’ Jackson is a good cornerback, but he has only three interceptions in 71 career regular-season games. He has never been a game-changer. First-round pick Deonte Banks might develop into that, but guess who NFL draft analysts compared Banks to? Adoree’ Jackson. Tre Hawkins III is doing far more than could have been expected from a rookie sixth-round pick, but no one can expect him to be Trevon Diggs already.

Xavier McKinney had five interceptions in 2021, but none in 11 games since. When, incidentally, is the last time McKinney made a difference-making play? The only time he was noticed against Arizona was when he was being trucked by quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back James Conner.

Point is, right now it isn’t certain that the Giants have difference makers in the secondary.

Final thoughts

Yes, Thibodeaux needs to be better. It is a mystery why, when he does have opportunities to rush the passer, he is failing to string moves together and capitalize when he creates an initial advantage.

Reality is, though, he is far from the only reason the Giants have yet to get a sack or create a turnover. There are issues right now at every level of the defense. All of it needs to get better if the Giants are going to be a good team.