New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was excited. It was near the beginning of training camp, Isaiah Simmons and Boogie Basham weren’t Giants yet and Tre Hawkins was a sixth-round pick expected to be a backup, but Martindale was imagining the possibilities with a defense that — on paper — looked deeper and faster than the Giants’ 2022 defense.
Martindale said he believes “every year” that he will run a top-tier defense. He clearly expected the 2023 Giants defense to be better than the 2022 unit that was 25th in yards, 17th in points and 31st in rushing yards per attempt allowed.
“I think that we can be excited about it and like I said, it’s going to be fun to watch,” he said. “I think that the biggest thing you will see is the difference in our speed and as soon as we can catch the execution up with the speed, like I said, it’s going to be fun for you guys to watch and for our city to watch and our fans to watch.”
At the time, Martindale expanded on his reasons for optimism.
“I just think it’s a lot of different things. It’s the second year in the system, you know the players that are coming back. You know them better than you did at this time last year,” Martindale said. “Guys themselves are just working really hard and trying to improve every day. Whether that’s Dex [Dexter Lawrence] or the last guy that we just brought in, whoever that is. I just think that the organizational alignment that we have with Joe [Schoen] and Dabs and the whole staff, the that you’re looking for the traits, the characteristics and all that. We’re all in align and it’s an exciting time right now.”
The defense has been anything but exciting to watch for the first three games. It has, bluntly, been abominable.
Some numbers for the Giants’ defense:
- Last in points allowed per game (32.7)
- 27th in yards per play allowed
- 29th in net yards per pass attempt allowed
- 29th in percentage of drives ending in opponents’ scores
- Last in ‘Expected Points Contributed’ on defense with a -43.5 total
- 26th in third-down conversion percentage
- 30th in sack percentage
- 29th in yards per completion allowed
You get the point. The numbers are not kind. Yes, they’re skewed. The three-game sample size is small. And two of the three games, against the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, were against NFC heavyweights. Yet, that is what the Giants aspire to be, and coming off a 2022 season during which they won a playoff game they acted during the offseason like an organization that felt their team was ready to step up into that class.
The tackling has been atrocious
We have talked about Kayvon Thibodeaux. We can talk about pass rush. We can talk about third down defense. We can talk about the difficulty of playing two rookie cornerbacks. We can talk about whether or not Martindale is using his personnel properly.
The biggest problem has been tackling. The Giants missed just one tackle Week 1 against Dallas. They have missed 28 tackles, a ridiculous 14.0 per game, the last two weeks. Overall, their 9.7 missed tackles per game is seventh-worst in the league. The Chicago Bears are the worst tackling team in the league through two games 13.0 missed tackles per week, and the Giants were worse than that in Weeks 2 and 3.
“Definitely an area we’ve got to get better at. We’ll continue to work at it every week, but it’s something that we’ve got to do a better job of,” head coach Brian Daboll said. “I’d say it’s just overall not where we need to be. So, we’ll continue to work at it. That’s an area that’s got to get better.”
The Giants were bullied by the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday and by the Arizona Cardinals during most of their Week 2 encounter.
The Giants are the worst tackling team I've ever seen in my life... pic.twitter.com/ANjRTSsSgO— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) September 22, 2023
That was four missed tackles on one play vs. Deebo Samuel, giving San Francisco 20 extra yards. Samuel, of course, is one of the most physical, tough to tackle receivers in the league. So, some missed tackles are understandable.
Deebo Samuel:— PFF (@PFF) September 22, 2023
6 missed tackles forced vs the Giants
No other WR has more than 5 MTFs for the season pic.twitter.com/4KnddocAis
The 49ers, in general, have an incredibly physical group of skill players. Still, this is not good:
The 49ers gained 215 of their 310 passing yards after the catch (69.4%) in their 30-12 victory over the Giants.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 22, 2023
Deebo Samuel (+613, 1st), Christian McCaffrey (+278, 1st) & George Kittle (+257, 2nd) all rank in the top 2 of their position in YACOE since 2021.#NYGvsSF | #FTTB pic.twitter.com/iOZlcfRfx6
I couldn’t help but laugh at this. It’s funny, but not really funny:
Here are the worst offenders for the Giants when it comes to tackling, counting only players with double-digit attempts:
- Micah McFadden (7 misses, 22.6%)
- Jason Pinnock (6 misses, 20.0%)
- Tre Hawkins (3 misses — all vs. the 49ers, 21.4%)
- Bobby Okereke (4 misses, 14.2%)
- Xavier McKinney (3 misses, 14.3%)
You have to expect that to get better, McKinney has an 8.4% missed tackle rate for his career. Okereke has a 10.4% rate. McFadden missed 9.1% a season ago. Pinnock did miss an alarming 13.0% last season. One of the appeals of Hawkins and Tae Banks coming out of college was their ability to tackle.
You know what doesn’t happen when you don’t tackle well, or tackle with authority? You don’t force fumbles. The Giants have forced one in three games, which they did not recover. You also don’t put the opposing team in long-yardage situations where you can rush the passer with abandon.
You know what doesn’t happen when you don’t hit the quarterback often enough? First, you don’t get strip sacks. Second, you don’t force the quarterback to make bad decisions. Meaning there are fewer opportunities for interceptions. The Giants have none.
They did have a Jason Pinnock interception vs. Arizona nullified by penalty. That interception, though, wasn’t possible without the penalty. They have had their hands on a few passes, but not come up with the ball.
Are some of the Giants’ best defenders being used in the best ways? Martindale is an excellent defensive coordinator, but it is fair to question how some players are being utilized.
Thibodeaux has just seven tackles (one for loss) and one cleanup sack and two quarterback hits. He has a 36.6 PFF grade in three games. His pass rush win rate of 2.9% is 97th out of 102 qualifying edge defenders graded by PFF. Thibodeaux was drafted No. 5 overall to be an impact player, a game-wrecker. Thus far, he hasn’t been.
We talked at length about Thibodeaux last week, and the reality is that both performance and opportunity have been problematic. So far this season, Thibodeaux has rushed the passer 76 times (only 18 true pass sets). He has dropped into coverage 22 times (22.4%) of the time. At that rate, he will drop into coverage 124.6 times. Last season, he dropped 71 times.
Does Thibodeaux have a real chance to impact games if he is going backward that often instead of forward?
McKinney is missing tackles and not making the impact plays he did when he had five interceptions and looked like an emerging star in 2021. During that season, McKinney played 807 of 1,134 snaps (71.1%) at free safety and was in man coverage 21.8% of the time. In 2023, he has played just 51.1% of his snaps at free safety and has been in man coverage 39.8% of the time.
Patrick Graham was a vastly different type of defensive coordinator than Martindale. He favored playing zone, disguising coverage and letting McKinney read and react to what he saw in front of him. Martindale is not that.
Adoree’ Jackson is the Giants’ best cornerback. To accommodate Banks and Hawkins, the Giants have moved him into the slot — a position he had played sparingly throughout his career.
The slot vs. wide cornerback numbers are not as stark for Jackson as you might think — largely because Banks has missed significant time in two of the three games with injuries. Jackson has played 73 slot snaps and 105 as a wide cornerback.
Whether playing in the slot or bouncing back-and-forth is affecting Jackson is tough to say. His PFF passer rating against of 114.5 is far below the 73.4 and 85.9 ratings he posted the last two seasons. If that continues, it would be — by far — the worst passer rating against of his career.
Jackson’s passer rating against in the slot of 118.8 is 23rd of 29 qualifiers. If he continues to play there on a regular basis, perhaps he will gain comfort and that will improve. Still, the results thus far beg the question of whether or not Jackson should be spending so much time inside.