Three games into the 2023 season, the New York Giants have been an abject disappointment in virtually every area. The areas of seeming personnel improvement have not translated to the field, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Almost as notable, though, is the continued disappearance of one of their most important holdovers: safety Xavier McKinney.
McKinney broke out as one of the best young safeties in the NFL in 2021, his second year in the league after the Giants drafted him in the second round (No. 36 overall) in 2020. He recorded 93 combined tackles (59 solo), 15 defensive stops, 10 passes defensed, five interceptions, and a 79.2 targeted quarterback rating. His 75.4 Pro Football Focus grade ranked 14th out of 64 qualified safeties, and his 78.4 coverage grade ranked 10th.
Since Wink Martindale took over as defensive coordinator, though, McKinney has struggled. In his first year as a defensive captain in 2022, he played in nine games, recording 45 combined tackles (29 solo), eight defensive stops, five passes defensed, no interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack, and a 97.7 targeted passer rating. His PFF grade fell to 57.8 with an identical coverage grade.
So far in 2023, it hasn’t been much better. He has a 62.6 grade through three games, ranking 44th out of 69 qualified safeties, and a 64.0 coverage grade, which is 36th. He has 18 total tackles (13 solo), and two defensive stops with a targeted passer rating of 83.8.
Even worse, McKinney’s missed tackle rate, which has always been better than the safety average in the past, has suddenly ballooned. The average missed tackle rate for a safety in 2022 was 11.6%. From 2020-22, McKinney posted rates of 4.2%, 9.3%, and 8.7%. In 2023, though, his rate is a whopping 14.3%, which is in the 32nd percentile among safeties. Perhaps it’s simply the ebb and flow of a small sample size, but with the Giants’ tackling woes as a whole, it’s certainly alarming.
More than anything else, McKinney’s lack of impact plays is what stands out. Safety coverage can be very difficult to determine because they are often helping rather than covering one-on-one. Certainly, coverage statistics like completions, yardage, and targeted passer rating must be taken into context. Still, McKinney seems invisible throughout a game, and that was the case before his gruesome hand injury last year just as much as it is now.
Why has the Giants’ safety disappeared? Is there anything the team can do to kickstart his production, or was 2021 simply a flash in the pan?
2021 vs. 2022-23 role
One thing to note is that McKinney’s role in Martindale’s defense has substantially differed. Per PFF, in 2021, 807 of McKinney’s 1134 defensive snaps (71.2%) came at deep safety. Another 135 came in the slot (11.9%), and just 177 (15.6%) came either on the defensive line or in the box. McKinney primarily played farther off the line of scrimmage.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, McKinney was successful as a single high safety in 2021. He allowed 9 of 18 receptions for 88 yards, no touchdowns, six passes defensed, and four interceptions from that look, yielding a 24.5 quarterback rating and a -22.1% completion percentage over expected (CPOE). His -18.6 target EPA in single high was second only to Kevin Byard among safeties.
In 2022, though, Martindale made a shift in that role. Of McKinney’s 554 defensive snaps, 321 (57.9%) were at deep safety, while 177 (31.9%) came either along the defensive line or in the box and 46 (8.3%) in the slot. That means roughly 15% of McKinney’s role shifted from playing deep to playing near or at the line of scrimmage.
Interestingly, in 2022, McKinney’s numbers in single high were still solid. He allowed 3 of 8 completions for 47 yards, one pass defensed, no touchdowns or interceptions, a 57.8 passer rating, -5.1% CPOE, and -0.3 target EPA. The biggest difference between 2021 and 2022 seems to have been his lack of impact plays (more on that later).
Instead of shifting McKinney back deep more regularly, though, Martindale has doubled down on the approach. McKinney has played just 107 of his 205 defensive snaps this season at deep safety (52.2%), while he’s taken 76 (37.1%) on the defensive line or in the box and 20 (9.8%) in the slot. The results have been much the same.
This approach is further baffling when you consider that the Giants’ other starting safety, Jason Pinnock, plays better in the box. Pinnock has similar splits to McKinney, playing 56.4% of his snaps deep, 30.4% in the box or along the defensive line, and 10.3% at slot corner. The fact that McKinney has a higher rate of playing near the line of scrimmage than Pinnock is very strange considering that McKinney’s primary success came while playing deep, while Pinnock’s biggest strengths have generally been run defense and blitzing.
However, it’s important to note that McKinney’s numbers as a single high safety have plummeted early in 2023. Through three weeks, he has allowed 3 of 4 completions for 78 yards with one pass defensed, a 116.7 targeted passer rating, a 7% CPOE, and 5.5 target EPA. While playing single high suited him in 2021 and even (to a lesser extent) 2022, it hasn’t helped him so far in 2023.
Let’s go through each of McKinney’s five interceptions in 2021 and evaluate a few things.
- Where was McKinney lined up?
- Was it man or zone coverage?
- How much did he really do to earn the interception?
- Is there something in that film that he is not doing now?
Matthew Stafford (No. 1)
Matthew Stafford is an interception-prone passer. Still, the two that McKinney nabbed off him are not exactly noteworthy given that the Rams were leading by scores of 28-3 and 38-3 respectively when each one occurred.
The first was even less notable when you consider that there were 10 seconds remaining in the first half. The Rams faced a second-and-6 from their own 41. The Giants were in loose quarters coverage, trying to prevent the Rams from getting into field goal range. Stafford had a window to get the ball to Cooper Kupp and simply threw the ball slightly too far. It bounced off Kupp’s hands and into McKinney’s.
McKinney did get a nice return, but it was to end the half, so the Giants couldn’t do anything with it.
Matthew Stafford (No. 2)
With a 38-3 score in the fourth quarter, the Rams face a third-and-8 from their own 37. The Giants are in Cover 3. There appears to be some miscommunication between Stafford and his tight end here (looks like No. 89 Tyler Higbee), leading to a throw with no obvious Rams target. McKinney was simply in the right place at the right time and dove to pick it off.
Derek Carr (No. 1)
Like Stafford, Derek Carr has had his issues with interceptions. McKinney took advantage.
The Raiders facing a third-and-7 from their own 35, up 13-10. McKinney lines up appearing to be a high safety in either a middle-of-field open or closed look, perhaps some sort of Cover 3 or 4. At the snap, McKinney buzzes down as the curl-to-flat defender while Adoree’ Jackson carries the deep third.
I’m not sure if Carr misreads the coverage and thinks McKinney bailed or believes his receiver has the leverage. Either way, McKinney reads the break perfectly and practically runs the route for the receiver. That kind of out-breaker is a recipe for a pick-six if it’s thrown late or too far inside; McKinney walks it into the end zone for a touchdown.
Derek Carr (No. 2)
With the Giants ahead 20-16 at 5:19 of the fourth quarter, the Raiders have a first-and-10 from their own 24. McKinney is the single deep safety in a Cover 3 look. With no threat in the middle of the field, McKinney reads Carr’s pump fake on the out-and-up and comes over to help James Bradberry, resulting in an interception.
The frame on the All-22 is too tight, so you cannot see McKinney until the ball is thrown. It appears that he is the single high safety in zone coverage, perhaps Cover 3. Just as with Carr’s second interception, there is no deep threat in the middle of the field, allowing McKinney to shade over to Aaron Robinson and provide help. Hurts ends up throwing the ball straight into McKinney’s double coverage, and the safety easily picks it off.
From what you can see, Hurts never should have thrown this ball with the safety coming over the top.
A couple of things stand out from McKinney’s impactful plays:
- They came in zone coverage.
- Two of them were not overly impactful.
- Several of them came when he was lined up at deep safety.
The zone coverage area is particularly noteworthy since that’s not what Wink Martindale likes to do. In 2021, per PFF, 64.7% of McKinney’s coverage reps came in zone, the ninth-highest rate among safeties. Although he actually had a higher PFF grade in man than zone (81.8 vs. 74.8), his interceptions came in zone.
In 2022, McKinney’s coverage was equally poor in man and zone, as he had a 56.7 PFF grade in man and 55.5 in zone. His ranking was worse in zone, though (49th vs. 60th), even as he played zone just 40.5% of the time, which was the lowest rate among safeties. In 2023 thus far, he has a 55.1 grade in man coverage (55th out of 69 qualifiers) and a 65.9 zone grade (27th). He’s played just 46.9% of his cover snaps in zone, though, the 12th-lowest rate among safeties.
Is this why Schoen did not extend him?
Could it be that Martindale sees McKinney as a poor fit for his scheme, which is why GM Joe Schoen will not discuss a contract extension? On the surface, it would seem that McKinney’s poor 2022 season is the reason for waiting, but what if it’s that Martindale doesn’t want the player?
The Giants ranked 27th in the NFL in their rate of running Cover 3 in 2022. They ranked last in their usage of zone as a whole. Maybe McKinney is best suited to play deep for a zone-based team. It would explain why his production has taken such a hit since Martindale took over.
On the flip side, McKinney’s 2021 season was also just one year. It’s not as if he had an extensive track record of success prior to Martindale’s arrival. Perhaps McKinney got lucky to be in the right place at the right time on those interceptions, which boosted both his statistics and his PFF grades. Although PFF is supposed to look beyond the flashy plays, it does tend to award excess credit to defenders for interceptions.
I can see either one of these scenarios being the case. Safeties like former first-team All-Pro Jamal Adams have seen their production decline dramatically with a shift in usage or scheme. Former Patriots shutdown cornerback J.C. Jackson fell into a funk when pushed into a zone scheme with the Chargers. Scheme fit is vital in the NFL. The question is if Martindale is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with his players or if he simply hasn’t had enough time to mold the defense around his scheme. In Year 2, either argument can be made.
It could simply be that McKinney is not as good as we thought he was. One-year wonders happen all the time in the NFL, even from second-round picks. Interceptions tend to fluctuate from year to year, but man coverage also tends to yield fewer interceptions because the defender’s back is turned to the quarterback. Maybe it’s that Martindale took away McKinney’s ability to play the ball, or maybe it’s that McKinney’s coverage skills just weren’t that great in the first place.
Only time will tell. It does seem right now that the Giants and their defensive captain might be heading for a divorce at the end of the season, one that may anger fans far more than the loss of Julian Love. That ire will build if McKinney goes elsewhere and regains his 2021 form. While this is getting ahead of ourselves a lot, Schoen’s declaration that he would not be engaging in contract talks with McKinney raised some eyebrows in this direction before the season.
If it takes more zone coverage to unlock McKinney, that’s not likely to happen. Using him in more deep looks is feasible, but he hasn’t risen to that challenge so far this season. It’s a conundrum that the Giants must solve if they want to give their defense a semblance of respectability this season.