When the New York Giants played the Cincinnati Bengals the performance by the starters was anything but encouraging. The defense was gashed by the Bengals' run game and gave up several long completions.
Some of this is to be expected. It was the first pre-season game in a new defense, with a young roster.
As in all preseason games, the Giants didn't game plan for the Bengals, instead running a very vanilla version of their defense. Both offenses and defenses do this quite a bit. Part of it is to keep from tipping their hands to their regular season opponents as to specific schematic wrinkles. Another part of it is to create a base-line to see where their personnel are and how they are progressing throughout the preseason.
"We went into it saying, look, we're going to stay very vanilla," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "We might do some things man-wise, it'll challenge the corners on the outside. But that's okay, we want to find out where we are. So some of that was planned, and it wasn't a deep game plan to stop Cincinnati's offense."
The other aspect to the Giants' defensive performance was mental. Much of the defense is still new, and the game against the Bengals was the first time the defense has used the language and concepts in a live setting. Put simply, many of the players were thinking rather than playing. The players were slowing down to do the "right" thing rather than simply reacting and potentially making a mistake.
That is certainly understandable; players, particularly young ones, don't want to potentially lose their opportunities because of a mistake on the field.
It is the job of the coaches to use the failures of the previous games as teaching moments to build toward the next game. So with that in mind, what might we look forward to out of Spagnuolo's unit heading into the Giants' game against the Jaguars this coming Saturday?
For all the talk of aggression and pressure, Spags' defense is built on communication first and foremost. As middle linebacker Jon Beason has often said, the new defense puts a lot of responsibility on all of the defensive players to make calls and adjustments before the snap, from the safeties to the defensive line.
Going forward it's likely that the defense will be stressing communication leading up to their second preseason game. Particularly they will be looking for more communication from the back end of their defense. According to Spags, that was one reason why the Giants signed veteran safety Brandon Meriweather.
"From guys that played with him in college, because we've got some Miami guys here, obviously, the feedback from them was he was very vocal -- I like that in a safety. I think Coach Coughlin and Jerry [Reese] like the same thing. "
Right now the Giants aren't looking for perfection in their defense, they are looking for their defense to be aggressive. Spagnuolo wants his players to play hard, play fast, and if they make a mistake, make it out loud.
"I think they were thinking too much because they wanted to be right, and it's the first game, and there's a lot of youth on our side of the ball. I think it was more that. Look, we focused a lot on that and we're talking about it now. I'm hoping in this next go-around, that it will be think fast and just go. That's what the defensive game is all about," Spagnuolo said. "I told them, don't worry about making mistakes. Maybe I didn't say that enough going into the game. If you're a guy and you want to make the football team, and they're always being corrected for an error, they want to be perfect. But we're going to chase perfection, but we're going to rely on relentless. That's what we're going to try to do."
That is another reason why the Giants signed Meriweather. He is a player Spagnuolo called "bold" and "not afraid to make a mistake." Those are two characteristics that Spags wants in his safeties. He also praised the aggression of the defensive ends.
"I think we have some guys that will play relentless football. I was kind of impressed with some of the things that the guys did up front. Now, there are some tweaks and some mental errors that we have to get ironed out, and I think they'll do that," Spagnuolo said. "A lot of those guys are ready, set, go -- that's not a bad quality in a defensive end, to do that."
Spags will likely try to use the defensive ends, Meriweather, and Jon Beason -- who Spags also praised for his hustle and effort in the first practice after the game -- as examples of the type of play he is looking for from the rest of the defense. We could, should, also see some more aggressive play calling as the preseason rolls on, putting players in position to play faster.
That leads us to our next area to watch for Saturdays' game against Jacksonville.
Spags took the blame for some of the Giants defensive woes against Cincinnati.
"I think the first touchdown, I'm going to take the onus on that one. Again, we didn't game plan against Cincinnati. Had we been game planning, we would have played that bunch route they had a little bit differently. In the way we were playing it, made it real challenging for our guy," Spagnuolo said. "So we certainly could have played that better, that wasn't the players' fault, it was just that particular play. We shouldn't have let them down that close, but that particular play was really on the coaches, my fault."
We will see more of the full defensive scheme as the preseason progresses. And while Spagnuolo already showed himself to be more aggressive than his predecessor, it seems likely that he will do more going forward.
In his press conference Spags mentioned that he would be doing more things with the defensive line, such as moving guys around and playing four defensive ends. He also singled out Damontre Moore as a player he enjoys coaching.
"I love Damontre. I love guys that like to have fun, I really do. Look, he pulled me aside in the walkthroug -- because we had put one or two little wrinkles in, and he wanted to make sure he had it exactly righ -- this is what I'm hearing and this is what I'm doing. So he's passionate, he wants to do well. We're looking for him to do good things. We'll fit him in there where we can, and fit him in the right spots."
What could those wrinkles be? Earlier in the offseason Moore mentioned that there are parts of the defense where he is used as he was his first two seasons at Texas A&M, as a stand-up pass rusher. The Giants also briefly showed a look with two down defensive tackles and the defensive ends standing up. That could be a package that Moore finds himself in. They could also mix Devon Kennard into that alignment as well from the SAM linebacker spot.
"[I see using] Devon Kennard, in a lot of places right now. He's a good football player. He looks like they're supposed to look. He's versatile in that he can play off the ball as a linebacker, in my opinion. He plays up on the line as what we call a SAM linebacker. And sometimes, we put him down there to rush. That means we've got a pretty good football player."
Ultimately what the coaches want to see out of the defense Saturday evening is improvement. They want to see the defense improve on the areas where they fell short against the Bengals.
Spags will have been stressing that the Giants play a fast and aggressive brand of football, that mistakes are okay this time of year. He will be looking for the players to step up and play with that mindset of relentlessness. He will likely try to put the players in situations where they can communicate in a live situation so they can continue to develop the chemistry needed to properly run his defense. But ultimately Spags seems to view the players getting the mentality of fast, aggressive, physical, relentless play down as the foundation of the defense.
"I think if you were to ask every one of our guys to a man, we would've thought that we would have played more physical and faster. We're all trying to put our finger on that, and I think everybody has to look in the mirror first. But that is the goal. I think you can make up for a lot of mistakes if you do that, we all know that. That's the goal, that's been a goal right from the beginning."