Why the Giants Defense Struggles Against Opposing Tight Ends

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Why the Giants Defense Struggles Against Opposing Tight Ends
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hauls in a touchdown reception against the Giants in Week 1 of the 2013 season.

Kansas City Chiefs backup tight end Sean McGrath probably won’t be mentioned very often in the same sentence as Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys), Julius Thomas (Denver Broncos) and Greg Olsen (Carolina Panthers). 

However, McGrath became the latest tight end to find statistical success against the New York Giants defense. He finished with five receptions (on five targets) for 64 yards and one touchdown to lead the Chiefs in both receptions and receiving yards on the way to victory in Week 4.

McGrath’s success shines a brighter spotlight on an ongoing problem the Giants have had beyond this season against opposing tight ends.  

How bad has it been for the Giants defense?

  • Through four games, opposing tight ends have contributed an average of 22 percent of their team’s receiving yards, the breakdown of which is shown above.  
  • Of the 10 receiving touchdowns allowed by the Giants defense this season, the tight ends have accounted for four, one behind the five scored by receivers.
  • Tight ends have 26 receptions for 269 yards, an average of 10.34 yards per catch.
  • Of the 34 pass targets to the tight ends, 26 (76.4 percent) have been completed.

Why have tight ends had such tremendous success against the Giants defense this season? A popular opinion is that the Giants linebackers are not very good in coverage. However, that is not always the case.

In this study, aided by the statistical data produced from ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), I look at the game plans of each of the Giants’ first four opponents regarding their use of their tight ends and break down what happened on the longest pass completion to a tight end. 

I also share some suggestions on how the Giants might achieve better success against opposing tight ends moving forward.  

 

Dallas Cowboys: Plan of Attack

In Witten, the Cowboys have one of the best active tight ends in the game. Historically, the 11-year veteran has been a major thorn in the side of the Giants defense. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Witten has 109 receptions for 1,170 yards, a 10.73 average per reception, and eight touchdowns against the Giants. 

The following table illustrates how the Cowboys used Witten to attack the Giants defense in Week 1:

A major question regarding the current group of Giants linebackers is their speed. Do they have what it takes to cover sideline-to-sideline and to allow the defensive backs to play 15 or more yards off the ball?

Given how the Cowboys unleashed Witten against the linebackers on six of the eight times, they surmised that that the Giants linebackers would be no match against Witten.

They were correct.

Witten’s longest play of the game was a 21-yard reception over the middle on a 1st-and-10 with 3:40 left in the second quarter. On the play, he lined up on the left side of the formation.

When the ball is snapped, Romo has his eyes on Witten all the way, as per the above frame. 

As the play develops, Paysinger (circled in blue) is running in the opposite direction of Witten (circled in red), who has just been bumped by strong-side linebacker Keith Rivers.

Meanwhile, middle linebacker Mark Herzlich (circled in yellow) is engaged in coverage.

Because the safeties are about 10 yards deep anticipating the long ball—note how the safety at the top of the frame is running to provide help to the cornerback covering the receiver on the 35-yard line while the other safety on the 22-yard line is his back pedal—suddenly the middle of the field becomes wide open.

Paysinger, who had the backside contain responsibility, not only failed to look at the quarterback but also jumped too soon on the snap, vacating his spot just in time for Witten’s arrival for the 21-yard reception. 

 

Denver Broncos: Plan of Attack

When Peyton Manning is throwing the football, it probably doesn’t matter who is on the receiving end.

That’s exactly what Denver proved against the Giants. Missing their starting tight end Joel Dressen, third-year man Julius Thomas was given the start and finished with six catches (second best) for 47 yards (third best),

Here’s the breakdown of how he was covered:

Against the Giants, the Broncos relied more heavily on their receivers; however, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t get at least one big play out of their tight end.

One such play we’ll look at happened in the second quarter with 2:19 left on a 1st-and-10, when Thomas catches a 19-yard reception.

For much of the first half, the Giants deployed their nickel defense—two linebackers, Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger, and an extra defensive back, Terrell Thomas.

In the first half of the game, the Giants’ nickel defense actually held up as well as possible against Manning, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 200 yards. Julius Thomas, the team’s leading receiver at the half, had four of those receptions for 32 yards.

A reason why Manning was able to complete so many yards, though, was that the Giants left the middle of the field open. On his biggest play of the day, Thomas took full advantage of the open real estate. 

In this frame, tight end Thomas (red) is in the slot against Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas (yellow). Thomas runs a hook route over the middle; meanwhile, the cornerback, who has dropped back about 13 yards at the snap, seems to be anticipating a deeper pattern.

When the cornerback realizes it’s an underneath pass, he is approximately four yards off the tight end, who now has a wide-open field for his use.

Manning sees this, along with the fact that another receiver and a Giants safety (black box) are heading down the field away from where Manning is looking to throw. 

With significant space to underneath, Manning connects with his tight end, who puts a little wiggle move on the cornerback.

Terrell Thomas, who, remember, is still working his way back from three ACL surgeries and who doesn’t quite have the burst he once did, can be seen starting to fall to the ground as he whiffs on the tackle. Julius Thomas, meanwhile, scampers across the open field for his big gain. 

 

Carolina Panthers: Plan of Attack

Just how bad is the Panthers offense that it couldn’t figure out a way to get Greg Olsen into the end zone against the Giants? 

Considering that they were the only team to shut out New York this season, they can probably be forgiven for this oversight. 

Based on the statistical data, the Giants safeties appear to have been the biggest culprits in allowing the bulk of Olsen’s yardage.

Before I break down Olsen’s 24-yard catch, I need to point out that the big gain happened 16 seconds into the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach for the Giants.

At that point, figure the Giants defense, which took 76 snaps to the offense’s 53, had to be gassed beyond reason thanks to their counterparts’ inability to string together any scoring drives that exceeded six plays.

Still, as anyone on the Giants defense will tell you, that isn’t an excuse. So what happened?

Olsen is lined up on the left side of the formation. Since Carolina has 1st-and-10 on their 27 and it’s late in the game, the Giants’ strategy is to rush the passer and hope for a forced a fumble recovered by the defense for a “scoop and score.”

Because of this strategy, Olsen is given a free release off the line of scrimmage. As the coverage downfield develops, the frame shows that Olsen (circled in red) has slipped behind safety Antrel Rolle (in blue, at the top).

Rolle appears to be watching linebacker Jacquian Williams engage with running back DeAngelo Williams (square), while linebacker Mark Herzlich (at the bottom) is running toward Olsen.

Because Rolle doesn’t appear to have taken a deep enough drop and because he doesn’t look behind him, Olsen has no trouble slipping into a huge gap to make the big reception. 

 

Kansas City Chiefs: Plan of Attack

If the Giants thought they were going to catch a break facing the Chiefs' backup tight end, they were mistaken.

Sean McGrath, filling in for the injured Anthony Fasano, finished the game as the Chiefs’ leader in receptions (five) and receiving yards (64).

That’s not a misprint. The Chiefs’ backup tight end topped receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery and running back Jamaal Charles in receiving yards.

It should be noted that Kevin Brock, another Chiefs tight end, had the longest reception at his position against the Giants, a 25-yard catch. Brock was given a handful of snaps in relief of McGrath, who left the game for a bit after absorbing a big hit from linebacker Jacquian Williams. 

Since McGrath was the primary receiving tight end in this game, the focus is on his longest play from scrimmage, a 24-yard, second-quarter gain.   

McGrath lines up on the right side of the formation. At the snap, he is given a free release since defensive end Justin Tuck is assigned to block inside.

The Giants, who are in their nickel defense, have safety Antrel Rolle sneaking up toward the line while Paysinger is waiting to see how the play develops. 

McGrath, who appears to be running a timing route, takes advantage of Rolle’s split-second delay resulting from the defender having to adjust to a backpedal. Quarterback Alex Smith then hits McGrath in stride for the reception. 

Also take note of deep safety Ryan Mundy (black square), who is about 17 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Mundy gets the credit for making the tackle, showing good hustle to come across the field and get outside of the numbers, where the tight end was fighting for more yards. 

 

How the Giants Can Tighten Up Their Coverage vs. Tight Ends

I’ve only covered Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell since his 2010 hire by the Giants, but I have a strong hunch that at some point before he came to New York, he was burned badly by one too many deep passes.

What else would explain his weekly tendency to play at least one of his safeties so deep in coverage, regardless of who the quarterback is, that the defender is often a non-factor?

Not all quarterbacks are created equal. Take for instance Cam Newton of the Panthers. While he has a strong arm, his ability to air it out with accuracy isn’t quite in the same class as, say, Peyton Manning’s.

In addition, there’s probably little argument that Manning’s receiving corps and tight ends are at the top of the league to where they warrant deeper coverage, whereas another team’s receivers might not.

Also, a read-option quarterback is likely going to do more damage running the ball than throwing it down the field.

What is the biggest reason for the Giants' struggles against opposing tight ends?

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So why play for the deep ball on nearly every pass against every quarterback? It doesn’t make much sense.

The first thing I would do to take away some of the open field that the tight ends have exploited is move the safeties in a little closer to provide some additional help to the linebackers, who are probably not the fastest group in the league.

Against Dallas, a big reason why Romo had so much success throwing the ball is because he was able to drop the ball either in front of or behind the linebackers every time depending on the depth of the back seven.

Another thing I would do is limit the number of free releases a tight end gets. When a defender is able to get his hands on a receiver within the permissible area, he can disrupt the quarterback’s timing by just a few seconds. This, in turn, can lead to a poor throw that’s ripe for an interception.

The final thing that needs to be done—and obviously this won’t happen this year—is that the Giants must acquire at least one linebacker who has the speed to be a solid and consistent cover man.

A common belief people have when evaluating a defensive player’s tackles is that the more tackles, the better the game the player had.

This is not always the case. What one needs to look at is where those tackles are being made. If they are occurring several yards down the field by a defender who, on the majority of those tackles, is trailing the play, that is not synonymous with the player having had a “good game.”

While the current Giants linebacker group isn’t the worst in the league, too many times they are making tackles well after the receiver has accumulated significant yards after the catch. If somehow they can fix this deficiency in the unit’s play, that should go a long way toward improving the back end of their defense.

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