The response drew laughter, but New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was as serious as he has ever been with a response to a question.
The question: “How does the defense look different this year?”
The answer: “We've got bigger butts.”
He was, of course, referring to the jumbo-sized defensive tackles acquired during the offseason to help holdover Linval Joseph (6’4”, 323 pounds) against the run.
The additions include Cullen Jenkins (6’2”, 306 pounds), Mike Patterson (6’1”, 300 pounds), Shaun Rogers (6’4”, 350 pounds, now on injured reserve) and rookie second-round draft pick Johnathan Hankins (6’2”, 320 pounds).
The result of adding almost 1,276 pounds of beef in the middle of the Giants defensive line is that a run defense that (in 2012) finished 24th in the league after surrendering an average of 129.1 rushing yards per game is currently allowing 98 rushing yards per game, tied for sixth in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders.
“I think it’s a huge factor in helping us be a better run defense. The mass, the size, the strength is noticeably different for us,” Fewell said at the time, possibly unaware of the pun he slipped into his answer to the equally pun-laced question, “How big is it having them in there to stop the run?”
Puns aside, the results have been just what the Giants have been looking for.
After allowing an average of 99.7 yards per game by their opponents' top rushers in the first three weeks of the season, a period that included a season-high 120 rushing yards by DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers in Week 3, the Giants run defense has become stingy.
In their last seven games, they have allowed no more than 88 rushing yards to an individual (Rashad Jennings of the Raiders) and have given up an average of 57.6 rushing yards to their opponents’ top rushers.
Currently, the Giants run defense is ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (98.0) and fourth in yards allowed per carry (3.6).
When talking about the Giants’ improved run defense, hat tips must be given to middle linebacker Jon Beason and safety Will Hill, two extremely physical and athletic players who have brought speed, instincts and an aggressiveness to the defense.
These days, Beason, who can fill a hole like no middle linebacker the Giants have had since Antonio Pierce, and Hill, whose tackles create tremors that can be felt yards away, rarely leave the field and have been difference-makers.
How the Big Butts Have Been Deployed to Help the Giants Run Defense
Earlier in the season, one thing that wasn't happening quite as frequently as it’s been in the last several weeks was that the Giants weren't winning most of their battles up front.
Despite having the big bodies along the interior, when the Giants sent a four-man charge at five offensive linemen, the offensive line could afford to double-team one defender while the other four would be trusted to handle the rest of the front.
Meanwhile, the fullback and tight end could attack the linebackers at the second level, a task that was simple in the early part of the year, as the Giants linebackers didn't always shed their blocks.
This is where having a linebacker who can fill holes makes a difference. Given Beason’s ability to diagnose plays and, more importantly, get into the hole quickly enough to plug it, any pathway to the second level has now been cut off.
That usually means that opposing running backs have to do a little more east-west running as opposed to going north-south to find open lanes.
As we know, plays that go east and west tend to take longer to develop. They also give the advantage to the defense because it allows the players to come quickly to the area where the play is being run and prevent the runner from turning up the field.
If a team has linebackers and safeties who can shed blocks and run to the ball as the Giants now have in Beason, Jacquian Williams and Will Hill, more often than not, they’re going to force the offensive side of the ball to rethink how they block the defensive front.
Let’s look at some examples from some recent games.
Eddie Lacy of Green Bay
The Giants' strategy against the Packers was to shut running back Eddie Lacy down at all costs. To do this, they often deployed an extra man in the box—safety Will Hill—while strong-side linebacker Keith Rivers had contain responsibility.
Based on Lacy’s final rushing numbers, the strategy worked.
In this three-yard run early in the first quarter, Lacy is lined up in a wide offset I-formation, with seven blockers in front of him to face five Giants who are up on the line.
Beason (behind Giants defender No. 3) and safety Will Hill (behind Giants defender No. 2) can be seen close to the line, as both are anticipating a running play.
Also, note how Lacy, as the ball is snapped, is leaning to his right side, which Beason and Hill have no doubt spotted.
As Lacy takes the handoff, Jenkins, the former Packer, draws a double-team block by the Packers’ left guard and left tackle. Joseph draws a single blocker, a battle that Joseph can be seen winning in this frame.
On the other end, Justin Tuck and Rivers are also winning their respective battles, getting push against the tackle and tight end, respectively.
Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and linebacker Jacquian Williams (behind Jenkins) have backside contain should Lacy decide to cut the play back to the left side of the formation.
Beason steps up to fill a hole against the guard as Packers fullback John Kuhn comes across the formation to cut Kiwanuka to the ground.
Hill (top blue arrow) comes charging into the gap between the guard and tackle, which forces Lacy to cut back to the other side. Hill gets a piece of Lacy, but Williams (bottom blue arrow) finishes Lacy (red arrow) off.
Because Jenkins drew two blockers on the side where the play ultimately went, that left Williams free to sit back and take on Lacy if he had come his way, which he did.
Adrian Peterson of Minnesota
Prior to facing the Giants on Monday Night Football, Peterson had two 100-yard games and was ranked fourth in the NFL at the time with 483 yards on 102 carries.
In three career games against the Giants, Peterson averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry. However, his 28 rushing yards against the Giants in Week 7 didn’t help his career average against Big Blue.
Much like the strategy against the Packers, the Giants figured that if they could shut Peterson down by putting an extra man in the box, they would take their chances with having quarterback Josh Freeman—who had just been signed by the Vikings prior to that game—beat them.
As they did quite often against the Giants, the Vikings lined up in an I formation. In this frame, you can see that Minnesota has five linemen to block what looks to be four Giants. Also, note how Minnesota’s right tackle is wider than the left tackle.
Mike Patterson on the inside and Mathias Kiwanuka on the outside, lined up across from the Vikings left tackle.
When Peterson takes the handoff, he heads to the A-gap, behind his fullback, who has Beason in his cross-hairs.
Patterson has surfed along the line of scrimmage to take on the Vikings center, whom he turns sideways, indicating that Patterson has won his one-on-one battle.
Meanwhile, Shaun Rogers (No. 95) has tied up two blockers on the left side of the formation, which frees Pierre-Paul.
All of this activity by the defensive interior has now created a big hole on the right side, which Peterson is going to exploit or which safety Antrel Rolle is going to fill.
At this point, Peterson, who sees the hole, also sees Rolle coming at him. Peterson tries to cut back, where his teammate is winning his one-on-one battle against linebacker Spencer Paysinger.
However, Rolle manages to get just enough of Peterson to stop him for no gain.
Following the awful performance the week before at Carolina, the Giants run defense managed to hold Jamaal Charles to just 65 rushing yards.
In this example, we see how New York managed to take away the cutback lanes in between the tackles thanks to penetration by defensive tackle Mike Patterson.
In the first frame, Charles starts to his left, only to see that Patterson (No. 93) has beaten his man and has penetrated the backfield. This causes Charles to cut back (red arrow).
Paysinger, meanwhile, starts to follow Charles to the left. When the running back cuts it back, Paysinger is in good enough position to fill the hole that has developed (yellow arrow) and stop Charles, whom Patterson just missed getting a hand on in the backfield.
It will be particularly interesting to see if the Giants’ renovated run defense is a better match, especially against Washington running back Alfred Morris, who in 2012 gained 244 yards on 44 carries against the Giants, and quarterback Robert Griffin III, who recorded 161 yards on 14 carries.