At the conclusion of the New York Giants' mandatory minicamp in June, one of the many areas of interest, besides the new offense, was how defensive coordinator Perry Fewell planned to integrate his new personnel, which included cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond, with his returning players.
When asked about any new philosophies that he had in mind, he smiled and told reporters, “We’ll let you see the schemes in the fall.”
Fast forward to training camp, where the topic came up again during Fewell's most recent press conference with reporters.
Referring to his new pieces as "tools," Fewell told the assembled crowd that he thought what the Giants defense might be able to do this season would be “a lot of fun.”
“I definitely think those tools allow us to do a lot more different things that we have done in the past,” he said. “I was very excited about what we were able to install, some of the things we were able to do.”
Putting the Wheels in Motion
With three weeks of training camp and two preseason games in the books, there hasn't been much in the way of game-planning, as is usually the case in the preseason.
However, there have been glimpses of what Fewell apparently envisioned when word reached his desk about the personnel he'd have at his disposal this season.
The two biggest differences, and one that was evident going back to the spring, is that Fewell has his corners playing tighter coverage while players in the the defensive front are getting their hands up more in an attempt to knock passes down.
So far so good. Although it was a preseason game, the Giants’ seven passes defensed against Buffalo were the most they've had in a single contest since they recorded 16 pass breakups against the Washington Redskins in a 20-6 Week 17 win and eight pass breakups in a 23-7 Week 7 win over the Minnesota Vikings, both coming last season.
It could be argued it is a coincidence that the Giants’ two largest margins of victory in games played last year (Weeks 7 and 17) came in games in which their pass breakups were also their highest totals.
However, there might just be something beyond a coincidence. The following table looks at how many pass breakups the Giants recorded in the last three seasons, with the defensive front’s numbers that I broke out:
|Season||No. PDs||PDs by the DL||Percentage|
Source: New York Giants Year-end Stats Pack
In sum, there was an annual decline in the passes defensed by the defensive front.
Now let’s look at the sack totals from the last three seasons:
If the defensive front isn't getting to the quarterback and if it’s not getting its hands on balls, then what exactly is it contributing?
Well, to be fair, there are also quarterback hurries and hits, which certainly count for something.
However, it also needs to be noted that over the last three seasons (2011-2013), the Giants’ pass defense finished 29th, 28th and 10th, respectively, in terms of fewest average passing yards allowed per game.
With opponents having figured out that getting rid of the ball faster is the way to go against the Giants defense, the focus on playing tighter coverage on the back end has had a ripple effect on the front end of the defense.
What this has done is force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer in search of an open receiving outlet—and in turn, it forces the offensive lineman to hold their blocks longer against the Giants’ defensive front.
What happens when the opponent can’t do these two things?
Let’s look at an example form the Hall of Fame Game where, thanks to the tight press coverage, the Giants’ first-team defensive front was able to swat down a pass at the line of scrimmage.
In this first-quarter play coming at 11 minutes, 49 seconds, Buffalo Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel tried to connect with receiver Sammy Watkins (circled, in frame No. 1) on a short pass to the right. However, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (red arrow) managed to knock the pass down.
The Giants show blitz, with their corners showing man coverage. Manuel, who is working from the shotgun formation, takes the snap and drops back.
The Giants, meanwhile, have the Bills receivers, including intended target Watkins, whom Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is defending on the play (at the bottom of the screen).
Kiwanuka, who last year was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) worst-ranked 4-3 defensive end among those who took at least 60 percent of their team's snaps, does a nice job of shedding his blocker, who does a good job of keeping Kiwanuka from getting into the backfield.
What the offensive lineman failed to do was to keep the 6’5” defensive end from leaping into the air with his arms fully extended.
With Kiwanuka timing the pass just perfectly, he transformed into a human wall, successfully knocking down the pass.
As a side note, even had Kiwanuka not knocked the pass down at the line of scrimmage, Rodgers-Cromartie was on Watkins’ hip, so it’s unlikely the receiver would have gotten very far with the ball even if he had made the reception.
A Quasi Confirmation
Although teams are known for experimenting in the preseason—sometimes things we see in the summer don’t make it into the final bag of tricks once the regular season starts—Fewell smiled when, at his press conference last week, I asked about the defensive front getting their hands up and the corners playing tighter coverage.
“Yeah, I think we’re starting to grow in some of the new schemes that we’re trying to run,” he said. “It’s starting to come. We have a lot more work to do but it’s looking like what we would like for it to look.”