An Evaluation of the New York Giants Defensive & Special Teams Coaching Staff

Patricia Traina@Patricia_TrainaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 13, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 30:  Perry Fewell, Defensive Coordinator for the New York Giants looks on against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium on December 30, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Last week, we examined the New York Giants offensive coaching staff. This week, we examine the defensive coaching staff (coordinator Perry Fewell, defensive line coach Robert Nunn, linebackers coach Jim Herrmann, safeties coach David Merritt and cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta) and the special teams coaches (coordinator Tom Quinn and assistant Larry Izzo).

As was the case last week, criteria used to evaluate the coaches include unit performance and player development, as applicable.

Robert Nunn, Defensive Line

Nunn, a 26-year coaching veteran, has been on head coach Tom Coughlin’s staff for four seasons. Among his contributions include the development of:

  • Jason Pierre-Paul, who has twice led the Giants in sacks (2011 and 2012), including his 16.5-sack showing during the 2011 Super Bowl season.
  • Linval Joseph, who, while not having impressive statistics, is a big reason why the Giants run defense has found success in shutting down some of the NFL’s best running backs.
  • A run defense that, over the last six weeks, has ranked as low as 11th and as high as seventh in the NFL.

Justin Tuck seems to have found the Fountain of Youth.
Justin Tuck seems to have found the Fountain of Youth.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Nunn also deserves a little credit for the rejuvenation of Justin Tuck. After trying to fight through multiple injury-plagued seasons, he is finally enjoying a relatively healthy year. With his next sack, Tuck will surpass his total from the last two seasons combined (9.0).

Nunn’s most recent undertakings include developing rookie draft picks Damontre Moore, a defensive end, and Johnathan Hankins, a defensive tackle.

Of the two, the space-eating Hankins, who has 11 tackles in eight games played this season, is a little further along thanks to his ability to stay healthy.

With Pierre-Paul not being 100 percent healthy this season due to his recovery from back surgery at the start of the year and, more recently, a shoulder injury, the expedited development of Moore has moved to center stage.

Damontre Moore has a very bright future in the Giants defense.
Damontre Moore has a very bright future in the Giants defense.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Moore, who only recently started to see multiple snaps as part of the defensive end rotation, received his highest number of snaps on defense two weeks ago against the Washington Redskins, when he was in on 17 plays.

He received 15 snaps against the San Diego Chargers last week, primarily on passing downs.

When offering an evaluation of Moore’s play, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell noted that Moore isn’t quite close to being the finished product.

“There’s a lot of things that we want him to improve on because he has a lot of potential as a player,” he said last week. “He’s a complete football player. He’s got to be able to play the run and the pass.”  

Nunn should get that opportunity to continue his work with Moore, as well as Hankins and Markus Kuhn, all of whom should have bigger roles on the defensive line next season.  

Jim Herrmann, Linebackers

Herrmann joined the Giants in 2009 when his successor, Bill Sheridan, was promoted to defensive coordinator. Prior to joining the Giants, Herrmann spent the 2006-2008 seasons with the Jets, his first pro coaching experience after a lengthy collegiate coaching career at the University of Michigan.

When one looks at the job done by Herrmann, the third linebackers coach in Coughlin’s tenure, the first thing that many people will point to is the quality of personnel he's been given to develop.

Let's start with the draft picks.

Linebackers Drafted During Coughlin's Era
2004Reggie Torbor3
2006Gerris Wilkinson3
2007Zak DeOssie*4
2008Bryan Kehl4
2008Jonathan Goff5
2009Clint Sintim2
2010Phillip Dillard4
2010Adrian Tracy**6
2011Greg Jones6
2011Jacquian Williams6
New York Giants 2013 Media Guide

* Converted to long snapper in rookie season.
**Drafted as a 3-4 defensive end that was converted to a linebacker.

Sintim, who played in a 3-4 system in college, was never really a fit for the Giants' 4-3 scheme. He was also constantly injured and thus turned out to be a bust.

Phillip Dillard, 6’0”, 245 pounds, played played sparingly and was gone by the start of the 2011 season. 

Jacquian Williams has been one of the rare drafted linebackers that, so far, has worked out for the Giants.
Jacquian Williams has been one of the rare drafted linebackers that, so far, has worked out for the Giants.Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Jones, 6’0”, 240 pounds, played in 14 games for the Giants as a rookie, all at middle linebacker, starting five of those contests before yielding to Chase Blackburn. By 2012, the Giants chose Blackburn over their draft pick.

Jacquian Williams played in every game as a rookie, starting two contests. Per Pro Football Focus, he finished with 61 tackles, one sack, 30 stops and seven missed tackles, showing signs that he might become a solid coverage linebacker.

However, a PCL injury suffered last season, which apparently lingered into this year, stunted his development.

Williams, whom Pro Football Focus currently ranks as the 21st best outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, has an overall grade of minus-2.3, which includes four missed tackles, tied for the unit lead on the team with Keith Rivers.

Rivers, the former first-round pick of the Cincinnatti Bengals, has finally figured out a way to keep himself out of the trainer’s room.

Primarily a contain player on the strong side, Rivers has 22 tackles, 10 stops and four missed tackles in his role as a two-down linebacker. He's also been a part of the run defense's success.

In a move involving a veteran that warrants a mention, the team tried to bring Mathias Kiwanuka up to speed as an outside linebacker. That experiment didn't really yield the desired results, so Kiwanuka was moved back to defensive end.  

Now let’s look at the undrafted free agents.

Spencer Paysinger showed potential as a rookie when he was often called upon to fill in for then-starter Michael Boley during practices.
Spencer Paysinger showed potential as a rookie when he was often called upon to fill in for then-starter Michael Boley during practices.Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer Paysinger, signed in 2011, has shown the most growth, earning snaps as a starter on the weak side until a few weeks ago when Williams seemed to move ahead of him.

Even with Williams as the starter, the Giants still use a two-linebacker system at that spot where Paysinger’s physicality is used against the run while Williams’ speed and athleticism are used to defend the pass.

Overall, Paysinger has had a solid season. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he’s the only one of the Giants outside linebackers to have a positive overall grade (1.6).

Mark Herzlich, whose inspirational comeback from cancer has earned the respect of the sports world, had his best opportunity to nail down the starting middle linebacker job earlier this year.

He put together a strong spring, and while the mental aspect of the game has never appeared to be an issue for him, his statistics as a starter were not favorable.

He’s accumulated 27 tackles on defense (21 solo) and has only two missed tackles, per Pro Football Focus.

In coverage, Herzlich allowed 90 percent of the passes thrown to his area to be completed for 106 yards, 39 after the catch. He’s also allowed two touchdowns, resulting in a 150.4 defender rating from PFF (the lower the number, the better the performance).

If you think Jon Beason is good now, wait until he really learns the Giants playbook.
If you think Jon Beason is good now, wait until he really learns the Giants playbook.Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The Giants probably won't be drafting linebackers in the first or second round any time soon. Instead, they'll look to continue developing their young veterans and will hope to re-sign Jon Beason.

Herrmann, meanwhile, will likely be retained to continue his work.


David Merritt, Safeties

Merritt has been with Coughlin since the beginning and is one of two current members of Coughlin’s coaching staff with NFL playing experience (the other being assistant special teams coordinator Larry Izzo).

He was drafted in the seventh round by the Miami Dolphins in 1993. Merritt, a former linebacker, was also with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals for three seasons (1993 to 1995) and had a stint with the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe in 1997 before hanging up his cleats.

David Merritt’s experience as an NFL linebacker has helped him teach safeties how to play that “pseudo-linebacker” spot in the three-safety package.
David Merritt’s experience as an NFL linebacker has helped him teach safeties how to play that “pseudo-linebacker” spot in the three-safety package.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After joining the Giants following three seasons as a defensive assistant with the New York Jets, Merritt’s initial duties under Coughlin were as a defensive assistant/quality control coach.

He was promoted to his current role in 2006 and under his tutelage, the Giants safeties have consistently been one of the best, if not underrated, units on the team.

One of Merritt’s many success stories starts with helping to develop Antrel Rolle into a Pro Bowl-caliber safety.

When Rolle joined the Giants in 2009, he had only played safety for one season in the Cardinals' system, but he went on to twice lead the Giants in total tackles.

He is currently on track to again finish as the defensive team leader in tackles this season.

Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown were a dynamic duo for the Giants at safety last year.
Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown were a dynamic duo for the Giants at safety last year.Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Another success story was the play of unrestricted-free-agent Stevie Brown in 2012.

Brown, a two-time NFC Defensive Player of the Week honoree, praised Merritt for coaching him to play a little closer to the action, noting that the change made a significant difference in his ability to record a team-leading eight interceptions, the most by a Giant since Willie Williams had 10 in 1968.

Along with that, Brown’s 307 interception return yards topped the franchise’s previous single-season record of 251, set by Emlen Tunnell in 1949 and matched by Dick Lynch in 1963.

Other notable successes under Merritt include the development of:

  • Will Hill, an up-and-coming talent who quietly was promoted to the starting lineup this season.
  • Kenny Phillips, who, after working his way back from microfracture knee surgery, was a big part of the three-safety package the team deployed in 2011.
  • Michael Johnson, a seventh-rounder who had 76 tackles in 2008, which was tied for second on the team.
  • James Butler, an undrafted free agent who finished second in the league and first on the Giants with 29 postseason tackles in 2007.
  • Gibril Wilson, a fifth-round draft pick who finished third in the NFL and second on the team with 27 postseason tackles in 2007.

Given Merritt’s history with developing players, he appears to be in no danger of receiving a pink slip at the end of this season.

Peter Giunta, Cornerbacks

Giunta ("Coach Pete" to his players) has been with the Giants since 2006.

Prior to his time with the Giants, his NFL coaching experience included four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, two with the New York Jets, four with the St. Louis Rams (three seasons as the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator, one of which was the Rams’ 1999 Super Bowl season) and five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs

Giunta’s successes include the development of:

  • Corey Webster, who struggled in his first few seasons only to later emerge as a key contributor during the 2007 Super Bowl season.
  • Terrell Thomas, who, prior to suffering two consecutive ACL injuries, was on the verge of establishing himself as a top NFL corner.
  • Prince Amukamara, who has developed into a solid starting cornerback.
  • Trumaine McBride, who bounced around the NFL prior to signing with the Giants as an unrestricted free agent on Jan. 3, 2013, has rejuvenate his career as a starting cornerback.

Trumaine McBride earned the starting cornerback job midway through the season.
Trumaine McBride earned the starting cornerback job midway through the season.Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McBride, who started 10 games for the Chicago Bears in 2007-2008, has allowed just 50 percent of the passes thrown at him to be completed.

He’s also allowed the fewest yards after the catch (70) and has given up just one touchdown in coverage, both team bests among corners with at least 400 snaps.

Another positive from the defensive secondary as a whole is that it has only given up 37 big play passes this season, the longest of which was a 56-yarder from Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to receiver DeSean Jackson on Oct. 6.

If they can hold on, that would be their lowest total since 2008, when they allowed 40 big-pass plays.

Giants Defense: Big Pass Plays (20+ Yards) Allowed
SeasonNo. of Big Pass PlaysLongest
20074665 (TD)
20094960 (TD)
20104287 (TD)
20125962 (TD)
New York Giants

Giunta’s success record took a slight hit when he admitted earlier this year that he didn’t do enough to help Webster, who was hampered by injuries in 2012, to adjust.

It also spoke volumes about the state of the cornerbacks when McBride had to leave the critical Dallas game with an injury.

Instead of inserting Jayron Hosley into the game and leaving Thomas in the slot, the coaches moved Thomas from the slot to the outside and turned to Antrel Rolle to play the slot.

Jayron Hosley’s development this season was delayed due to a hamstring injury suffered in Week 4 at Kansas City.
Jayron Hosley’s development this season was delayed due to a hamstring injury suffered in Week 4 at Kansas City.John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

This move backfired, especially after the game when Rolle, who was picked on by Tony Romo on the Cowboys' game-winning drive, admitted that he was “a little rusty” with his technique at that position.

It was disappointing to see that Hosley, who had practiced for two weeks after returning from a hamstring strain and would have presumably seen more snaps at the spot, even in a limited basis, wasn't ready to be the "next man up."

Perry Fewell, Defensive Coordinator

So far this season, the Giants defense has allowed opponents to score 30 or more points in six of the team’s 13 games, including its first five games of the season.

That’s double the amount of games from 2012, which includes the two blowouts against the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. The Giants defense gave up a combined 67 points in those two games.

What else has declined under Fewell’s tenure as defensive coordinator?

We’ll start with sacks. After spiking to 48.0 in 2011 (tied for third best in the league with Baltimore), the total has dipped every year since. 

Giants Defensive Sacks by Season
YearNo. Sacks

While Pro Football Focus makes a valid argument that sacks are overrated, they still count as negative-yardage plays.

The more important stat, though, has been pressures, which according to PFF’s data, has declined since 2011:

Giants Quarterback Pressures by Season
Source: Pro Football Focus

Earlier this season when the pass rush wasn’t getting within sniffing distance of the quarterback, Fewell was asked how to fix the problem. 

“Sometimes, you've just got to whip somebody’s (butt), and you’ve got to get to the quarterback," he said. "We can try to become more creative and do some things of that nature, but it just comes down to you've got to win an individual battle.”

It sounds easy enough, yet if it were that easy, wouldn't the Giants have greater success accomplishing that objective? 

Now let’s look at the defense’s success rate on stopping its opponent on third down.   

Opponents Third Down Conversion Rate
SeasonOpp. Conv. %NFL Rank
Source: Team Rankings

Despite the concerns shown by these stats, the good news is that the Giants defense has a solid core of players, such as Amukamara, Rolle, Hill, linebacker Jon Beason (assuming he re-signs), Pierre-Paul, Moore and Hankins.

There will be some additions made in the offseason for sure. Whether Fewell is back to work with all the parts remains to be seen. 

Tom Quinn/Larry Izzo, Special Teams 

Coaching special teams is probably one of the hardest jobs on a football coaching staff.

Unlike offense and defense, a special teams coach can’t always count on having the same personnel each week due to deviations in the game plan that dictate the availability of certain players.

As a result, continuity and communication sometimes suffer. 

"Continuity is important because if we’re all used to working with each other and I know which way you’re going to go and you know which way I’m going to go, we can work off each other," Quinn said.

The inconsistency of Tom Quinn’s special teams has, at times, been maddening.
The inconsistency of Tom Quinn’s special teams has, at times, been maddening.Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With that said, a special teams coach is usually given more than enough components with which to work, and unless a team is being hit by injuries, he usually will get most of the same players on a weekly basis.

What separates coaches is the ability to optimize the talent he is given on a weekly basis.

An argument can probably made that Quinn hasn’t always done that if one looks at some of the personnel moves he's made that have raised questions, such as:

  • Why do the Giants rarely double-team the opponent's punt gunners?
  • Why was defensive end Damontre Moore used as a punt gunner earlier in the second quarter of the season, a move that Quinn admitted as “very unusual” and a move made despite the presence of other alternatives?
  • When he had finally been removed from the kickoff return team, why was Jerrel Jernigan deployed as a lead blocker for Michael Cox on one return in the second game against Dallas?  
  • Why was Cox removed from kickoff return duties in favor of Jernigan?

Before I touch upon one of the biggest issues with special teams this year, there are five non-kickers that deserve kudos for their play.

Linebackers Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger, each of whom lost their starting jobs on defense, have been beasts on special teams.

Mark Herzlich has been a dynamo on special teams this season.
Mark Herzlich has been a dynamo on special teams this season.Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Herzlich has a team-leading eight tackles on specials, six of which are solo. Paysinger is right behind him with seven tackles, six solo. 

Safeties Ryan Mundy, who has a 1.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and Will Hill have also been enforcers on special teams. Who could ever forget how Mundy alertly sniffed out the fake punt attempt by Green Bay late in the third quarter on a 4th-and-7 from the Giant’s 43-yard line?

Hill, third on the team with six tackles (two solo), has also stepped right back into the mix, bringing that enforcer mentality that was missing while he was out serving a four-game suspension at the start of the year.

The biggest star has been Damontre Moore, who has gotten a hand on two punts this season.

So while there have been some individuals who have stood out, unfortunately the special teams units as a whole have fallen short in one very critical area: field position.

Graphic by P. Traina

Interestingly, Pro Football Focus notes that the Giants have just 16 missed special teams tackles, which ties them for fifth fewest in the NFL (with five other teams).  

By comparison, Pro Football Focus has the Jets leading the league with 33 missed tackles, while the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are tied for fewest missed tackles with eight. 

If the Giants are making their tackles, then what can we point to as being the reason why they lost the field-position battle in the majority of the games this season?  

Lastly, the Giants are second in the NFL in special teams touchdowns allowed to an opponent. The Giants have given up three punt returns for scores. League-leader Washington has allowed three punt returns and one kickoff return.

The bottom line is that the Giants special teams unit has been too inconsistent from year to year, let alone from week to week this season. As a result, Quinn appears to be on shaky ground moving forward.

Patricia Traina is the senior editor for Inside Football. All quotes and information obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Patricia on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.


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