Imagine for a moment what would happen if New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
You probably don’t want to go there, and who could blame you? Haven't the Giants had enough of their fair share of players ending up on injured reserve?
Anyway, if Manning were to be lost for the season, that would be a difficult obstacle of which to overcome.
Yet listen to defensive coordinator Perry Fewell talk about what life has been like for him and the Giants’ defense without their starting “quarterback” —middle linebacker Jon Beason—and you get a sense of just how despondent things are for the Giants’ 29th overall ranked defense, which is 31st against the run and 19th against the pass.
“Oh sure,” Fewell told reporters last week when asked about the impact Beason’s season-ending toe injury has had on the team. “It is like you lost your starting quarterback.”
Fewell, who earlier in the year referred to Beason as “his voice” and “another coach on the field,” said it spoke volumes about how highly the 29-year-old linebacker is regarded among his teammates.
“When you lose your starting ‘quarterback,’ you lose a guy who didn’t really practice in the preseason and they elect him captain just based on what he did when he was here from October to OTAs, that is saying a lot,” he said.
Fewell’s words raise an interesting question: Is the loss of Beason that significant in the breakdown of the defense, or are those the words of a defensive coordinator who perhaps sees the handwriting on the wall regarding his future with the team after this season?
Let’s explore what Beason has brought to the defense to find out.
B. B.—Before Beason
It’s kind of ironic, but in 2010, both Beason and the Giants’ defense, while at the time not together, enjoyed their last year of prosperity.
In Beason’s case, when the topic of a throwback NFL linebacker came up, the three-time Pro Bowler, who had his last healthy season in 2010 before injuries started robbing him of the amazing physical talents that made him so special, was still dominating the game.
The Giants, meanwhile, were sitting pretty as a defense.
Although none of their three starting linebackers that season—Keith Bulluck, Jonathan Goff and Michael Boley—were All-Pros, they had a solid defensive front consisting of Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora at the ends and Barry Cofield and Chris Canty as the tackles.
Let’s not forget the defensive backfield, which consisted of corners Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas as well as safeties Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips.
Long before there was ever an inkling that Beason might one day wear a Giants uniform, the Giants’ defense was actually fine without him in Fewell’s first season as defensive coordinator.
|New York Giants Defensive Rankings Under Perry Fewell|
|2014 (as of Week 13)||29th||31st||19th||25th|
The following season, the Giants did manage to win a Super Bowl, despite seeing the defense take a significant dip in each of the main categories—overall, run, pass and scoring. In 2012 and the start of 2013, things got worse before they picked up.
This year, the defensive rankings have tanked.
Why? There are many reasons, but one can certainly make an argument that the absence of a healthy Beason has something to do with the drop-off in performance.
The Beason Effect
When the Giants acquired Beason from the Panthers for the low, low price of a seventh-round draft pick, critics scoffed at the trade.
The numbers didn’t do much to help matters. Beason had played five games over the 2011 to 2012 season because of his injuries. Before he was traded, he had lost his starting job twice, first to Luke Kuechly, who took over for him in the middle, and then to former Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn, who took Beason’s job on the outside.
Beason, it was argued by critics, was probably never going to be the same player he was before consecutive lower-body injuries took their toll.
The numbers supported that consensus. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Beason hasn’t had a positive overall grade since the 2010 season, his last as a Pro Bowler.
Those numbers include 2013, when he spent most of his time as a Giant, finishing with a minus-14.8 overall grade.
Sometimes, however, numbers don’t tell the whole story. What the numbers don’t measure is a player’s football IQ, which is something Beason brought with him from Carolina to help steady a defense that, prior to his arrival, had allowed 36.4 points per game, a total he helped trim down to 18.3 points per game.
Beason has always been reluctant to take credit for steadying the Giants’ defense, but it is probably not a coincidence that his presence made a difference for the Giants’ defense, given that part of his job is to make sure everyone is lined up and aware of what needs to be done.
While credit must be given to the other guys on the field who contribute, note the difference in the Giants’ performance in key areas before and after Beason’s arrival.
|2013 Season: Before and After Beason's Arrival|
|Before Beason||After Beason|
|Opponents’ Avg. Rushing Yards per Game||126.4||101.2|
|Opponents’ Avg. Passing Yards per Game||269.2||204.0|
|Source: NY Giants 2013 Year-ending Stat Pack|
Besides bringing a certain charisma to a defense that was slowly starting to become dejected, the three-time Pro Bowler became a beacon—or is that a Beason?—of light amid a Giants linebacker unit that hadn’t seen a solid playmaker or had a true leader since Antonio Pierce last donned a Giants uniform in 2009.
“Being a leader, to me, is doing things the right way all the time,” Beason told me during training camp. “In this game, people follow guys who make plays. That’s doing your job at a high level.
“If you can do it consistently, your peers, regardless of age or experience, will admire that about you and they’ll follow you.”
Playing Above the X's and O's
Last month, head coach Tom Coughlin told reporters he implored his players to “play above the X's and O's.”
When evaluating the effectiveness of a linebacker in run defense, it’s important to remember not all tackles are created equal.
This means when you look at the number of tackles a linebacker accumulates, look more closely and determine how many of those tackles were made downfield versus those that were made within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
This is one of the areas in which the Giants miss not having a healthy Beason on the field. When healthy, Beason has quick lateral movement that allows him to get into position to make a play and the balance to stay on his feet to get there.
Then there is a matter of having instincts and patience. A linebacker cannot jump at the first sign of movement in the offensive backfield.
This is something Beason doesn’t do; instead, he’s patient, he reads the play, he anticipates, and then, for added measure, he goes above the X's and O's to make the play.
Here is an example from a game against the Philadelphia Eagles last season in which he stops running back LeSean McCoy for a one-yard gain.
Jason Peters, the Eagles’ left tackle, pulls to his right in order to clear Beason out of the hole so McCoy can exploit the gap.
Here’s the play once the ball has been snapped and the ball is in McCoy’s hands. Note how there is a huge running lane for McCoy to exploit if right tackle Lane Johnson (No. 65) holds his block against Justin Tuck (which he does) and if Peters holds his block against Beason (which he does not).
Here is now where Beason plays above the X's and O's. He sheds his block—something the Giants linebackers (included a hobbled Beason) have had trouble doing this year.
Beason then quickly jumps into that huge gap to stop McCoy for a one-yard gain.
This particular type of play brings up another reason Beason’s presence is sorely missed on this Giants defense.
Quality Tackles (Or Not All Tackles Are Created Equal)
One of the most deceiving stats for a linebacker is the number of tackles he has. Why? Because when evaluating a linebacker, it’s not how many tackles he has; rather, it’s where he’s making his tackles on the field.
Michael Felder of B/R wrote an excellent explanation describing what to look for when evaluating a linebacker’s play and how to tell when a linebacker is doing his job correctly—and no, it doesn’t rely solely on the number of tackles a linebacker accumulates:
For linebackers, how they arrive at the numbers that most people tend to toss around as validation is the more important element.
Lost in the numbers are things like run fits, gap integrity, taking on and shedding blocks, playing downhill, success in coverage and the little understandings that help set a defense.
That’s not to say that stats don’t mean anything; rather, it is to say that not all stat lines, regardless of similarity, are created equal. 100-plus tackles for Player A does not mean they are the same to the 100-plus tackles of Player B.
That’s what following the play of linebackers will show as you take eyes off the ball and let the players take you to the play.
What makes a healthy Beason so good is the majority of his run-game tackles usually are made within five yards or less of the line of scrimmage.
Based on a study done of each game Beason was on the field for the Giants last year (using the NFL.com game books), he made 53 of his team-credited 98 total tackles (second-highest tackle total on the team, by the way, behind Antrel Rolle’s 106, according to the Giants’ year-end statistics distributed to the media) against the run, or 54 percent.
Here is the breakdown of the percentage of tackles he made that went for five yards or less (including zero or negative yardage) and those that went for six or more yards:
Why has Beason been so good against the run? He keeps his feet moving, he’s rarely suckered in by play action or misdirection and he does a good job of making the correct pre-snap reads, diagnosing the play’s possibilities so he can anticipate what might be coming.
Let’s look at an example of how being disciplined helps a linebacker make a quality tackle using a play from last year’s game against the Minnesota Vikings in which Beason stopped running back Adrian Peterson for a two-yard gain.
What happened on this play is Beason shuffled his feet, as he is supposed to do. Oftentimes, you might hear of a guy whose feet are stuck in quicksand. This means the player isn’t quite sure of where to go and fears overcommitting to one side, only to be proven wrong.
Beason rarely has this problem. By shuffling his feet, he is already in first gear, ready to move laterally to make the play.
He starts toward the line of scrimmage once he sees Peterson take the handoff from quarterback Josh Freeman.
Beason then shed the block and quickly slides laterally into the hole once he is certain Peterson has committed to that direction and not the cutback.
The result? A two-yard gain by Peterson, thanks to another key run-game stop by Beason.
These days, finding an inside linebacker who is strong against the run and in pass coverage is as difficult as finding a diamond in a rock quarry.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF, subscription required), there are currently four inside linebackers with positive grades in both run and pass defense: Dont’a Hightower of New England, Bobby Wagner of Seattle, Chris Borland of San Francisco and Luke Kuechly of Carolina.
For two seasons (2008 and 2009), Beason’s PFF grades indicted he was proficient in both the run and against the pass. However, that was before Achilles, knee and toe injuries began to strip away his one-time speed and quickness in pass coverage.
Since then, Beason has had his moments when he has been beaten for decent chunks of yardage in coverage—for as good as he was for the Giants last season, he still finished with the worst coverage grade among the defense, according to PFF’s grading system.
To be fair, however, it’s not always clear if the coverage assignment is Beason’s or if it’s him trying to make up for someone else’s mistake.
Regardless, lately it hasn’t been pretty for the Giants’ co-captain, though there are some things he does extremely well that give him a fighting chance to at least break up a pass play.
Some may argue Beason’s height—he’s listed at 6’0” by the Giants—is part of the reason he has his struggles in coverage.
However, if we go back to the four linebackers, previously listed as being proficient against both the run and the pass, they range in size from 5’11” (Borland) to 6’4” (Hightower), with Wagner matching Beason’s 6’0” height and Kuechly, who unseated Beason in Carolina, standing 6’3”.
What usually helps a linebacker succeed in coverage are two things. First, he has to be on top of things as far as making his pre-snap reads so he can anticipate what’s going to happen behind him as well as in front of him. Second, he cannot allow himself to be suckered in by the play-action/play-fake.
Here’s an example from this year’s game against the Eagles when quarterback Nick Foles attempts to hit receiver Jeremy Maclin over the middle with Beason in coverage. Once the ball is snapped, Foles faked a handoff to the running back.
Beason, meanwhile, has his eyes on Foles, who now has a huge hole up the middle he can try to exploit, should he want to try to outrun Beason and fellow linebacker Jameel McClain (No. 53).
Here, Beason showed patience, knowing there was a possibility Foles might take off and run. As such, he hovered within 10 yards of the quarterback, waiting to see what Foles would do.
Once Foles set up to throw and began his motion, Beason then quickly dropped back into coverage, or at least as quickly as his injured toe allowed him to drop.
He then did a great job of getting himself into the passing lane, but was unable to come up with the interception on the ball that’s thrown over his head.
The other thing to take away on this play is Beason likely knew he had deep help behind him, so if he should miss making a play on the ball, he had backup had Maclin made the reception, which he did not.
Should the Giants Bring Beason Back?
When Fewell laments the loss of Beason on defense, he is not merely being sentimental.
Although Beason isn’t the same player he was prior to suffering his injuries, and although he’ll soon be on the wrong side of 30 and, in 2015, will carry a $7.366 million cap figure, according to Over the Cap, when healthy, he’s been a difference-maker, especially against the run, where the Giants have struggled this year.
Should the Giants then consider bringing Beason back next season, regardless of what happens with the defensive coordinator?
If he is healthy, it makes sense to do so, though it remains to be seen if they leave his cap figure for next year, which will see his base salary jump for $730,000 this year to $3.6 million with $900,000 of that 2015 base salary guaranteed, alone.
Much will depend on what the 2015 cap figure will be, of course, but the Giants probably don’t need to adjust Beason’s contract for next year.
If they need additional room, they might opt to trim players who carry large cap figures but might not be in the plans next year, such as defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka ($7.45 million) and center J. D. Walton ($3.125 million).
The bottom line regarding Beason is he is still a very good player who, unfortunately, hasn’t been able to show it much, due to injuries that have been beyond his control.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether he adjusts the way he trains to avoid putting excess stress on his body, or makes any other kind of adjustments to lessen his chances of injury occurring in a sport where injuries are always lurking around the corner.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football and The SportsXchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.