After unsuccessful stints as head coach of the St. Louis Rams and as defensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints, Steve Spagnuolo, previously with the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive assistant, is back as the New York Giants defensive coordinator, the role that first thrust his name into the national spotlight.
While Spags didn’t bring Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Antonio Pierce, Kawika Mitchell or Corey Webster with him this time around, there is still a lot to like about his return and what it means for the Giants defense.
The Positives: Flexibility
As much as the Giants don’t want to use the injury factor as an excuse, the fact is that former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s unit was hit so hard by the injury bug that it was impossible not to notice the ripple effect the loss of certain players had on the defense.
Therein was one of the biggest problems with Fewell’s tenure. It’s not that his schemes were bad; it’s that he didn’t appear to adjust them to fit the personnel or the situations he had to face on a weekly basis.
This was particularly frustrating when the game plan needed to be adjusted. Rather than make changes as the game went along, Fewell often stuck with the original plan with the hope that the players would step up and outplay the opponent.
In his first tenure with the Giants, Spagnuolo showed that he wasn’t afraid to adjust if things weren’t working. Most times, his changes worked, which is a big reason why his defenses helped contribute to a 22-10 regular-season record during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
The Positives: Proactive
For those who watched the New England Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, one thing that stuck out about the game-ending interception was Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s explanation, which according to the NFL transcripts released after the game, was as follows:
"We sent in our personnel, they sent in goal line; it’s not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down we throw the ball really to kind of waste that play."
Regardless of how you feel about the call itself, the point is that the Seahawks appear to have been reactive rather than proactive with that game-changing call.
What does this have to do with Spagnuolo and the Giants? Simply put, Spagnuolo was usually proactive with his schemes and in-game adjustments, seeking to dictate to the opponent rather than let the opponent dictate to him.
The Positives: Letting Players Play
There is nothing more frustrating to a player than when a scheme takes away what he does best.
Prior to Spagnuolo’s arrival as the defensive coordinator, this was an issue the team had with Tim Lewis. Lewis seemed to favor zone defenses rather than press coverage; as a result, players like cornerback Corey Webster looked out of place and ineffective.
That changed when Spagnuolo came on board, and not surprisingly, Webster had two very solid seasons in 2007 and 2008.
While a defensive coordinator can’t run press coverage on 100 percent of the plays, knowing what each player does well and then working that into the overall equation is key.
Press coverage is something that both Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have done well. If the Giants can take advantage of those talents by bumping a receiver and disrupting the timing of a play, that could result in the quarterback having to hold the ball a little longer.
In turn, that could lead to more sacks and pressures by the defensive front and, if the quarterback panics under pressure, maybe a few more interceptions.
The Challenge: Getting the Required Personnel
For all the positives Spagnuolo offers as a defensive coordinator, his defense still needs the right pieces of the puzzle.
Starting with the run defense, the Giants need to address the linebacker position, adding to a group that includes Devon Kennard, Jon Beason and Jameel McClain.
The defensive line is off to a good start if they can retain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to pair alongside of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who were, according to Pro Football Focus, the Giants’ best run-stoppers last season.
However, another young and solid defensive tackle alongside of Hankins—Cullen Jenkins has been steady but at 33 years old, he’s not the long-term answer—and a solid replacement for Mathias Kiwanuka (Robert Ayers Jr.? Damontre Moore? Kerry Wynn?) are needed.
At safety, Antrel Rolle is an unrestricted free agent who isn’t a lock to return. While he would be a good fit for a Spagnuolo defense, if they can’t reach an agreement with him, the Giants need to determine if either Nat Berhe, a 2014 fifth-round draft pick, or Cooper Taylor, a 2013 fifth-round pick, can be that thumper at the safety position.
As for the rest of the defensive secondary, Amukamara and Rodgers-Cromartie are among the best at the position when healthy. If the Giants can get Walter Thurmond re-signed, the 2015 Giants' nickel package is going to be scary good.
The Bottom Line
A coordinator can be the most creative, energetic coach in the world, but without the talent to get the job done, he is not going to be successful.
With the Giants in a “win or else” mode for 2015, the front office has to do its part in bringing in the right pieces to the puzzle, or else it will not matter who the defensive coordinator is.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.