The return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was one that was widely embraced by New York Giants fans, whose memories of his 2007 and 2008 defenses are highlights in head coach Tom Coughlin’s era.
The 2007 defense in particular was special, as Spagnuolo, then a first-year NFL defensive coordinator, fashioned a Megatron-like power that was largely responsible for ruining the New England Patriots’ quest for an undefeated season.
According to the Super Bowl XLII official game book, the Giants defense sacked Patriots quarterback Brady five times for minus-37 yards.
They hit him nine times and broke up four of his pass attempts, forced and recovered one fumble, and, according to Pro Football Focus, held Brady to a season-low 5.5 yards per pass attempt in a 17-14 victory.
The next season, Spagnuolo’s 2008 defense contributed to a 12-4 record and the NFC’s top playoff seed before the Philadelphia Eagles eliminated them with a 23-11 win in the divisional round.
Spagnuolo left the Giants after the 2008 season and had unsuccessful stints as head coach of the St. Louis Rams and the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints before catching on as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 and 2014.
His mission with the Giants in this, his second go-round with the team, is to repair a defensive unit that finished 29th overall in the NFL.
Spagnuolo II: An Overview of What to Expect
To understand what the Giants defense might look like this time around, Antonio Pierce, the Giants middle linebacker and defensive captain on those Spagnuolo defenses who is now an analyst for ESPN, provided a glimpse into the challenges and direction his former defensive coordinator is about to tackle.
“He gives you a lot of numbers, and he hopes that someone is going to grasp that and see that on the field,” Pierce said via phone from his California home.
“For example, it’s third-and-three and we’re playing the Eagles. Are they going to run a screen or are they going to run a guy in the flat and hit up a wide receiver?
"He challenges you to look at that and then you make the adjustments accordingly, either a check or you guys move over left to right. The way the defense is built, you have to recognize what’s about to happen."
Pierce estimated that Spagnuolo’s defense is "60 percent scheme, 40 percent personnel," the latter being a key in getting favorable match-ups.
“A lot of the things we created when I was there was about creating problems for the offense,” Pierce said. “It’s all about the weakness of the offense and where our strengths were as a defense.”
If the Giants defense is to establish an identity and pinpoint its strengths, they are going to have to spend the next several months sorting out the personnel issues that have popped up either due to injury or free agency losses.
The Defensive Line
Unlike last year, when the Giants attempted to re-build the defense from the outside in, New York appears to have reversed that philosophy.
So far this year, they have placed more of an emphasis on getting the front seven in order, where one of the goal appears to be fielding mobile, athletic guys who can also stop the run.
“Spags loves to move his defensive linemen around. He likes guys who are mobile,” Pierce said.
“I always said I never really played with run-stoppers. (Defensive tackle) Fred Robbins was a very mobile guy for his size. (Defensive tackle Barry) Cofield, even for his statue was a very good pass-rusher from the nose tackle position.
“Spags wants guys who can penetrate because at the end of the day, if your defensive linemen are making most of the tackles, that means you’re winning because you’re playing in the opponent’s backfield, you’re making tackles for a loss, and you’re playing within two or three yards of the line of scrimmage.”
When Pierce looks at the Giants’ current linebacker unit, which this offseason added J.T. Thomas from Jacksonville and Jonathan Casillas from New England to a group that will return Jon Beason, Jameel McClain, Devon Kennard and Mark Herzlich, he sees a common denominator in those acquisitions.
“I think first of all, when you look at the linebackers they brought in, they got smaller, 230-pound guys who can run,” Pierce said.
Having smaller and faster linebackers that can run from sideline-to-sideline as well as drop into coverage could very well end up being one of the missing ingredients to help the Giants better handle the read-option.
“You want guys who, if that quarterback is doing that zone read, can force the quarterback to make a decision right away,” Pierce said.
“I think the worst thing when you play the zone read is if you don’t have guys on defense who can keep up with the speed of the game, then the offense has the advantage.”
Pierce believes the additions of Thomas and Casillas, whom head coach Tom Coughlin, per Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media, said will compete for the vacant starting weak-side linebacker position, are solid.
“The linebackers they picked up—good move,” Pierce said.
“I don’t know if they’re going to blow anyone away statistically or production-wise, but for what Spags probably wants to do scheme-wise, they can handle it physically.”
The Defensive Secondary
The biggest current question mark for the Giants as they head into 2015 involves their defensive secondary, where they lost veteran safety Antrel Rolle and slot cornerback Walter Thurmond III in free agency.
At cornerback, the Giants are solid if they can keep starters Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara healthy for a 16-game season, which wasn’t the case last year.
Safety is another story. Currently, the Giants have a pair of inexperienced draft picks, Nat Berhe and Cooper Taylor, under contract, neither of whom has started a game in the NFL.
Despite the inexperience of Berhe and Taylor, there is optimism that both players will contribute in some way, especially in Berhe's case. In fact, Coughlin told Tom Rock of Newsday that Berhe can play in the box or deep.
In looking at the current safety situation, Giants historians are quick to note that Spagnuolo’s safeties in 2007 and 2008—James Butler, Gibril Wilson and Michael Johnson—were serviceable, but not Pro Bowlers.
Given the numbers the Giants currently have at safety, the team will be adding at least one more guy, perhaps on the back end of free agency just so they have enough depth to get through training camp, though Coughlin also hasn't ruled out moving cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and Chykie Brown to safety.
In the meantime, the Giants’ emphasis on upgrading the front seven has taken center stage because, as Pierce noted, a strong front seen can work wonders for a defense and play into what Spagnuolo is believed to be wanting to do.
“In ’07 and ’08, the strength of our team was the front seven. That’s why you need linebackers who can understand passing concepts and can relate to routes,” Pierce said.
“Spags is a big zone-blitz guy. He’s going to bring pressure. That’s why I think it made more sense for him to get speedier linebackers."
The Defense's Next Cornerstone?
The 2007 and 2008 Giants defenses had several guys who were cornerstones of the unit, such as Pierce, defensive ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, and cornerback Corey Webster.
According to Pierce, one of the 2015 Giants' emerging cornerstones poised to play a significant role on the defense is linebacker Devon Kennard, one of two fifth-round draft picks last year, the third highest-graded rookie 4-3 outside linebacker last year out of 23 rookies at his position by Pro Football Focus.
“I think he’s going to be a very productive player in this system,” said Pierce, who compared Kennard to a young Tuck as far as his versatility and ability to do multiple things in the defense.
“You can move him around, inside or outside...you can put him at defensive end...you can rush him up the middle or off the edge...you can drop him into coverage...
"I was high on him when they drafted him—I thought they got a steal because he was the best linebacker they have drafted since Jessie Armstead.”
Kennard’s high football IQ combined with his natural athletic talents are likely the reason why Pierce believes the former USC defender will be given a lot of responsibilities in Spagnuolo's defense.
“Spags will probably use him in the same way as he did with Mathias Kiwanuka,” Pierce said, recalling how the former defensive end was used as both a strong-side linebacker and as a down lineman in certain packages.
“We ran a lot of under-fronts so it was like we had five d-linemen on the line of scrimmage, and the majority of the time we blitzed Kiwanuka,” Pierce said. “That’s where I kind of see them going with Kennard.”
In Search of "The Voice"
With the talent starting to fall into place, the other critical element that needs to emerge on the defense is its voice.
Back in the day, Pierce was that voice. He used to spend countless hours in Spagnuolo’s office discussing the X's and O's, and how to give the defense every possible advantage.
Along the way, Pierce and Spagnuolo came to trust each other so much that teammates used to joke that each man could finish the other’s sentences.
That was actually a good thing because Pierce, in earning Spagnuolo's trust, became an extension of the defensive coordinator on the field.
Pierce had the freedom to make adjustments based on what the offense was showing while staying true to the scheme and getting the other defenders on the same page. As a result, the Giants were often in the right position to limit the damage inflicted on them by the opponent.
Had safety Antrel Rolle, whom head coach Tom Coughlin said at the combine last month used to spend “countless Tuesdays” in his office trying to arrive at ways to make the team better, not left via free agency, he would have been the obvious choice to take on that role.
Another obvious choice who is still on the team is Beason, whom, like Rolle, was voted by his peers to be a defensive co-captain last season.
Beason, who ironically almost became the heir to Pierce in 2007, is a natural leader who has said he thrives under the pressure that comes with being the middle linebacker and quarterback of the defense.
He has also expressed excitement about commencing his collaboration with Spagnuolo, the goal being to prove to the coordinator that he can play the same role that Pierce played as far as being a leader.
“That's what I'm most excited about,” Beason said, via Newsday’s Tom Rock. “I'm hoping I don't feel as handcuffed as it is typically in the NFL.
"If I can learn it the way Spags knows it, he'll allow me to not be dictated to by what the offense is. When they check, we can check. That's what I look forward to the most.”
For that to happen, Pierce said it’s important that Beason wastes no time in permanently reserving and occupying a seat in Spagnuolo’s office, just as Pierce himself did during Spagnuolo’s first tenure with the team.
“You have to remember that Spags has always had a guy at the ‘Mike,’ no matter where he coached,” Pierce said.
“Spags is looking for someone to put the onus on, someone who can be an extension of him on the field, the d-coordinator who knows [everything].
“So Jon Beason—get in there right away and digest as much as much as Spags is going to throw at you because he’s going to throw the whole gamut at you and see how much you can take.”
However, appointing Beason as the lone voice does come with a risk.
“I don’t think the mental part will be an issue with Jon,” Pierce said. “It’s the physical part—is he going to last? Can his body hold up?”
That has been the problem with Beason. When he is healthy, he is still very much a solid middle linebacker.
According to a study on his 2013 contributions in the Giants’ defense, 77 percent of Beason’s run-game tackles came within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
When it comes to Beason’s injury history—he has played in just 24 games since the 2011 season—Pierce believes it would be wise to be realistic.
“What you hope you get with Beason is that he can soak up the knowledge so much that he can spread that among his peers," Pierce said.
"Use him more for the intellectual part—minicamps, OTAs, training camp—and pray you get 16 games out of him because he will be that guy who can line guys up, he can make those checks that Spags wants to do in certain formations and sets, and downs and distances.”
Regardless of whether Beason is there for all 16 games, Pierce believes that the more guys that step up and demonstrate that they have truly mastered every facet of that defense, the better.
“They have all the guys—physically they can do it,” he said. “But who are your mental guys? Our defense had me, Butler and Sam Madison and then eventually Strahan, who had to catch up a bit because he came in a little late. Justin Tuck did a great job for us, which is why he was able to bounce around, because he picked up the front.
“You have to get guys who have football IQ. I know that’s one thing in talking to Spags, that he’s looking for guys—who has the football IQ?”
They'll find out the answer to that and other questions soon enough.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced stats are from Pro Football Focus. All quotes for this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange.