In a key season for the New York Giants, the old adage about defenses winning championships has never been more important than this coming season.
The Giants, who last year finished with the 30th overall defense in the league (378.5 yards allowed per game), performed a major housecleaning of the unit by bringing in some younger players to replace aging veterans like defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and safety Antrel Rolle, and renovating the linebacker unit.
The biggest change, though, was replacing defensive coordinator Perry Fewell with a familiar face in Steve Spagnuolo, who was the architect of the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl championship defense when he was a rookie coordinator.
So far, so good for “Spags” and his band of players, which features a good mix of youth, particularly in the defensive backfield at safety, and veterans.
During OTAs, Spagnuolo and the rest of the Giants defensive assistant coaches have been experimenting with different looks and personnel groupings in an effort to find out what might work and what won’t.
While that process will continue to be ongoing, some things are no doubt top priorities for Spagnuolo as he designs the optimal Giants defense.
Let’s take a look at some of what he likely hopes to accomplish in his quest to help the Giants meet the “win” portion of the “win or else” mandate handed down by team ownership.
Stop the Run
Ask head coach Tom Coughlin to prioritize what he likes to see from his defenses, and chances are high that the first thing he will mention is how important it is to be able to stop the run.
Last year, the Giants struggled in this regard, and a big part of the reason was tackling.
|Giants 2014 Run Defense vs. Patriots and Seahawks|
|Team||Total Number of Tackles||Avg. Rushing Yards/Game||NFL Rank|
|Sources: Pro Football Focus, StatMilk.com|
What do these numbers mean? Despite being in the same neighborhood as the Patriots and the Seahawks in terms of number of tackles, the Giants run defense was often making the majority of their run-game tackles six or more yards down the field, hence their bloated average rushing yards allowed per game.
There were two reasons for this. The first is injuries. As frustrating as it’s been to count on middle linebacker Jon Beason, the fact remains that when he came over to the Giants in a trade in 2013, he was probably their best run defender, recording 77 percent of his 2013 run-game tackles within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
The other problem is up front on the defensive line.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from the Giants’ game against the Seahawks last year, a game in which they were gashed for an unheard-of 350 yards on the ground.
In this screen capture, a 23-yard catch-and-run out of the backfield by running back Marshawn Lynch (red circle), note how the two Giants defenders (blue X’s) were unable to shed their blocks.
Because the Giants were stonewalled, Lynch had a ridiculous amount of room to gain some significant yardage before a defender could disengage and make the tackle down the field.
Let’s look at one more problem the Giants had last year: failing to set the edge.
On this play, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson takes the keeper and dashes outside for an eight-yard gain. The problem here is that defensive end Robert Ayers (No. 91), was badly fooled by Wilson, thinking that the ball was in the hands of Lynch (even if Lynch did get the ball, chances are he would have run away from Ayers’ charge).
Wilson, whose head is turned in the direction of Ayers, no doubt sees this charge. He takes the ball, and because he has quick feet, he scampers around the charging Ayers, who has left that edge wide open. The result is an eight-yard gain on the eventual tackle.
What then can Spagnuolo do to make sure that opposing running backs are being tackled as close to the line of scrimmage as possible?
Besides teaching tackling techniques, which will come during training camp when such drills are allowed, the first thing is to get the defensive line set.
That has been hard for Spagnuolo to do. Besides missing the franchised Jason Pierre-Paul—more on him in just a bit—the Giants will be without Ayers for a bit as he recovers from a significant ankle sprain suffered during the first OTA.
The Giants are also hoping that this is the year Damontre Moore finally shows that he’s become a complete defensive end.
In years past, Moore has been mostly been limited to pass-rushing situations, given his struggles against the run.
His weight, which Moore said was around 245 pounds, might have had something to do with those struggles last season.
This offseason, he finally got around to adding some much-needed bulk, despite being sidelined for a bit while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Moore told reporters that he is currently up about 10 pounds from last year’s weight, though it remains to be seen if the added bulk will be enough to help him better hold up against the run.
New York did add defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis, a pure plugger type, to their lineup, which should help fortify that defensive interior.
Last year, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins was the defensive line’s second-best run defender, behind Pierre-Paul, but as the season progressed, teams started running away from the Pierre-Paul/Hankins duo.
Throw the Kitchen Sink at the Offense
Last year, defensive coordinator Fewell attempted to run some blitzes.
The problem, though, is he wasn’t as aggressive as he could have been, at times even abandoning the blitz when things didn’t work out the way he hoped.
That was one of the big reveals by now-former safety Rolle, who, in comments made during his weekly radio spot on WFAN last season, hinted that the Giants defense could have been more aggressive than it was.
In Perry Fewell’s defense, when certain things go wrong throughout the course of a game, as a defensive coordinator and as a play-caller, it then makes you hesitant to call certain things.
He had a couple of blitzes called during the earlier part of the game, and those blitzes were bust. I think we played a good defense for the most part, but there were a lot of times the defense has some mental relapses.
As a coordinator it just kind of puts you on your heels a little bit, because you’re kinda damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
One of the differences that has been noticeable with Spagnuolo right off the bat is that he seems better able to adjust to the cards he has been dealt.
Fewell might have scrapped certain plays and concepts from the playbook if an injury struck down his personnel or would hope that the players would eventually get it. Spagnuolo has shown himself to be more creative in his stints as a defensive coordinator as far as making adjustments on the fly.
That’s probably why, during the OTAs, Spagnuolo has been running a variety of different blitzes.
Before anyone thinks the Giants defense should or will be blitzing on every single play, that will not be the case.
Certainly teams will soon find out that to defeat the Giants’ blitz efforts, they’re going to have to have the ball come out of the quarterback’s hands a lot faster, which means short-to-medium routes will probably be the norm against the Giants.
That is where New York’s strategy in retooling the linebacker unit comes into play. The Giants brought in a pair of veteran linebackers—J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas—who are smaller, but who are quicker afoot.
In experimenting with different “big nickel” packages, Casillas, who per Pro Football Focus has been more than serviceable as a coverage linebacker, has been working in one of the combinations, looking quick and alert out there.
As for the back end of the defense, it will likely see some combination of safeties with zero NFL starts between them (rookie Landon Collins and either Nat Berhe or Cooper Taylor). By upgrading the speed of the linebackers, perhaps the hope is to buy some time while the safeties grow into their roles in the NFL.
Keep Jon Beason Healthy
Earlier in this article, the importance of keeping a healthy Jon Beason on the field was mentioned as it relates to the run defense.
Here is another, bigger picture reason why Beason needs to be healthy: He is going to be the quarterback of that defense.
In 2007, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce was the defense’s maestro—making the calls, checking out of plays and making sure 10 other guys were on the same wavelength.
That is something Pierce did extremely well, and it was a big reason why the Giants defense was so successful.
Fast-forward to the present, and it is now Beason’s turn to wave the baton in ensuring the other 10 guys around him are on the same page.
In an interview with Ross Tucker and David Diehl of SiriusXM NFL Radio, Beason, who has played for five different defensive coordinators, described Spagnuolo’s system as “the most complex system I’ve been in.”
The reason the defense is so complex, Beason explained, is that it puts more onus on all of the players to recognize and adjust accordingly to what the offense is doing.
Offenses create problems by formations, moving people around, shifting motions, and it’s all built into every call where we can make a change. Obviously, it’s a lot more pressure on the [middle] linebacker, but the onus on the [strong-side] linebacker, the [weak-side linebacker], the safeties—everyone has a call, even the defensive linemen are expected to know a lot more as opposed to relying on the check or the [middle linebacker].
So far, so good for Beason, who in addition to trying to learn how Spagnuolo thinks, also revealed that the Giants have been monitoring his practice reps during the OTAs. It's a decision that Beason understands but also one that he wishes didn't have to be.
“I only know how to practice hard,” Beason said. “So what the Giants have been doing is taking reps off me at practice. So it’s frustrating, but I get the method to their madness.”
Whether the method results in the 30-year-old linebacker making it through his first 16-game season since 2010 remains to be seen.
However, there’s no question that the Giants need his football IQ as they begin to shape this defense from being a system to becoming their identity.
Get Jason Pierre-Paul Into Camp
Jason Pierre-Paul, who per Pro Football Focus was the Giants’ second-best best run defender last year, is not working with the team this offseason. This is thanks to him receiving the franchise tag, which he has yet to sign and which he might not sign until training camp.
While Pierre-Paul is a veteran, the unfortunate thing is that he is missing valuable classroom time, even if, as Beason said, he is still getting the information taught by the coaches in the classroom.
What Pierre-Paul is missing, besides building camaraderie with new teammates, is a chance to interact in the classroom, ask questions and engage in gaining a broader understanding of the playbook.
It’s a repeat of history. In 2007, defensive end and future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan skipped training camp while he was contemplating retirement. As a result, he missed the classroom work being installed by Spagnuolo, who was in his first year in the role.
While Strahan eventually caught up not long after returning from his extended summer break, the first three games for the Giants defense were not pretty.
According to historical game books from that 2007 season, the Giants defense allowed an average of 102.3 rushing yards per game in those first three games and 96.6 rushing yards per game in their final 13 regular-season matchups.
If the Giants are to have a happy ending as they did in 2007, they will need all hands on deck, and that includes their best run-defending defensive end.
Given that this team is facing that “win or else” ultimatum and that two of the Giants’ first three regular-season games are against NFC East opponents (Dallas in Week 1 and Washington in Week 3), the Giants can ill afford to come out of the gate slowly, as they did in 2007.
The Outlook: Things Will Get Better, But Don’t Expect Miracles
Spagnuolo said it best last month when he cautioned reporters not to expect him to wave a magic wand and restore the bruised and shattered Giants defense from a year ago to the powerhouse it was during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
This isn’t a on and off switch where, boom, all of a sudden we’re back to 2007 and we pick up where we left off. It doesn’t work that way and so to me I treat them differently. … It’s a different year. It’s different personnel and we’re talking about all of these things right now. I’m not a magician. No coaches are magicians. Things aren’t going to happen like they may have happened in a different time, but hopefully something exciting will happen.
Just as was the case in 2007, the Giants defense is going to take some time to come together.
Currently there are still some question marks on the personnel side that need to be resolved, such as who the nickelback is going to be, who will join Collins at safety and who will replace Kiwanuka at the other defensive end.
“There’s talent there,” Spagnuolo opined. “There are places where we need to fill some holes, but I think every team has that. That’s why you have a draft and you have free agency and we bring guys in to see what you can come up with.”
That’s also why teams have OTAs and minicamps: to gauge who is retaining the information, to see how players are responding to the new challenges before them and to see who’s putting in the time and making the commitment to take ownership of the new system.
“I said this to the group, that the main objective right now, from now until February, is to be better today than we were yesterday,” Spagnuolo said. “I know that sounds cliche-ish, but I think that’s where we should be right now.”
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise sourced.