Updated: Dec 11, 2020
The New York Giants have quietly put together one of the NFL’s most complete and most effective defenses this season. Because of the pandemic and the lack of minicamps, preseason games, and general reps, it took a while for this defense (as a team) to come together and the quality of what was done was not evident early on. Offenses ruled the day in the season’s first half and the Giants took a lot of heat early this year. Head coach Joe Judge made both staff and players run laps for poor performance on the field and the Giants were 1-7 at the halfway mark. However, what they have done in the last month has been impressive. What hasn’t gotten enough attention is just how this defense was built in what was really just one off-season.
I have said for years that the league is set up for teams to improve and move from the have nots to the haves very quickly. With the right combination of free agents, draft choices and a trade here and there, teams can change their fortunes much quicker than the general public thinks. There are reasons why some teams succeed but many more fail when they set up their own shop and attempt this task.
It is not a secret that those who have come off the Bill Belichick tree have struggled for the most part to replicate the “New England way” once they leave. Other than the obvious of not being able to bring Bill or Tom Brady with them, it’s been because these coaches have failed to walk the fine line of Patriots history. What really made them good was having their own identity. Bill created a dynasty in New England by implementing a disciplined system of acquiring parts/players/skill sets to build “his teams”. The Giants are now benefiting from this proven system.
A former Pats special teams guru, Joe Judge and General Manager Dave Gettleman have chosen to build this Giants team by stressing defense and its been a very “Patriot-like” process and impressive.
What the Pats have done better than any team in the history of the National Football League is set some detailed criteria (a job description) for each position and what they want for a skill set, based on schemes, and in order of importance.
I know this because Nick Saban brought a similar plan to Miami when he was our head coach and I was the general manager. We implemented this and with a little tinkering from my 25 years of experience in the league, we put together the best system to acquire players and build a team that I had ever been a part of. Unfortunately, Nick left for Alabama and we didn’t get to see it thru. It’s one thing to acquire talent, it’s another to build your team with the exact skill sets that the scheme requires.
It’s about what fits best and that does not always equal the most talent. The Patriots have never been the most talented, but they have been, without a doubt, built in a way that fits what their coaches will do with the talent.
On defense, the Giants have added players with specific skill sets to fit Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham’s version of the Patriots defense. It’s about the fit, not the flash. It started by asking DE Leonard Williams (acquired from the Jets) to add some bulk and strength which makes him a better point-of-attack defender as a 5-technique player.
They added an inside linebacker out of Stanford, Blake Martinez (4th round pick of GB in 2016), and gave him a three-year deal to be their signal caller and the brains of the Giants defensive unit. Martinez’ football IQ, his instincts, and first-step quickness are at the top of what was needed to lead this defense. Martinez leads the Giants in tackles and makes all the calls and adjustments both pre- and post snap.
The addition of OLB Jabaal Sheard from the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad gave them an edge setter and some physicality vs. the run that Joe Judge saw first-hand when he was in New England. It helped Judge to already have NT Davin Tomlinson, DE Dexter Lawrence and fellow DL BJ Hill in the fold as prior Giants draft picks
The Giants now have a front seven that can pressure the passer without really having an elite rusher among the group. This is not a coincidence. They got five sacks vs. Seattle last week with schemed rushes and their pressure packages were executed perfectly, making everyone in Seattle question what is wrong with QB Russell Wilson? The Giants defense controlled the pocket and contained Wilson’s run outs that have become the norm. Its team defense at its best. I think, if they played Seattle three times, they might win all three.
The Giants also added a pair of secondary players in free agency that fit their schemes as well. They could have spent money on bigger names but acquired cornerback James Bradberry instead. Bradberry was drafted by Gettleman in Carolina and was signed because of his length (6’1” ft), his football IQ, and his versatility to play both zone coverage and just enough man-to-man coverage to change the throwing angles of opposing QB’s.
He and Logan Ryan, a former nickel/corner in Tennessee who now plays safety for the Giants, have been a model of consistency over these first 12 weeks. Ryan’s lack of foot speed to play out in space at corner kept him from having a big money market for his services. However, the Giants moved him inside where his quickness and instincts are above average and his nose for the ball is evident vs both the run and pass.
New York has been confident and aggressive and used all avenues to upgrade their roster. Their acquisition of players has been all about finding the right fits. Just look at the three linebackers they drafted in rounds 6 and 7 of this year’s NFL draft. Cam Brown’s (Penn St) main strength is going forward, not backward, in coverage. Tae Crowder, even though he has spent time on injured reserve, is also now contributing and Carter Coughlin (Minnesota) is a longer, leaner, one-on-one, pass rusher in nickel packages. Specific skill sets were identified during the process and all three players have been put in positions to accentuate their strengths.
This is a defense based on multiple fronts with outside linebackers who are versatile, but for the most part, come forward after the snap. The inside backers can get depth in their pass drops to undercover deeper crossers similar to what the Tampa 2 defense did back in the day. The combination coverages in the back end allow for less-than-elite corners from an athletic standpoint. Instead, these corners have to play the ball with poise and communicate with each other well.
It was an orchestrated plan to rebuild a defense in Coach Judge’s (and the Patriots) image. If they can keep from turning the ball over on offense and can continue to “run the ball” effectively like they did last Sunday, they will not only win the NFC East, but will also be a tough out in the playoffs, no matter their crazy record.