Giants Preview: The Defense Can't Rest
The Giants’ defense of their Super Bowl XLVI title ended with a 9-7 record and no playoffs. According to the unofficial NFL preview manual, the angle here should focus on how the 2013 Giants can “bounce back” and “rediscover their identity.”
But what identity do these Giants actually need to rediscover? We know old school coach Tom Coughlin believes you win with stable running and defense. But the Super Bowl champions of two seasons ago had the NFL’s 32nd ranked rushing attack and 25th ranked scoring defense. Last year the ground game got back to 14th and the defense, despite a bad tendency to give up chunk yardage (second most in the league, in fact), finished 12th in points allowed.
Of course, numbers rarely tell the whole story. A real problem for the Giants last season was many of their stars simply did not play as well as usual. Wideout Hakeem Nicks was slowed by injuries, and Victor Cruz, facing more concentrated coverages, saw his production dip by nearly 500 yards. Consequently, Eli Manning’s yards per pass attempt dropped from 8.4 to 7.4. Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck went quiet and Corey Webster, who’d been a borderline Pro Bowler, suddenly became one of the league’s worst starting corners.
It’d be easy to assume that two rings in five years brought complacency to New York. But complacent teams don’t win six of their first eight games, as the Giants did in 2012. And besides, those Super Bowl champions from 2011 were also 9-7—that record just happened to be good enough for an NFC East title that year.
Really, there’s no golden ticket for this team. The Giants have won between eight and 10 games each of the last seven years (save for a 12-win 2008 campaign, which ended with a one-and-done playoff appearance). They’re exactly what we’ve suspected all along: a good, solid organization that’s capable of catching fire at just the right time. As their recent pair of Lombardi trophies can attest, this formula has been good enough. Let’s examine why.
Instead of discussing whether Eli Manning is a superstar, let’s discuss why he’s a superstar. There are the numbers (an average of 4,226 yards and 28 touchdowns per season over the last four years) and rings (two). But these are symptoms of superstardom, not characteristics.
Manning’s array of superstar characteristics is unique. His arm strength rarely gets mentioned as among the best in the league, but few quarterbacks can even attempt the type of tight-windowed, timing-based downfield or outside-the-numbers throws that Manning uncorks regularly. There’s also Manning’s pocket presence, which is extraordinary, not so much because of his footwork and mechanics—which, truth be told, can waver at times—but because of his awareness and fortitude. Manning is one of the best in the league at making accurate, strong-armed throws just before getting hit. And he is the best in the league at contorting his body to safely absorb a hit. The only significant demerit for the 32-year-old is his occasional propensity to take reckless chances under duress. He’s too good a game manager for that.
Manning is also as comfortable in his system as any quarterback in football. It helps that he’s had the same position coach/offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, since his first year in the league, 2004. Gilbride runs a diverse, wide-reaching though fairly traditional scheme that places a heavy emphasis on run-pass balance and base personnel. The Giants used a standard two-back, two-receiver set an NFC-high 29.2% percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders.
Manning and Gilbride ask a lot of their wide receivers, specifically stars Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Both have outstanding body control and run precise routes. Their ability to create separation late in the route spurs many of New York’s passing designs. That said, both need to be better than they were a year ago (especially with Cruz having just signed a six-year, $45.9 million contract and Nicks, a free agent in 2014, eagerly awaiting his turn).
Cruz, a slot connoisseur, has the bigger numbers, but many defenses find Nicks the more challenging receiver to deal with. The Giants do a great job isolating the fifth-year pro on the weak side, where he either draws one-on-one coverage or attracts an expensive double team that benefits the supporting receivers. In an effort to further capitalize on those benefits, general manager Jerry Reese last year spent his late-second-round pick on wideout Rueben Randle. The once-projected first-rounder showed lack of maturity early on, but his contributions grew as his rookie season progressed. It wasn’t enough, however, to prevent Reese from signing a competitor for the third-receiver role, Louis Murphy, who has decent speed and a subtle slashing route-running style that fits this system like Domenik Hixon did. On the outskirts of the receiving corps is the gifted, well-sized but ultimately underachieving Ramses Barden, as well as darting gadget type Jerrel Jernigan.
While more and more offenses these days are building around dynamic tight ends, the Giants’ system only requires basic role players in this spot. With this in mind, Reese felt comfortable signing ex-Raider Brandon Myers for less than half the guaranteed money it would have cost to bring back the more gifted but less dependable Martellus Bennett. Myers is a mechanically sound receiver who is serviceable underneath and between the numbers. He isn’t a particularly powerful in-line blocker, though. If Myers doesn’t work out, don’t be surprised if last year’s athletic but untested fourth-round pick, Adrien Robinson, starts ahead of the more familiar Bear Pascoe (who may be asked to moonlight at fullback anyway).
The Giants’ passing attack always benefits from Coughlin’s and Gilbride’s commitment to balanced play calling. It will be interesting to see how the run-pass relationship shakes out in 2013. In recent years the Giants have had a back in Ahmad Bradshaw who could operate behind a lead-blocker or out of single-back sets. He could also rely on good cut-back ability and power, and he was a proficient blocker and pass-catcher out of the backfield. This gave the offense, which makes good use of Manning’s audible prowess, valuable freedom in play-calling and, if necessary, hurry-up.
Bradshaw is gone now. In his place is David Wilson, who has sensational downhill speed and quickness. However, the 2012 first-round pick sat out a lot of his rookie year not just because of much-publicized tendency to fumble but because he was a glaring liability in pass protection. (In November the Giants actually signed free agent Kregg Lumpkin off the street and played him instead of Wilson on third downs.) If Wilson doesn’t correct his weaknesses, the coaching staff will be tempted to turn to backup Andre Brown. He does not have Wilson’s speed or agility, but he’s strong between the tackles and has remarkably light feet for a 227-pounder. At the very least, he’ll get rotational touches and goal-line carries.
If Wilson plays, the Giants may have to reconfigure a lot of their run game, as the youngster’s style is more conducive to single-back designs, not the traditional interior lead runs that have kept fullback Henry Hynoski prominent. Then again, the fact that Reese explored signing veteran fullback Vonta Leach, after summer knee surgery raised doubts about Hynoski’s availability for 2013, suggests the Giants are not prepared to immediately commit to a more finesse ground game.
So does their most recent first-round draft choice: 307-pound mauler Justin Pugh, who will vie for right tackle duties opposite the increasingly reliable Will Beatty. If Pugh starts, gradually declining 11th-year veteran David Diehl will be demoted to a utility backup role, as Kevin Boothe and Chris Snee will fill the starting guard positions that Diehl can also play. Boothe is a radically improved run-blocker who, like the rest of this line, is smart and serviceable in pass protection. Snee remains one of the league’s five best all-around right guards. Anchoring at center is David Baas, who doesn’t have impressive raw tools but is an adequate puzzle piece.
The Giants' front four is every bit as significant as its reputation suggests. It is to this defense what neon lights are to Times Square. Which is why it’s critical that this unit bounce back from a sub-par 2012. It starts with Jason Pierre-Paul, who is not just the group’s most dominant force but, when he’s on form, could be the most dominant force in the NFC. The fourth-year pro must either drop or learn to carry the extra weight that his coaches say compromised some of his quickness last year. He also must get more accustomed to fighting double teams. These will be uphill battles at first, as Pierre-Paul could miss the start of the season recovering from back surgery.
The same thing that makes Pierre-Paul special once made Justin Tuck special: an ability to win not just around the edge but also off lateral movement to the inside. After averaging nearly 10 sacks per season from 2007 to ’10, Tuck over the last two years has recorded just nine total sacks. He’s had to rely more on his savvy technique than athleticism. Age isn’t to blame here; he just turned 30 in March. Tuck has had some shoulder issues, though nothing that has kept him out for an extended period.
Even with speed-rusher Osi Umenyiora finally gone, Pierre-Paul and Tuck both may still slide inside on passing downs. It depends if third-round rookie Damontre Moore can immediately become a regular pass-rushing specialist opposite veteran edge-rusher Mathias Kiwanuka (who, many fail to appreciate, can also play defensive tackle in nickel). In the base 4-3, the defensive tackle spots will be filled by a rotation that runs as many as six deep. Heading it is Linval Joseph, who flashes compelling sudden movement for his size. Next to him will be Cullen Jenkins, a versatile veteran with good initial quickness and very crafty hand-fighting technique.
The gargantuan Shaun Rogers will get a chance at backup duties, though given that he’s 34 and missed all of last season with a blood clot in his lower leg, former Eagle Mike Patterson may be the likelier veteran in this role. Of course, Patterson missed most of last season after having surgery to repair tangled blood vessels in his brain. The uncertainty surrounding these veterans may have been what prompted Reese to draft Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins in the second round and also keep Marvin Austin, a 2011 second-rounder who due to various injuries has played just 103 snaps.
With a potent four-man rush, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell can fill his matchup zone coverages with seven players. The extra bodies can create indecision and outright confusion for an offense, particularly if the offense still has to leave extra blocker in against the four rushers. This gives the offense an undesired hurriedness and glaring numbers disadvantage, which helps lead to turnovers.
While many seven-man matchup zones have the added bonus of naturally hiding a back seven’s weaknesses, the drawback is these variegated concepts require a lot of communication and synergy. Minor tweaks to the lineup can disrupt this, leading to costly busted assignments. The Giants found this out in 2012, when seven different players started in their secondary, and they as a defense gave up 28 plays of 30-plus yards, second most in the league.
Some of those big plays were due to pass-rush pressure not arriving. That can hurt bad, as the rotations and baited movements in matchup zones are built for the ball coming out early. When it doesn’t, the coverage breaks down. This was the case far too regularly last season, particularly in Corey Webster’s realm outside. No matter what the coverage, Webster was a liability downfield. (That may have been partly due to a broken hand from September that hindered his ability to jam receivers.) There’s really nothing else to say other than the Giants desperately need the ninth-year veteran to rebound. Reese took a calculated gamble in not bringing in someone to challenge for Webster’s spot.
The spot opposite Webster is nearly just as precarious. Prince Amukamara has not developed the confidence that NFL cornerbacking demands. His lack of ideal recovery speed may have something to do with this; at times Amukamara plays with a cushion when the situation calls for press. At other times, he shows the innate sense for timing and positioning that got him drafted in the first round. Overall, though, he remains far from a sure thing.
If Amukamara’s issues worsen, Aaron Ross, back after his underwhelming one-year “paid vacation” in Jacksonville, could get the starting nod. Last year’s third-round pick, Jayron Hosley, is a more vibrant player than the soon-to-be 31-year-old Ross, but Hosley is equipped almost exclusively for the slot. Also in the mix is Terrell Thomas, though having missed two straight years with right ACL injuries, the Giants may decide to play the 28-year-old at the less rigorous free safety position.
In that case, Thomas would likely be the third safety in New York’s highly effective big nickel package. Starting centerfielder Antrel Rolle would slide into the slot, perhaps even on first and second downs considering he’s an effective space-oriented run defender. At strong safety in all packages will be Stevie Brown, who came from out of nowhere last year to lead the team with eight interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
At 5-11, Brown is a tad shorter than the Giants prefer their safeties to be. (His predecessor, Kenny Phillips, was 6-2; Brown’s backup, Will Hill, is 6-1; fifth-round rookie and projected third-stringer Cooper Taylor is 6-4.) But what Brown lacks in height, he makes up for in thickness (he’s a sturdy 221 pounds). That’s more important, given that he’s playing behind a linebacking corps that won’t be particularly stout against the run.
Competing for the starting middle backer duties are newcomer Dan Connor and Mark Herzlich. Connor, whose once-promising career was slowed early on by injuries in Carolina, is not a great point-of-attack stopper. Herzlich lacks quickness and range. Vying for a starting job at strongside linebacker are two former high-first-round flameouts: Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry. Rivers, a 2008 Bengals first-rounder, started six games for the Giants last year, his first in New York. His experience and respectable short-area pass defense gives him a clear edge over Curry, the fourth overall pick in 2009 (Seattle) who has never shown good instincts. On the weak side, the hope is that fluid nickel linebacker Jacquian Williams can fully recover from the PCL injury that limited him last year and this past offseason. If he can’t handle an every-down role, the less athletic Spencer Paysinger, who was second in the league in special teams tackles last year, could get the nod.
Big-footed veteran Josh Brown will compete with ex-Cowboy David Buehler (Buehler?....Buehler…?) for kicking duties. Both were out of football for most of last season. Punter Steve Weatherford is unspectacular but dependable, which is all this team has wanted since the Matt Dodge era. In the return game, David Wilson is a phenom on kicks, but if he’s getting major running back reps, coaches may want to use Jerrel Jernigan. On punts, the Giants as a team only attempted 20 returns last season. Rueben Randle had 15 of them.
This is a well-coached club that has been together for several years. If the defense gets back to par, it will again contend for the division title.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.