Last season the Giants had a top ten defense against the run. Led by middle linebacker Blake Martinez and his 151 tackles, the opposition averaged 4.1 yards per rush in 2020, just under the league average. What a difference a year makes.
Not only have the Giants lost Martinez for the season, but they have also gone from one of the best teams against the run to one of the worst. They are surrendering 4.7 yards per rush which is the fourth highest in the NFL this season and almost a half yard over the league average.
When you couple that with their pass-rushing woes, it is a recipe for one of the lowest-ranked defenses in the NFL. So what has changed? Where has the performance dropped off?
Even before the Martinez injury, the Giants have struggled all season with their first-down run defense. Through the first five games, opponents have run on first down 386 times. They are averaging 5.29 yards-per-carry on those plays. That means more often than not, the defense is facing second and medium or short.
That opens up the playbook for the offense and makes it difficult for the defense to predict what is coming next. This also contributes to more first downs for the offense and means that the defense has to play more snaps. The Giants have only won the time-of-possession battle twice this season, and in those two games, it was by a narrow margin. The longer a defense is on the field, the more fatigued they become, the greater their opportunity to have a missed assignment and surrender a big play.
In this first clip, we see what happens when defensive fatigue and offensive opportunity meet. It is the fourth quarter against Denver with a little over four minutes to go, and the Giants need to get a stop to have any hope of coming back in the game.
The Giants know the Broncos are going to run. They are in a three-tight end set lined up with all 11 players attached. New York has five defenders on the line and four more a couple of steps away. The Broncos run zone to the left, and they are able to get a body on a body.
The issue is that no defender on the Giants wins. Once an offensive player covers them up, they never shed any blocks. This allows the running back to weave through the openings with ease, and once he’s in the secondary, it becomes a foot race against players who have been trying to get off a block.
This next clip shows the Washington Football Team backed up in their own territory on first down. This is an opportunity to flip field position for the Giants. Washington runs a toss play to the right, and once again, every Giants defender near the line of scrimmage is covered up.
Both interior linebackers get reached by Washington linemen; their skill guys do a good job of blocking at the point of attack, This allows the running back to make cuts in and out to pick up extra yardage, and the result is a six-yard gain.
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When a team has 2nd-and-4, that opens up the entire playbook and makes play-action more effective because of how imminent a first down appears. Uncertainty is what makes defenders not play as fast.
The Giants once again had a team backed up in their own territory when they faced Atlanta. The Falcons are lined up with a tight end and wing to the defensive right on this play. They are running zone to the defensive left. After the snap on the initial engagement, only one interior defender is able to push his blocker back--that is what makes the running back cut back.
No other defender in the box is able to detach and make a play in the backfield. The closest is the safety Julian Love who is trying to close in for the tackle but is fighting a block and off-balance.
The backspins off him at the line of scrimmage bounces outside and runs past two other Giants defenders coming from the secondary for an 11-yard gain. Once again, the inability to shed blocks makes the defense vulnerable to long runs.
In this final clip, the Giants are facing New Orleans. The Saints are lined up in a double tight end set on first down. They run a zone play to the defensive left. As the running back goes to cut back, the backside defensive tackle and end can shed their blocks, but they cannot make the tackle.
With both inside linebackers blocked by offensive linemen, it leaves the running backspace to explode up the field and pick up eight yards on the first down run. Once again, the first defenders in on the tackle are defensive backs.
Last season after Blake Martinez, the next four leading solo tacklers on the Giants were defensive backs. Overall, Logan Ryan and Jabril Peppers had over 90 tackles, while Julian Love and James Bradberry had 60 and 50, respectively. When your defensive line and other interior linebackers are ranked so low in tackles on the team, it usually means that you are giving up too many yards.
This year that has been exacerbated by the Martinez injury. One help would be to line up legitimate defensive linemen to play in the trenches; on many plays, you will only find two interior linemen flanked by outside linebackers that possess speed but don’t always do well at shedding blocks.
Playing Leonard Williams as a legitimate end and not so much like an interior defensive tackle could help bolster the run defense because you are aligning in a legitimate 40-front instead of a 30. Then on obvious passing downs, you can bring in the faster linebackers to rush the edges.
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