The Giants have a big problem in the middle. Filling the hole that the season-ending loss of Blake Martinez created will likely have a different look from week to week.
There are short-term and longer-term approaches. Let’s look at the short-term first.
Playing Tae Crowder full-time in Martinez’s play-calling role is the obvious first move. The coaches were rightfully grooming Crowder for full-time duty anyway. Now he’s got to step into Martinez’s very big shoes. It's time for this young pup to make his bones.
Through three games, we’ve seen improvement from Crowder, which tells us he’s teachable. He’s playing smarter against the run, rarely over-committing himself, and only shooting gaps when the opportunity arises.
His contain run defense has become a positive. He also has the speed to go sideline-to-sideline when needed.
Crowder’s biggest challenge will be in pass coverage. He’s been targeted through three games, and he’s made mistakes, but he seems to be learning from these mistakes.
Just this past week, the coaches were giving him more diverse responsibilities in his zone coverages, and he responded well. He’s not there yet and is certain to be “fooled” with more misdirection, but as long as he learns from these burns, the coaches can live with him.
The mental part of it will also be tough. The coaches had to call a timeout last week just to get the defense lined up. It was Crowder who was talked to on the sideline.
Lining everybody up is his job now, and that's a lot to absorb. We’re not sure if Crowder should be tasked with the play-calling load right away, but if he’s not going to come off the field--and he shouldn’t--maybe someone like Reggie Ragland should be lining up next to him making those calls.
Attach Ragland’s head to Crowder’s body, and you have your complete inside linebacker. Until head transplants become an actual thing, the coaches will have to live with Ragland being the partner whispering into Crowder’s ear.
Ragland’s strength is playing the run. When he’s out there, look for offenses to employ play-action to force him to move his feet and cover ground. Ragland can handle anything run right at him but make him move, and the defense will suffer.
The coaches will be looking for an experienced hand out there next to Crowder, which is why we think Ragland will get the start this Sunday and play a lot early on. On passing downs, Ragland will have to come off.
What happens then? Safety Jabril Peppers has had some experience playing the third safety/passing-down linebacker role. Look for him to be out there often whenever Ragland comes off the field.
Peppers is a positive performer when he’s playing near the line of scrimmage. He’s a good tackler, he’s aggressive and tough, he runs well, and he blitzes well.
On the negative side, Peppers can be easily thrown over, especially in the middle of the field, and he can be fooled by misdirection due to his aggressiveness.
He’s not a very good diagnostician as he seems to guess more than he calculates, and he loses his contain and discipline when he guesses incorrectly.
Just this past week, two big plays went against him when he guessed wrong in coverage in the fourth quarter. The first was a 14-yarder on a key 2nd-and 16 when Peppers left his man for another and thus enabled a wide-open receiver to gain those too-easy 14 yards to help set up Atlanta on its game-tying touchdown drive.
The other play saw him getting beaten horribly in solo coverage against tight end Kyle Pitts for 25 yards, setting up the game-winning field goal. Peppers trailed Pitts’ deep corner route by a healthy 5-7 yards, losing him right off the snap.
Peppers is probably not the full-time answer, but he can be used in spots, especially as a blitzer.
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So what is the long-term answer?
Short of bringing in an experienced veteran--and right now we're not sure there is anyone out there to be signed (and even if there was someone out there, the Giants, according to the NFLPA public cap report, have just $1,245,794 in cap space)--getting Carter Coughlin or recent waiver pickup Justin Hilliard up to speed is the team’s final option.
Both youngsters are longshots--we haven't even seen much of Hilliard, who came over via waivers from the 49ers, to know where the strengths in his game are. We suspect that despite having a strong senior season at Ohio State, his average measurables and testing results led to his draft stock dropping.
Coughlin seems like the better long-term option. He has intriguing size and the quick diagnosis ability to react without taking false steps, which helps him play fast. In pre-season, he was quick to attack the line of scrimmage, which offenses exploited with play-action and misdirection. He’s got to learn discipline and patience, and he needs playing time.
The good news with Coughlin is his mental game is sharp. He’s a quick study, and he always plays a smart positional game. He’s also a plus-blitzer. He will need to overcome a lack of explosiveness, though, as he’s not a great athlete. Like Martinez, he will have to make it with a cerebral approach. Right now, he needs to be spoon-fed more of the inside linebacker position at this level. Is he ready for a bigger role?
So where does this all leave the Giants finding Martinez’s replacement? Indeed, the weight of that crown will weigh heavily on Crowder’s head. We’re concerned about the mental strain of this mighty challenge. It’s a lot to expect from a still-raw second-year player, but the fact is, the Giants don't appear to have much choice in the matter, as their inside linebacker cupboard is rather bare.
This Sunday, our guess is Crowder and Ragland will start in the base. Crowder will stay on the field full-time. Ragland will come off on passing downs. Peppers will have a role, and we think Coughlin has a chance for an increased role down the road.
We do like Crowder’s talent, and we appreciate his approach. We need to see his pre-snap and post-snap mental processing improve, but that will hopefully come with more playing reps.
He’ll also need a partner on whom he can rely. Right now, the jury is still out as to whether the Giants have that guy.
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