Breaking Down the Giants' Defensive Tweaks from Week 4

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Pflum

Following the New York Giants' 24-3 win over the Washington Redskins, Giants' head coach Pat Shurmur mentioned that the coaching staff implemented a “few tweaks” on the defensive side of the ball.

“I think our defense did a terrific job,” Shurmur said. “We made a few tweaks, I don’t think we made a lot of massive changes, but we made a few tweaks this week that I think settled our guys down, helped them be more comfortable, they were more disruptive, (and) we got pressure on the quarterback.”

After giving up an average of 31.3 points per game, the Giants needed to make some kind of change to help keep their offense from having to play in a shoot-out every game. 

There are some critics who will preach that one should take the Giants' win over Washington with a grain of salt since Washington played a very poor game on both offense and defense. However, the Giants defense deserves credit for having played a much more complete game than they had in the first three weeks.

That, of course, begs the question as to what those “tweaks” were to be so effective. 

Unsurprisingly, the Giants' head coach wouldn't say, instead stating, “I’ll let the team that has to scout us figure that out. We just made some tweaks, that I thought helped us, and those tweaks played out. Those tweaks worked today.”

I don't intend to be playing against the Giants any time soon – or, ever, really – but I did take a look at their film, particularly of the defense in the first half, and I think I might have spotted a few of their more-obvious tweaks.

Man Coverage Early

For the first part of the season, we didn't see the Giants play much tight man coverage on defense, particularly early in games. 

Considering their starting corners are at their best in press-man coverage (or at least tight man coverage), playing the majority of defensive snaps under off-man and zone coverages had predictable results. The Giants were largely shredded through the air by every passing game they saw.

But then we saw the Giants adjust and begin to play more aggressive coverage schemes in the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. 

The Buccaneers had clearly shifted gears into an offense designed to run out the clock, but we still saw the Giants' defense play more effectively under more aggressive coverage shells. 

Tighter coverage forced quarterback Jameis Winston to hold the ball, giving pass rushers time to create pressure and make Winston uncomfortable.

Against Washington, we saw the Giants come out in man coverage from the opening snap. 

While they didn't blitz on every snap, we did see the Giants send pressure regularly, helping out their pass rush. 

But we also saw greater confidence in their cornerbacks from the first play of the game. That confidence was on display in the third play of the game, when Janoris Jenkins made a great break on the ball from tight coverage, tipping it up into the air and into the hands of rookie linebacker Ryan Connelly.

It is also worth noting that the Giants did not play man coverage across the board; instead, they tailored coverages to what defenders did well. 

For instance, on that interception, Jabrill Peppers was acting as a pseudo-linebacker and was in man coverage against running back Chris Thompson, who was the check-down. 

However, Connelly, who caught the tipped ball,  was in a shallow-zone coverage. 

Connelly is a disciplined player with very quick mental processing ability, but he isn't a dynamic athlete. It doesn't make sense to put him in man coverage on a player who has a good chance of “out-athlete-ing” him, but it does make sense to put him in a position to play to his strengths.

As the game continued to unfold, the Giants called more zone coverage to help disguise their intentions, but it seemed they started in an aggressive coverage so their players could begin the game in a place of comfort.

Dime Defense on Third Down

Connelly and David Mayo, the Giants' two primary linebackers, played well against Washington. But the duo won't be confused with Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman any time soon. 

Mayo is probably a bit rangier than Connelly, but both are at their best when going downhill and allowed react to what happened in the backfield and play fast. 

That is fine on most “normal” downs, but when it came to obvious passing situations, the defense needed more speed.

In response, we saw the Giants play a “dime” defense on several third and long situations. In those situations, the Giants would play with one, or even no, inside linebackers. 

Instead, they would replace Mayo and occasionally Connelly with an extra defensive back. 

The Giants would frequently use Grant Haley as a slot corner while playing both Jabrill Peppers and Michael Thomas close to the line of scrimmage as hybrid players.

By having more coverage players on the field, the Giants were able to field a faster defense, shrinking the size of passing windows, disguise coverages, and help create confusion on the offense.

While Washington did a great job of limiting their own success on offense by frequently countering a big play with a crippling miscue, the Giants also did a good job of keeping them from ever feeling truly comfortable. 

Their use of faster sub packages certainly seemed to help address the issue of a lack of speed on the defensive side of the ball.

1-gap Defense

In general, there are two kinds of defensive fronts in the NFL: 2-gap and 1-gap. 

Generally, 2-gap defenses are concerned with holding blockers, controlling two gaps, reading the offense, and reacting to what they see. 

On the flip-side, a 1-gap defense tends to be more aggressive, attacking a single gap in the offensive line first, then adapting on the fly.

It is a common narrative that a three-man front tends to be a 2-gap defense, while four-man fronts tend to be 1-gap. In reality, gap schemes and defensive front alignments are fluid. 

The defense called by Wade Phillips is based on a 3-man front but is one of the most aggressive 1-gap schemes around. Meanwhile, the 4-3 fronts frequently use 2-gap defenders to try and create one-on-one match-ups.

Without going back and charting every defensive snap for the first three games, we can't say for sure which gap scheme the Giants used most often in the first three weeks, but odds are it was a 1-gap scheme, which defensive coordinator James Bettcher has tended to favor throughout his career. 

But it is notable that the Giants were aggressive in calling 1-gap defenses early in the game. The second play of the game is a prime example. 

We have a run play to the offensive left, but see Connelly, the MIKE linebacker, come screaming through the right B-gap. 

At first glance that would seem like a bad play on the rookie's part – after all, the running back went to the opposite side of the formation. 

However, Connelly isn't responsible for that gap; Lorenzo Carter was. Connelly's job was to attack the right B-gap and either prevent the cut-back or pursue the play from the backside, while Carter's job was to set a firm edge on the play side. 

Both players did their jobs well, playing downhill and preventing the offense from opening a hole. 

Of course, the play still went for five yards because even a 23-year old, 255-pound, edge rusher (Carter) will struggle to bring down a 34-year old Adrian Peterson if he only uses one arm.

The Giants still played some 2-gap defense – it is a feature in every defensive scheme and the best schemes will blend principles to get the best of both worlds. 

But like their use of man coverage and light sub-packages, it seems the general thrust of the Giants' game plan was to get their defense playing as fast as possible as early as possible.

They did just that. 

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