Breaking Down the Giants Defense at the Bye
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur has insisted that despite the team’s won-loss records, progress is being made.
But is there? Their six-game losing streak has given them the third-worst record in the league and has them at 2-8 at the bye. And the Giants have not won a game since September 29 over the Redskins.
A look at the bottom-line production—points by and points against—doesn’t support the forward progress argument either.
In their final four games of 2018, the Giants averaged 25.5 points per game and allowed 24.25 points per game as they went 1-3 in that span. This year through 10 games, the Giants are averaging 20.5 points per game and are allowing 28.9 points per game.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Giants have arrived at this point on defense and try to identify the positives on which they can build.
Where the Defense Currently Stands
The Giants defense went from allowing the tenth most points (412) to surrendering the most points in the NFL (289) through the first ten weeks this season. They have also given up a league-worst 28.9 points per game, and have allowed a 40.8% third-down conversion rate
Given these and other factors, it’s little wonder that defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s job security has come into question beyond this year. Execution is one thing, but it’s certainly fair to wonder about the scheme, which has seen the Giants play a loose of a zone which has allowed receivers to find open space while running free and uncovered easily.
There have also been questionable decisions, such as calling for a light defensive front against good running teams. Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys had little to no trouble rushing for 139 yards on the ground against the Giants light defensive front, while before that, Arizona’s Chase Edmonds rushed for 127 yards and three touchdowns.
What’s Gone Wrong?
Quite a bit.
We can start with inconsistent play by some veterans. The Giants stuck with cornerback Janoris Jenkins who has been mostly solid and has put up a nice season statistically with four interceptions and 11 pass deflections.
Minus one rough game allowing three touchdowns to Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, Jenkins has been far from the problem, though of late it’s fair to wonder if he’s delivered a consistent effort as later season games have spiraled out of control.
Free safety signing Antoine Bethea, who was supposed to have some gas left in his tank after a successful career with the Cardinals, has suddenly begun to look his age. This has been particularly true in coverage where either due to bad angles or being too deep, he’s been unable to keep up with receivers. Per Pro Football Focus, Bethea has already given up three touchdowns in coverage this season, matching his total form 2017 and 2018.
Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree is another player whose production has gone the opposite direction, particularly in coverage. A year after recording a career-high five interceptions in coverage, Ogletree has three, but he has also seen his NFL rating jump from 84.9 last year to 132.7 this year.
Another problem has been some struggles by the younger players. Cornerback DeAndre Baker, whom the Giants traded up to select 30th overall at the end of the first round, was widely regarded as the best cornerback in college football last year, earning this honor by taking home the Jim Thorpe award.
He also did not allow any opponent to eclipse the 100-yard receiving mark while only surrendering one touchdown in 36 career games at Georgia playing in the SEC.
While growing pains are to be expected for first-year defensive backs, Baker has had a rookie season to forget in which he’s given up 35 completions (12 most in NFL) on 51 targets.
What’s even more concerning is that Baker recently admitted to needing to understand his playbook better.
Although it is too early to condemn Baker, the Giants were undoubtedly expecting more out of their first-round draft pick this year. If the Giants decide to make a change at defensive coordinator after 2019, it’s fair to wonder if this might set Baker and maybe even some of the other rookies back in their development.
And speaking of youthful struggles, some of the talent on the defensive side of the ball appears to have hit a wall.
Carter and Hill played well in their first year as pros’ combining for 9.5 sacks. This pass-rushing duo looked like potential building block pieces and had high expectations coming into 2019 if the Giants were going to prove the doubters wrong.
As a rookie, Carter played in 15 games, starting two of them. Throughout this span, he was able to put together a more than solid campaign recording 43 tackles, four sacks, four pass deflections, and ten quarterback hits.
This year, that young talent appears to have hit a bit of a wall.
Through nine games, edge Lorenzo Carter is close to replicating his production from a year ago, numbers (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two pass deflections, and eight hits), but has not yet become the impact player he showed flashes of in his first year.
Carter is a solid young player who has shown playmaking ability (see his strip-sack of Tom Brady in Week 6) but needs to find consistency moving forward.
Second-year defensive lineman B.J. Hill set a Giants rookie record with 5.5 sacks in 2018 and collected 48 tackles, six tackles for a loss, eight hits, 14 pressures, and two pass deflections in 12 starts as a rookie.
This year, Hill has 26 tackles and only three pressures to his name. He also played in a season-low 17 snaps (25%) in the loss to the Jets, as between the Giants seemingly growing preference of playing two down-linemen combined with the arrival of Leonard Williams has cut into Hill’s snaps.
Slot cornerback Grant Haley has also hit a wall. After showing signs of promise as a rookie, he too appears to have regressed this season, allowing 32 receptions (15 most in the league) on 37 targets while being unable to keep up with slot receivers in coverage.
Per Pro Football Focus, he has a coverage rating of 118.8, better than his 142.3 rating last year, but not good enough to ward off Corey Ballentine, who was inserted into the lineup ahead of him.
There is Promise
The defense has been a disappointment, but there are some bright spots to which Giants fans can look forward.
Defensively, one of the few bright spots on the defense this season was fifth-round draft steal Ryan Connelly out of Wisconsin. Connelly made an immediate impact winning the starting inside linebacker job from Tae Davis earlier this year and becoming the defensive play-caller. He also racked up 20 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, and two pass deflections in four games before tearing his ACL.
The Giants might want to add another off-ball linebacker to pair with Connelly, especially if they move on from Alec Ogletree.
The defense has gotten the most out of free agent edge rusher Markus Golden (6.5 sacks), trade acquisition Jabrill Peppers (71 tackles, 1 interception, five pass deflections, four tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles), and rookie defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (26 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five hits). And there is no reason to quit on Carter, Baker, and San Beal just yet.
The Giants, though, will need to re-sign Golden or a the very least add another edge rusher to the mix, be it in free agency or the draft.
If Shurmur does decide to move on from Bettcher, he’ll have to decide if he wants a defensive coordinator who runs the same type of scheme or someone who takes the defense in a completely different direction.
Up Next: A Breakdown of the Giants Offense