New York Giants Defense & Special Teams: In a Word

This is the final installment of “In a Word," this one looking at the Giants defense and special teams.
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In this final installment of “In a Word," we look at the Giants' defense and three specialists. For those new to this exercise, the goal is to come up with a single word that best describes the type of season the players have had thus far.

Defensive Lineman Leonard Williams: Deceptive

Over a year later, some still question the Giants’ wisdom in trading for Leonard Williams.

Their point is well taken: if the Giants really wanted him, why not just wait until he hit free agency and then sign him to a long term deal when perhaps he could have been had for less per year with no draft picks involved.

But we all know how that story unfolded, and for those who look at the raw numbers Williams has produced, well, they don’t tell the whole story of how much better Williams has played this year.

Williams’s overall production has been deceivingly good. He has done things, be it taking up multiple blockers or influencing a runner toward the desired direction, which has set up others to make the play.

And speaking of his production, Williams has six sacks this season, two shy of his career-high.

He’s not an Aaron Donald type in terms of the pass rush, but his deceptive impact on the Giants defense is right there for those who are willing to see and embrace it.

Nose Tackle Dalvin Tomlinson: Underrated

If Sterling Sheard is the pick for the underrated player on offense, Dalvin Tomlinson is his twin on the defensive side of the ball.

Tomlinson is currently ranked third on the defense in total pressures (15), behind Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence II, and leads the team with four batted passes at the line of scrimmage.

He’s second behind Blake Martinez in stops for zero or negative yards with 20 as he continues his case for a new lucrative contract. Not bad for a guy who really didn’t start coming of age as a defender until about a quarter of the way into last season and whose stock has been rising ever since.

Defensive Lineman B.J. Hill: Rotation

B.J. Hill burst onto the scene in 2018 with a solid season that included six sacks in a starting role.

Since then, his snap totals have decreased. His 2020 per-game snap counts on defense have ranged from 15-27 snaps as Hill, a third-round draft pick once projecting as a starter, has transitioned into a rotation lineman.

Defensive Lineman Dexter Lawrence II: Developing

Second-year pro Dexter Lawrence II has been pretty good through a little over a season and a half’s worth of games.

And he’s only going to get better and better.

Stats aside, Lawrence’s upfield thrusts are a big reason why the Giants pass rush has been surprisingly effective this year despite not having that blue-chip pass rusher.

Lawrence exudes power and has shown more times than not how unwise it is to stop him with solo blocking.

In watching Lawrence’s game, you can’t help but wonder, though, if some of those pocket collapses, he’s been responsible for will soon turn into additional sacks.

He already has three sacks so far this season, but to watch him push the pocket, you can’t help but think he should have more given his power and mobility.

With that said, it’s his second season and first in a new scheme. Like most of his teammates, Lawrence has shown improvement and a comfort level with each passing week.

And one can only begin to imagine how much better he’s going to be once he gets this year under his belt and starts to feel comfortable with what he’s doing in this defense.

Linebacker Kyler Fackrell: Pedestrian

The Giants signed Fackrell to a one-year prove-it deal that would give him a chance to prove he could be the double-digit sack artist he was two years ago. But so far, Fackrell’s production as a pass rusher has been modest.

He has three sacks to his name and, per PFF, 14 total pressures in 235 pass-rush snaps, a 5.9% pass rush rate. Suffice it to say that that kind of production hasn’t exactly done much to convince one that a pass rusher isn’t needed for this Giants defense moving forward.

But not all has been lost with Fackrell’s play. He has been one of the better tacklers in pursuit, where he takes smart angles and shows solid awareness. He has brought versatility to the defense and is an intelligent player whose game could use a few more impact plays on the edge.

Linebacker Blake Martinez: Rock

Free-agent Blake Martinez is another one of those acquisitions that initially causes some agita for Giants fans, but who has turned into a very solid signing.

Martinez, who spoke about his desire to be the rock on defense earlier in the year, has been just that. He never comes off the field—the only snaps he’s missed were due to injury—and have you noticed how the defense never is out of place with Martinez quarterbacking the unit?

Let’s talk stats. Martinez is the runaway team leader with 96 tackles (also tying him with Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Chicago’s Roquan Smith for the league lead), and it’s not even close as far as the Giants are concerned.

Best of all, 67 of those tackles have come within five yards or less, which is the metric used to measure how effective a linebacker’s tackles are.

Martinez is also tied with Kyler Fackrell for second on the team in tackles for a loss (6) and has vastly cut down on his missed tackles this season.

Martinez hasn’t been used all that much in coverage as he was in Green Bay—just 346 coverage snaps so far, and it sure does look like that’s helped him be more efficient as so far, he’s allowed 7.6 yards per reception, his lowest career average.

That’s rock-solid production, folks.

Linebacker David Mayo: Steady

One of the biggest reasons the Giants brought back inside linebacker David Mayo is because he’s a steady presence, particularly in run defense.

Although he’s only appeared in five games, Mayo’s 11.8% run-stop rate tops the Giants inside linebackers by a large margin. In 34 run-game snaps, Mayo has four tackles and four stops for zero or negative yardage.

That might not sound impressive when stacked up alongside teammate Blake Martinez’s numbers, but again, remember that Mayo has appeared in half the number of games as Martinez due to missing the first five games while recovering from knee surgery and is just getting warmed up.

Linebacker Devante Downs: Improving

Devante Downs was a surprise in training camp, having played well enough to beat out Ryan Connelly.

But in limited snaps, Downs was mostly invisible at the start of the year, recording just nine tackles and four stops in 131 defensive snaps played through Week 7.

In the last three weeks, Downs has settled into the new defensive scheme and has played a little more effectively. In 66 snaps, he’s recorded eight tackles and three stops.

Downs, who is a good tackler due to his big frame and power game that allows him to stay with a tackle, likely is what drew the coach’s attention, to begin with. Still, as far as the improvement he’s shown, the most significant step forward has been getting into the right position to make those tackles.

Cornerback James Bradberry: Stud

Remember how there was strong sentiment for the Giants to pursue Byron Jones, but they “settled” for James Bradberry?

It turns out that someone in the Giants front office knew something because Bradberry has been the very definition of a lockdown cornerback.

He’s tied with Chicago’s Jaylon Johnson for the league lead in pass breakups (11), is tied for third for most interceptions by a cornerback (3, with three others), and his 68.2 NFL rating is fifth among 36 eligible cornerbacks who have played at least 500 snaps or more on defense.

Need more? Bradberry has allowed 55.4% of the pass targets against him to be completed, the ninth-best mark among the 36 cornerbacks mentioned above going into Week 11.

Not bad, considering the Giants got Bradberry on a three-year, $43.5 million contract, right?

By contrast, Jones, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Dolphins that at the time of signing made him the highest-paid cornerback in the league, has played in 408 snaps. He has recorded only two passes defensed while giving up 63.9% of his pass targets and failing to record an interception.

Cornerback Isaac Yiadom: Placeholder

The Giants found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place after DeAndre Baker ran into some off-season legal trouble that has since been resolved in his favor, and Sam Beal decided to opt-out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.

To illustrate how difficult things were for the Giants in their quest to find a viable option to start opposite of James Bradberry, during the last week of training camp, the Giants brought in six different corners.

They then opened the season with Corey Ballentine as their starter before replacing him with Isaac Yiadom, whom they had acquired via a trade with Denver for a 2021 seventh-round pick.

Yiadom was then replaced by Ryan Lewis, who held the job until an injury put him on IR, forcing Yiadom back into the starter’s role, ironically mirroring a situation he experienced in Denver before his trade.

Yiadom hasn’t been bad, but it’s worth noting that his strength and subsequently most of his better moments have come when he’s been asked to play press coverage. Ask him to play zone, and it’s anyone’s guess what you’re going to get out of him.

Mile High Huddle senior editor Chad Jensen told us shortly after the Giants made the trade to acquire Yiadom that one of the reasons he became expendable was that he no longer fit the heavy zone schemes run by the current Broncos coaching staff.

Granted, every defensive back is going to be better in one area than the others. But therein lies the problem.

A team cannot play man coverage the entire game, so you need to have someone who is more versatile in finding that middle ground and is able to play whatever is asked of him.

This is why I firmly believe the Giants will be looking to add a legitimate Corner 2 in the draft from a class that’s shaping up nicely and why Yiadom, who will probably have a place on the roster next year, won’t be the starter.

Safety Jabrill Peppers: Versatile

If you happen to have a subscription to Pro Football Focus, take a look at any Giants player on defense at random. You’ll usually find that although every player receives credit for having played different positions within the offense or defense, there is usually one spot where he has taken most of his snaps. In contrast, the other spots are pretty much a sprinkling here and there.

That’s not quite the case for Mr. Versatility, safety Jabrill Peppers. Although he is predominantly a box safety, Peppers has seen several snaps in the slot cornerback spot and a few at free safety.

He’s become a chess piece that has afforded defensive coordinator Patrick Graham the luxury of moving different personnel around and creating masterful disguises given the versatility of the players like Peppers. And it’s worked to near perfection given how well the defense has played.

But let’s get back to Peppers, who already has equaled his season highs in pass breakups and interceptions from last year’s injury-shortened season.

Peppers is playing like a ball of energy with all kinds of confidence. With the Giants having picked up the option year in his rookie contract, the thought of Peppers and the equally versatile Xavier McKinney lining up alongside one another in that defensive backfield is one of the most anticipated upcoming events related to Giants football.

Safety Julian Love: Fading

Maybe it’s the scheme? Whatever it is, Julian Love hasn’t been able to replicate his rookie season despite receiving more snaps on defense this year than he did last season.

Love’s snaps have broken out to 163 in run defense, one in pass-rushing (down from 13 as a rookie), and 280 in coverage (up from 252 as a rookie). His stops (tackles for zero or negative yards) are way down (14 as a rookie and four this year).

He’s given up three touchdowns in coverage versus the one allowed last year and has only one pass breakup to his credit.

But the most alarming stat is that, whereas last year he allowed an average of 9.7 yards per reception, that number is up to 17.3 yards per reception, as there are times when it looks like Love has taken some bad angles to the ball.

Need further proof Love is fading? In the first five of the first six games he played (he missed part of Week 4 and Week 5 with an injury), Love played 60+ snaps per game.

In the last three weeks, his defensive snap totals have not eclipsed 35 in what’s a very telling sign.

All of this makes one wonder if whatever snaps Love is getting on defense right now will fade once Xavier McKinney is ready to go. We’ll find out soon enough.

Free Safety Logan Ryan: Godsend

The kid from Jersey still has it, folks. Not only is the former Rutgers star playing some of the best ball of his career—the 10.3 yards per reception is tied with his lowest career mark in that category while his current 91.8 NFL rating is his best mark since 2016—Ryan has also been a godsend in the locker room as a leader and representative of the type of program head coach Joe Judge has been trying to build.

The lone drawback to Ryan’s game is he’s tied with cornerback James Bradberry for the team lead in missed tackles (9).

While everyone would rather that number be closer to zero, it’s also probably fair to say that not many of those missed tackles have ended up hurting the defense, at least not like the year prior when six players finished with double-digit missed tackles on a defense that couldn't stop anyone.

There aren’t many players one can say are worth every single penny they receive on a contract. Logan Ryan is one of the exceptions.

Slot Cornerback Darnay Holmes: Precocious

According to Pro Football Focus’ college snap counts, Darnay Holmes lined up in the slot 76 times in three years at UCLA.

Yet that lack of experience in the slot didn’t deter the Giants coaching staff from moving Holmes to the slot in their defense, where he’s played 284 snaps at that position.

Initially, the decision was viewed as a bold move, especially after how the experiment to move now-former cornerback Corey Ballentine, who had rarely played in the slot in college, to that spot as a rookie, a spot where Ballentine struggled.

But Holmes isn’t Ballentine, and this coaching staff isn’t the same as the one that set so many players up for failure last year. Holmes seemed to immediately take to the slot position and show himself able to handle the role.

Out of 21 slot cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps inside, Holmes’s NFL rating is 13th. He’s also one of 13 of those 21 slot corners to not allow a touchdown this season.

Outside of his slot corner play, Holmes’s four blitz pressures are tied with Jabrill Peppers for second on the team.

Overall, it’s a promising start to the rookie’s NFL career, and the best news of all is that by his admission, he still has a lot more room to grow.

Punter Riley Dixon: Boomer

A punter is only as good as his coverage team, which is a big reason why Riley Dixon currently is averaging 44.2 yards per punt with a net average of 41.4 and why returners have only amassed 59 return yards against him all season.

But lately, Dixon, who has quietly developed into a fine directional punter, by the way, has been launching some moonballs off his foot, the longest being 71 yards and just behind Buffalo’s Corey Bojorquez.

Kicker Graham Gano: Automatic

How refreshing has it been to know that every time the Giants place-kicker takes the field, you pretty much don’t have to worry about the outcome being anything other than what you expected?

That’s Graham Gano for you. The newly extended place-kicker entered Week 11, just barely trailing Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo in field goal conversion percentage (.955).

Long Snapper Casey Kreiter: Inconspicuous

We haven’t heard much about long snapper Casey Kreiter, and that’s a good thing.

Why? Because it means Kreiter’s long snaps have been stress-free, which is what you want to see from the long snapper.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think, Giants fans, by dropping a comment below.