New York Giants: Five Very Noticeable Improvements Made on the "Yes" Defense
Historically speaking, defenses usually tend to be further along than offenses, and the reason for that is the defense is usually in react mode to the offense.
In other words, for the offense to have success, it relies on a series of multiple roles needing to be executed as perfectly as possible.
Defensively, the players are put in positions to gain competitive advantages in terms of matchups, but often they have to do a little more digging into what the offense might be doing by reading keys. This reactive style usually lends itself to faster jelling by the defense.
But let's talk specifically Giants defense. Coordinator Patrick Graham's "Yes" defense--his response when asked if he was planning to run a 4-3 or a 3-4--has blended a mix of youth and veterans who, if nothing else, have mastered the art of disguising what the call is.
This has created confusion for even the most experienced NFL quarterbacks and their offensive coordinators, as confirmed by Rams head coach and play-caller Sean McVay, who in the run-up to the Week 4 game with the Giants called their defense a "real pain to get ready for."
Then there is the matter of confidence. Head coach Joe Judge was asked about the more noticeably physical style that the defense has shown of late, and he chalks that up to the unit having developed confidence in what it's been asked to do.
"I think when you practice with good execution and you're confident what you're doing schematically, you can play more aggressively," he said.
"When you demonstrate across the board that you have 11 guys on the field who truly understand the schemes, the concept, and what we're doing, then you can play aggressively while not worrying about the guy next to you and what he's doing.
"So I think right now, we're at a point our guys have really learned and progressed within the schemes and concepts are working. They've really done a good job of week by week, adapting to different game plans and how they fit and understand not only their responsibility but how the guy next to them has to play as well. And when you understand that, you can play more aggressively."
Indeed, which is why this has all resulted in a defense that last season finished 25th in the league, mostly hovering in the top half of the league. (Its highest overall ranking being fifth, most recently in Week 4, and its lowest being 16th, in Week 11.)
As I did with the offense, I've identified some categories where the Giants defense has made significant improvement, using the same model where I divided the ten games played in half to show where the upward trend began.
First 5 games: 110.6 yards/game || Last 5 games: 91.2 yards/game
There's something to be said for stopping the run, especially on first and second downs.
Within the Giants' first five games, they allowed three 100-yard games to opponents, and not because of one large chunk play pushing the opponent over the century mark either but rather because of two or more runners contributing yardage totals of 50+ to push the collective totals up.
In the last five games, the Giants only gave up one 100-yard rushing performance, that to the Eagles last week and that coming as a result of a breakdown resulting in a 56-yard run by Boston Scott, which, if removed, would have put the net rushing total (151 yards per the league's stats), under the century mark.
Since we're on the subject, let's look at last week's game against the Eagles and how the run defense was one of the "unsung heroes" in the victory.
On first downs, the Eagles ran the ball on 10 of their 30 first downs. They gained five yards or less on six of those plays, setting up a second and long.
Second down wasn't any better for the Eagles. Of their 23 second down attempts, they ran it eight times, and six of those went for five or fewer yards.
That brought up far too many third and long situations--12 to be exact (three were wiped out by a penalty, making the actual total nine).
Of the nine third-down plays the Eagles had, they needed at least 10 yards to convert on six. And it goes without saying when you need double-digit yards to keep moving the chains, your best bet is usually to pass the ball--except, in this case, the Giants smothered the Eagles passing game as well.
Third downs? Read on.
First 5 games: 53.8% || Last 5 games: 33.3%
Remember how the Giants defense couldn't get off the field on third downs?
Sometimes it would be a penalty. Other times, it would be a communication breakdown. And still others, it would be someone not being where he was supposed to be, which resulted in a gaping hole the size of the Grand Canyon being available for exploitation.
Those days appear to be diminishing, as the more comfortable the players become in the scheme, as Judge said, the faster and more efficient they have become in eliminating those issues that would often leave them gassed before the fourth quarter.
I want to take a look at the effect of the Giants pass rush, and in particular, the blitz. Using the weekly data from Pro Football Focus, I looked at each game to see how often the Giants blitzed the opposing quarterback and how they fared.
Overall, the Giants have blitzed on 28.9% of the snaps, which puts them 19th in the NFL. Per PFF's data, I have them blitzing 64 times in the first five games and 58 times in the last five games.
Now here is where the improvement comes. In the first five games, opposing quarterbacks completed 74% of their pass attempts when blitzed for five touchdowns. The Giants recorded zero interceptions on those blitz opportunities in that span.
In the last five games, the blitz has been a little more effective for the Giants. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 52% of their pass attempts but only two touchdowns. The Giants, meanwhile, have come up with three interceptions off blitzes.
What about sacks, the desired result of a blitz or pressure package? In the first five games, the Giants produced 12 sacks. They have 13 sacks in their last five games.
Interceptions -- First 5 games: 3 || Last 5 games: 5
Forced Fumbles/Fumbles Lost: First 5 games: 7-3 || Last 5 games: 9-4
Much has been said (rightfully so) about the offense's turnover issue this season (which, knock on wood, has hopefully been resolved moving forward).
But not too much has been said about the defense's ability to force turnovers to create a short field for the offense.
Let's start with the interceptions, the desired stat. It needs to be acknowledged that of the five interceptions in the last five games, three came in one game (at Washington, Week 9).
But for what it's worth, the Giants currently rank second in the league in passes defended (broken up, batted down--whatever you want to call it) with 53, just three behind the Titans, who are leading the league.
I mention this stat because every time a defender manages to get a hand on the ball, the chances of an interception increases--just as every time a front-seven defender breaks through the offensive line and into the backfield with a quarterback pressure, there is a chance that can turn into a sack.
Whether it's merely altering the flight path of the ball or the defender manages to get a hand on it only to bobble it in an attempt to pick it off, the point is the back end of the Giants defense, in particular, has been playing lights out of late.
Last point here. The Giants are currently tied with Arizona, New England, the Rams, and the Jets for 16th in turnover ratio (zero). One objective that's no doubt on Judge's wish list for these remaining six games is to see that margin swing high into the plus column.
First 5 games: 133 points (26.6 points/game) || Last 5 games: 103 (20.6 points/game)
The Giants currently rank 12th in the league in points against, having allowed 23.6 points per game to opponents below the current league average of 25.1.
Ranking aside, there is a noticeable improvement in points allowed in the first five games versus the last five. As noted in the offensive stat breakdown, the offense's point total has been steadily increasing.
With the defense's points surrendered decreasing, it only stands to reason that the Giants are on track to win more games.
The Bottom Line?
Again, stats don't always tell the entire story and shouldn't be used as the definitive measurement for a team's progress (or lack thereof).
However, there is little doubt that the Giants, at 3-7, are a team that has been far better than its record would indicate, making one wonder if they were able to clean up some of the issues that turned the tide of the game a lot sooner, would the record be a lot better?
The answer is yes. Some will argue that the Giants aren't as talented as Dallas or Philadelphia, and that's fine.
But as we have seen with the Giants before, sometimes you don't necessarily need a team of individual statistic generating superstars to carry the load, not if everyone pitches in and does their part.
This is what head coach Joe Judge has been preaching since Day 1 and why he is okay with rotating guys into the lineup rather than depending too heavily on a core group to do all the heavy lifting.
This approach sets the Giants up for sustained success, and how fun is it these days to know that the Giants are playing meaningful (and good) football late into November?