How the Giants’ defense has turned things around

How the Giants’ defense has turned things around

There are several notable changes that have led to a better defensive output

The New York Giants still rank near the bottom of the NFL in most offensive and defensive categories. They’re coming off a narrow escape against a mediocre team at best in the Washington Commanders. At 2-5, they’re still well within range for a top-five draft pick.

And yet — with better luck and planning on two goal-line plays a week ago, we could be discussing a 3-4 team pushing itself slowly back into relevance if not playoff contention. That indicates some level of improvement from the absolute embarrassment that this team was through the first few weeks.

The main root of the transformation is on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, we can have an argument about whether Tyrod Taylor should supplant Daniel Jones as the starting quarterback (hint: not until the Giants use the same game plan for Jones that they have for Taylor). Let’s face it, though: this offense has put up 32 points over the past three games. It’s the defense that has fueled the return to respectable, NFL-level football.

How did that change happen? Was it simply players performing better or also being placed in better positions to succeed?

If you want to know how the Giants’ defense turned around, look no further than EPA per pass play. Their opponents had a positive Expected Points Added (EPA) per dropback in the first three weeks and a negative one in the last four. While it’s been mixed in the run game, doing a far better job defending the pass, including forcing turnovers against the Dolphins and Commanders, has shifted their defensive output.

Over the last two weeks, the defense has done a better job of limiting explosive plays, as well. They allowed just two plays of 20+ yards to the Commanders after surrendering only one to the Bills.

Additionally, the Giants have done a much better job on third down. They’ve allowed a conversion rate below 38% in three out of the past four weeks, including just 25% against Seattle and 6.7% against Washington. Wink Martindale has repeatedly talked about the importance of third down, and that’s been a big help for the Giants

Some would argue that the Giants’ quality of competition has plummeted, resulting in natural improvement. I don’t think it’s a fair argument, though; they’ve played the Seahawks (4-2), Dolphins (5-2), Bills (4-3), and Commanders (3-4) in the last four games after playing the Cowboys (4-2), Cardinals (1-6), and 49ers (5-2) in the first three. When you compare those opponents, that’s a .500 strength of schedule through the first three games and .593 through the next four.

Even if you don’t want to use strength of schedule, the Giants didn’t make things easy for Miami, despite high yardage totals and 31 points, and they held the Bills to two touchdowns. That’s after Dallas, Arizona, and San Francisco walked all over them earlier in the year.

No, a drop in opponent quality doesn’t explain the defensive turnaround.

Blitzing very little against good offenses

The Giants blitzed on 32% of pass plays against the Cowboys, 84.6% against the 49ers, and 42.9% against the Seahawks. Suddenly, in Weeks 5 and 6, they reduced their blitz rate to 10% against the Dolphins and 20% against the Bills. That was in deference to the offenses they were playing. Although Miami had plenty of explosive plays against the Giants, their passing game scuffled at times — and having more men in coverage could be why.

Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen both thrive against the blitz. They are PFF’s top and sixth-ranked quarterbacks when blitzed. Geno Smith is seventh, but Martindale somewhat disregarded that.

Sam Howell, meanwhile, is 32nd out of 34 quarterbacks with a 49.4 PFF grade against the blitz, hence the Giants’ 62.5% blitz rate against him.

Blitzing Brock Purdy at a high rate made sense considering that the 49ers quarterback did not perform that well against it in 2022. His 64.9 PFF grade when blitzed ranked 26th out of 34 quarterbacks. Still, 84.9% was a bit much; more importantly, the Giants sent six or more men against Purdy an astonishing 33.3% of the time, leaving just five defenders in coverage against the speed of the 49ers. In fact, it’s the highest rate that Martindale has used in any single game since he became the Giants’ defensive coordinator.

Using the blitz more selectively has appeared to help the Giants’ whole defense, especially their coverage.

Breaking pipes

After bearing much of the blame for everything that went wrong with the Giants’ defense over the first three weeks, Kayvon Thibodeaux has started to make more of an impact. His pressure rate through the first three weeks was just 5.3%, but it’s 13.7% over the last four games. The Giants were desperate for some impact play from the edge, and perhaps they’re starting to get it.

It’s worth noting that Thibodeaux’s pass rush grade through seven games this year is not all that different than it was last year through his first seven games (61.1 vs. 64.8). His pressure rate is actually better (10.5% vs. 8.8%). While he’s put up those numbers against some less-than-stellar tackles (Stone Forsythe, Jake Curhan, Austin Jackson, Spencer Brown, Andrew Wylie), his play has still been raising the floor of the Giants’ defense.

I was expecting to find that the Giants have shifted the types of coverage that they’re playing, but that’s not actually the case. Martindale always adjusts his coverage rates depending on the opponent, and that includes in Weeks 1-3.

For example, the Giants played zone coverage 71% of the time against Miami and 65.6% of the time against Buffalo, but they also played zone 63.6% of the time against Arizona. They played single high 22.6% of the time against Miami, but their track record for playing a lot of single high held strong in the other six games of the season. They played Cover 2 35.8% of the time against Miami but rarely otherwise.

One thing to note is that the Giants did play a lot less Cover 0 against Miami and Buffalo at just 3.2% and 3.1% of the time. It’s noticeable mainly because they played far more Cover 0 against San Francisco and Seattle — 17.9% and 10.1%, respectively. Perhaps Martindale decided to be more conservative against teams with a lot of talent on the outside.

Still, there are some personnel differences to note. For example, against the Cowboys, the Giants went with just one defensive lineman in a nickel or dime look 60% of the time. In San Francisco, they played a base 3-4 on 65% of plays. In the last four weeks, though, they’ve reverted to their standard look of two interior defensive linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. This look seems to be allowing the Giants more flexibility in coverage.

Cornerback change

Suffice it to say that the Adoree’ Jackson slot experiment was a failure. It was evident in the first quarter of the Week 1 tilt with Dallas when he failed to get over the top of CeeDee Lamb’s route on a switch release and allowed himself to be rubbed off for a 49-yard gain.

Moving from Jackson as the primary slot cover man to Cor’Dale Flott has made a difference. PFF hasn’t necessarily thought highly of Flott’s efforts in three of his four games, and his 1.47 yards per cover snap out of the slot rank 50th out of 67 defenders (min. 50 slot coverage snaps). Still, that’s worlds better than Jackson’s last-ranked 2.55 mark.

Furthermore, 51 of Flott’s yards allowed came on one terrible play against Seattle that should not have gone for more than 15-20 yards. If Bobby Okereke had just made a tackle at the 20-yard mark, Flott would have 0.74 yards per cover snap out of the slot, which would rank 13th. He’s played pretty well out of the slot overall.

Improved linebacker play

Bobby Okereke could be the single biggest difference for the Giants over the last few weeks. He’s posted PFF grades of 81.2, 90.8, and 75.1 in three out of the last four weeks (the lone outlier was the Dolphins game).

Although Okereke’s run defense grades haven’t changed drastically, his stop rate (rate of run defense tackles that result in a negative EPA for the offense) has gone from 10.4% (13th) to 15.6% (2nd), or from good to great. In conjunction with that, his average depth of tackle has dropped from 3.3 (30th) to 2.3 (19th).

Okereke’s pass rush win rate has increased, too — from 0% in the first three weeks to 18.2% in the last four. Although the sample size is small, he’s getting home more when he blitzes.

In coverage, Okereke’s numbers have shot up. His PFF coverage grade went from 65.1 in Weeks 1-3 to 90.0 in Weeks 4-7. Although he was charged with 15.1 yards per reception, that largely came on one play against the Dolphins; he’s been excellent the rest of the time.

Meanwhile, Micah McFadden started to wake up against the 49ers and has been productive since. His coverage grade has gone from 56.5 (51st) to 62.0 (36th), which may not seem like a major change but is still a solid improvement, especially for a player who had a 30.0 coverage grade in 2022.

While McFadden’s tackling has left something to be desired (17.6% miss rate), his run defense broke out in a big way over the past few weeks. His PFF grade in that area went from 63.3 in Weeks 1-3 to 84.3 since, and his missed tackles in the run game reduced from 19.2% all the way to 5.9%.

McFadden has had stellar games over the past two weeks, earning PFF grades of 87.9 and 89.8, respectively. If McFadden and Okereke keep playing like this, the Giants may have actually found something on defense.

Isaiah Simmons has been more up and down, trading each good week with another bad one. Still, his 69.3 coverage grade in a backup role is also helpful for the Giants.

In Weeks 1-3, the Giants ranked 26th in the NFL in average defensive starting field position at 34.9. Over the last four weeks, that has improved to 17th at 31.3. It may not seem like a lot, but considering that the difference between the second-ranked team and the 31st-ranked is only eight yards, a difference of 3.6 yards of field position can be quite significant.

In part, this is because of the turnover margin. For the first three weeks of the season, the Giants did not force a single turnover, and they lost the ball five times. Over the last four weeks, they’ve turned it over five times while nabbing six takeaways. Being a +1 instead of a -5 impacts the field position game and can change the margin of error for a defense.

To a certain extent, forcing turnovers is fluky, especially fumbles. Still, forcing no turnovers through the first three games spoke to holes in coverage that the Giants are doing a better job of closing in recent weeks

The Giants’ next seven opponents all have a below-average offensive DVOA. That includes three in the bottom six (Jets, Raiders, Commanders) — two of which the Giants play over the next two weeks. There is an opportunity here for further strong play on defense.

In the past four weeks, the Giants have faced three teams in the top 10 in offensive DVOA (Seattle, Miami, Buffalo). Therefore, if the defense does play well over the next several weeks, it shouldn’t be dismissed as a fluke against inferior offenses since their improvement started against stronger ones.

Of course, the Giants finish the season against three teams in the top 10 in offensive DVOA: two against the Eagles (ninth) and one tilt vs. the Rams (seventh). Still, if the defense can take advantage of the softer part of the schedule, perhaps the Giants can claw their way back toward .500

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