The Giants faced a weakened San Francisco 49ers team on Monday night that was not nearly the offensive juggernaut many thought it would be. Early injuries to Jimmy Garappolo and others have led this to be another tough year for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s group, record-wise. There are bright spots offensively, such as the development of tight end George Kittle and the very recent single start of rookie quarterback Nick Mullens. Focusing on Kittle, he is a second-year 5th rounder out of Iowa, measuring 6’4” and 250 lbs. His traits as a receiver and blocker have led some to put him near the top five tight ends in the league already. On Monday night, his ten targets were a high for the year, catching 9 of them for 83 yards. Giants fans and media scoffed that a TE was exploiting the coverage issues of defensive backs like Landon Collins. Although Collins certainly had a couple of bad reps in coverage, the battle with George Kittle was more an example of defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s prowess as a coach and understanding how to maximize a limited secondary.
The first thing to understand about James Bettcher’s Giants defense is that he uses many different coverages. Personnel-wise, the Giants do not have a dominant linebacker or defensive back to cover opposing defenses’ tight ends. Thus, when facing a TE like Kittle who can win early in the route with his suddenness and good hands, man coverage is not one to be used frequently. It is unknown whether Bettcher has played so many variations of landmark zone and pattern match coverage because of personnel or because he is embracing more progressive trends in the NFL (see Doug Farrar’s series on pattern match https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2018/11/06/the-match-game-part-1-how-nfl-defenses-lost-their-way/). That is worth its own deep dive in regards to Bettcher, and it is in the works. But for this game, Bettcher was truly facing a tough matchup in Kittle. Below is an example of Landon Collins in man coverage against Kittle on a 3rd-and-5 at the end of the first half:
On this play as Collins comes through traffic, instead of continuing through, he peeks in the backfield and then resets his angle. This error is difficult to recover from, and Kittle went for a big gain of 18 yards.
Interestingly, this was the lone example where Collins was in actual man coverage, and Kittle was targeted. There were two other instances of man coverage where LB Ogletree was flagged for holding Kittle and a completion on a Force Route with safety Michael Thomas in man (the other targets were mixes of pattern match and zone). What is key to keep in mind is Kittle’s big frame and traits when compared to the other options that the Giants have. Safety Michael Thomas is 5’11” and 195 lbs, Grant Haley is 5’9″ and 190 lbs, Sean Chandler is 5’10” and 205 lbs, and Ogletree is 6’2” and 235 lbs. Despite the above example, Collins was their best option when rotating in man coverage. We will come back to this later.
Early in the game, Bettcher ran a fair amount of zone blitzes rushing five defenders and dropping six into coverage. These blitzes can fool rookie quarterbacks, only risking one added player in a traditional rush and potentially preying on a young QB’s processing. See the below 2nd-and-7 where the 49ers dial up a well-timed play-action pass:
Here, the zone blitz comes in the wake of motion and is swallowed up in the outside zone play action. The second tier of linebackers must get depth, and LB Nate Stupar slips on the bad turf. Kittle is left wide open as he goes on his crossing route. No play call is perfect, obviously, and zone blitzes are dangerous because there are fewer defenders to defend more space. That, coupled with no pressure, and the QB has a fair amount of time to throw to space. Many viewers watching the game would probably think that Bettcher would go away from these blitzes after failing to generate early pressure. This was not the case, as on a first down in the 4th quarter the Giants run a similar zone blitz, again against play-action:
This time, the play action boot is run into the boundary with two zone defenders in good position to handle any crossing route from Kittle. It is unknown what adjustments QB Mullens made before the snap as boundary safety Collins sinks towards the box. It’s important to understand he is doing this opposite the trips side of the field, yet the blitz came from the NB/DB Sean Chandler on the opposite side of the field. The risk here pays off, and although the pass rush is something the Giants need some help with, sticking to the blitzes can provide key rushes or hurries in key moments of the game.
Bettcher’s Answer to Outside Zone and Shanahan’s Passing Attack
One of the hardest aspects of playing against a Kyle Shanahan offense is his base use of outside zone running. In this game, he often used FB Kyle Juszczyk as a play-side blocker in the scheme. This puts a lot added pressure on the edge defenders, as they must be bonafide run stoppers against bodies like a 240 lb fullback, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, or Kittle himself. The 49ers in this game ran a lot of outside zone force (the name for play) into the boundary to the closed side of the formation. Featuring this play out of 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE), becomes exceptionally difficult for the Giants to match up against. They frequently answered with Big Nickel (3 safeties, 2 CBs), which was actually in a video above. Big Nickel effectively swaps a versatile safety for base personnel outside linebacker/edge rusher, anticipating the frequent play action that the 49ers use. But Bettcher had to account for the 49ers running outside zone to the tight end side. Thus a very versatile defender was needed. The Giants brought SS Landon Collins down to the line of scrimmage to fit this role. Collins is a defender with enough play strength to play contain versus zone blocking, as well as the coverage skills to give the defense a good chance against Kittle’s quick routes. Please see the below front:
The first play of the 4th quarter showed the front (above) in action against 21 personnel. On 1st-and-18, the Giants are in Cover 1 with Rat against a misplaced ball to a shallow crosser. Please see below how there was a little bit more to the play than just poor placement:
Mullens initially is looking for Kittle, especially since the pre-snap alignment suggested man coverage. Bettcher’s use of Collins in that almost 5-2 front allows the best of both worlds run defense-wise and coverage-wise. He knows that Collins needs help and gives it to him with a Rat defender. This is a great example of a coach maximizing his secondary’s strengths and minimizing weaknesses against matchup nightmares like George Kittle.
Naysayers may point out this is simply one play, but the fact is Kittle did not catch a pass after the 5:27 mark in the 3rd quarter. Coverages like the above kept Kittle off the board when it counted. Bettcher’s adjustment during the game was not to adjust at all and remain multiple in throwing different designs at Shanahan and the 49ers. It bears repeating; Kittle only faced man coverage on three of his targets. Bettcher did not quit and was not always successful in the zone schemes called, as the quarters coverages featured gave up yardage, but he kept mixing and matching. In the 4th quarter before the final drive, there were six passes attempted by the 49ers, and the Giants’ answer varied greatly. There were three different versions of Cover 1: a Cover 3 Zone Blitz, a Tampa 2, and a split-field coverage. The success of these varied coverages is not just in the film. According to Football Outsiders, the Giants (after Monday’s performance) have the 7th-best DVOA against tight ends in coverage in the league (-22%). The Giants are going to add and develop more depth at the secondary position, but so far, the scheming has done a good job in slowing down some formidable tight ends. Despite the inconsistencies in safety Landon Collins’ technique, overall he is the best primary matchup the Giants have when they do use man coverage. This game was not the plethora of poor examples that many would have fans believe, but rather an example of a coach making lemons out of lemonade.