The New York Giants lost 20-13 to their Division rival Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night, and there is a bit of panic and despair settling in among the media and fan faithful. Head coach Pat Shurmur’s press conference looked something like the below:
On the defensive side of the ball, the unit was tasked with defending a Cowboys offense coming off a rough performance on the road against the Carolina Panthers. Their run game was bottled up for the most part, and QB Dak Prescott had some pretty significant accuracy issues until the 4th quarter. Not that a game plan could ever come in 240 characters, but these points were tossed out before the game:
#Giants Def Keys:
– Gap discipline , EE loves the early cutback on zone. Espec 3t is BACKSIDE
– Edge Rushers HAVE TO HOLD contain, OZ is 'Boys strength
– first 2 secs in coverage is everything vs Dak, make him hitch and his accuracy/placement goes away#NYGvsDAL #GiantsNation
— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) September 17, 2018
Let’s pick the last point, about winning in coverage for the first two seconds of the play. The strength of the Giants secondary is their two outside cornerbacks, Eli Apple, and Janoris Jenkins. Their ability in press man to mirror and match their receivers downfield is paramount to the success of the defense. Against so many formations with receivers outside of the numbers, the bulk of their snaps are either straight man or boundary-lock(where they are in man, while the rest of the coverage is zone). This unlocks a lot of the playbook for defensive coordinator James Bettcher. The first big play of the game, however, showed a chink in that armor. Early in the 1st Quarter, CB Jenkins was matched up on the short side of the field with WR Tavon Austin. The Cowboys had not been successful against Carolina in pushing the ball downfield, but things changed as the Giants rotated their safeties into a Cover 1 man. See below:
WR Austin shows sudden burst after widening his release, perfectly timed to the inside shoulder of Jenkins as he begins the collision attempt with the space between the two closing. The recovery attempt is futile, as Jenkins stumbles to attempt to catch up to the speedy Austin, who ran a sub 4.4 at the combine. To top it off, rookie safety Curtis Riley took a sharp angle that proved to be unsustainable and the adjustment made it a touchdown. Right away, the Cowboys had shown they could face their deep ball demons against the strength of the Giants secondary on the outside.
Cornerback Eli Apple left the game in the 3rd quarter with a groin injury, and immediately the Cowboys began peppering his replacement on the outside, slot corner B.W. Webb. This play does not focus on Webb though as many would think. We go back to Jenkins, on a key 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter, an early part of a very important touchdown drive for the Cowboys. Please see the below play, an out route to WR Cole Beasley:
At first glance, it seems like a solid route and good placement from QB Dak Prescott. But when you really grind the tape, you see the coverage is not vanilla Cover 2, but a type of Cover 2 called Cover 2 Read or Palms. In this coverage, the CB reads the slot receiver or WR2, and if he breaks a route to the sideline early, the CB jumps the route. Jenkins quick twitch fails him as it takes a couple of small steps to break on the route and Beasley comes back to the ball competing hard at the catch point. Prescott’s favorite target is Beasley (1 reason is working back to balls in the air), and this coverage had the best Giants cover corner in Jenkins in a perfect position to defend. This is why Jenkins’ face looked so long after the play, he knew he had his chance for a big stop.
Later in that drive, the Cowboys convert on a 4th and short and come to the line of scrimmage with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE’s). They run a Cowboy staple, split-zone left into the boundary with stud running back Ezekial Elliot carrying the rock. Before we break the tape down, let’s go back to the tweet from the beginning of the game. First on the list was “Gap discipline, EE loves the early cutback on zone. Especially because the 3t is BACKSIDE”. Please see the below:
The Giants had a blitz called for linebacker Alex Ogletree, most likely due to the late motion from the slot wide-receiver down towards the line of scrimmage. 3-tech DT Tomlinson did not adjust his gap, and both he and Ogletree hit the same B gap. Eliot pressed play side on the run, read his keys, and made a quick decision to break towards the backside A Gap, which was unoccupied. He got small through the hole and his speed and contact balance were enough to blow through it and all the way for a 19 yard gain into the “Green Zone.” The Cowboys would score later in the drive, but this was the play that really broke the Giants back, where it seemed destined to end in touchdown tears (for the defense).
Two of these examples were presented not as a pat on the back for yours truly as Arm Chair Defensive Coordinator, but to highlight that the mistakes are quite obvious to the casual observer. Obvious mistakes are correctable or fixable mistakes. These three examples all came against the strengths of the defense, players like Janoris Jenkins and Dalvin Tomlinson, not the linebacker group that seems to face the most media scrutiny. In the end, the Giants defense had a lackluster effort, but unlike the space shuttle in Airplane 2, they are not out of coffee.