The New York Giants will face a 7-6 Tennessee Titans team that features the 27th-ranked offense by points and 28th-ranked by yardage. Despite the apparently easy task, on the Big Blue Banter Podcast (https://www.spreaker.com/episode/16455755 ), my colleague Dan Schneier and I were very cautious about the dangers that are presented to James Bettcher’s unit. Aggregate box score can be very misleading as to the state of a team (just ask Las Vegas sports books). The Titans’ offense is run by first-year coordinator Matt LaFleur, a disciple of both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. Their scheme features an outside zone running game that is a foundation in their pass game, as well, with frequent play action that can be coupled with simplistic intermediate and deep concepts. The Titans run play action 27% of the time (ranked 7th, according to Football Outsiders), while the Giants rank 27th in yards given up when play action is run (8.7 yards, again according to Football Outsiders). Right off the bat, there are headwinds. But let’s look a little deeper.
Giants Coverage Weaknesses Quantified
Overall (so not just vs. play-action), the Giants are ranked 3rd-worst in DVOA in defending passes to the short-middle of the field (according to FOA). Unlike what many fans think, this area is being attacked by WRs and RBs, not TEs. The Giants yield a 68% success rate for balls thrown to WRs in the shallow middle, ranked 26th in the league (according to Sharp Statistics). With and without play-action, the middle of the field coverage is an area that teams have exploited. With the rise of spread elements in NFL offenses attacking between the numbers, coupled with the explosion of quick game passing, this middle of the field has a bullseye on it for many offensive coordinators.
This weakness in Giants’ coverage manifests itself in another area: explosive plays. The Giants are ranked 30th (Sharp Statistics) in rate of explosive pass plays given up (11%) with the absolute number being 51 and eclipsed only by Kansas City’s porous secondary. However, this is not necessarily due to deep throws. At Football Outsiders (yes, sorry about the back and forth) the Giants are 7th in DVOA defending deep passes (5.1%), and even more interestingly 4th in DVOA (-40.5%) defending the deep middle of the field. So again, the shallow to intermediate middle of the field is seemingly the gateway to attacking the Giants’ back seven. Make no mistake, Giants’ staff’s self-scouting easily reveals these numbers, and evidence suggests they have actively made strides to mitigate this weakness. More on this soon.
Readers’ heads may be spinning from absorbing the above (I know mine is; I’m just a tape guy). In recent weeks, the Giants have faced opponents who, with backup quarterbacks or limited deep options, have attempted to exploit this weakness. Defensive coordinator Bettcher has many arrows in his quiver, but one in particular has emerged with a few wrinkles and much success in these weeks, and that is Cover 2 Invert, known by many names. For this piece, it will be referred to as 3 Robber.
Play 2: C2 Invert(3 Robber)
C2 Invert is a dangerous coverage, but when thrown in as a wrinkle it can freeze a QB looking at a Corner-Curl-Flat Combo. Sanchez’s vision struggled, & constant moving pieces squashed his start #GiantsPride #GiantsNation #GiantTidbits #NYGvsWAS pic.twitter.com/fFwlEnboxO
— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) December 11, 2018
In this coverage, the middle of field safety (MOF) comes toward the line of scrimmage after the snap to the high hole area just above the second tier of zone defenders. Meanwhile, the cornerbacks retreat from their usual position deep and effectively split the field into deep halves, similar to Cover 2 safeties’ traditional responsibilities, as the above image shows. This coverage is often found as a complement to traditional Cover 3, but there are many ways to skin a cat, and the Giants do not employ single-high safety coverage structures as a foundation of their defense. For more of a background on this coverage, Ben Solak of Bleeding Green Nation did an excellent piece tracing its origins here.
The Giants ran this coverage (or slight variations of it) nine times this recent Sunday against the Redskins on 38 passing snaps. Washington’s starting quarterback was Mark Sanchez, who was basically dared to throw to the deep middle or outside the numbers. Against this coverage, the Giants held the opponent’s beleaguered offense to three completions for 48 yards, one sack, one pick-six interception, and two scrambles for 18 yards. The above passing yardage is almost misleading; a single completion of 30 yards late in the fourth quarter accounts for the bulk of the 48. The coverage did its damage. See the below Curtis Riley pick-six touchdown, where the coverage capitalizes off of defensive end Kareem Martin’s length for the deflection:
The weakness of this coverage (all coverages have them), is that the onus is on the cornerbacks to cover the deep middle of the field in space, and potentially read the other side of the field. An additional responsibility for the corners, and perhaps the easiest place to start film-wise, is the depth needed after the snap. This leaves them susceptible to out-breaking routes attacking the quasi “Turkey Hole” to the sideline. Please see below:
Astute observers may notice the above video is Titans QB Mariota completing a ball to WR Corey Davis earlier in the season. Tennessee coordinator LaFleur is very familiar with 3 Robber and its weaknesses from his time with Shanahan, who ran a plethora of Yankee Concept-ish intermediate combinations that Shanahan labels Rider. Basically, a receiver on one side runs a vertical route and the opposite side receiver runs a crosser aimed 18-22 yards in depth. Back to 3 Robber: the deep safety is supposed to intercept and cut off this crossing route, removing the conflict for the defender. Normally this MOF (middle of field) safety would have to choose between it and the deepest route (the vertical part of Yankee). There are answers to every coverage and play-call, but in Tennessee, LaFleur has a QB that is not afraid to turn it loose. Please see the below, also from Week 4, when the Titans gashed the Eagles playing 3 Robber:
The above shot play from play action is dangerous and basically something LaFleur is not afraid to call. Despite middle of the road explosive play numbers, the Titans and Mariota are effective with the deep ball. According to Pro Football Focus, Mariota’s 60.6% accuracy number (calculated as completions + drops/attempts) for balls thrown over 20 yards is effectively the best in the league (tops for all starters with more than 15 attempts). The issue for the Giants is the linked susceptibility of the shallow middle of the field and a coordinator who wants to answer or help that weakness with 3 Robber. The Titans have potential death blows for Big Blue’s counter and have learned directly perhaps the best ways to do it. Again, 3 Robber is not Big Blue’s foundational coverage, nor is its parent, Cover 3. The Giants at their core are a quarters secondary using a wide range of man, zone, and pattern-match principles to aid their young secondary. Coordinator Bettcher has many arrows in his quiver, and nothing in this piece is news to him or his staff. The battle between these two first-year (with their respective teams) coordinators will be one to watch as they assert themselves as coaching/coordinator thought leaders in this league.