The New York Giants’ defense has been neglected in this column for a few weeks and deserves some attention. Fans and the media have noticed the increase in sacks over the recent three games and are wondering what is leading to this production. The Giants’ sack rate of 11.71% from weeks 12-14 ranks second in the league in that time span. The tape in these recent games does not show a strategy shift from the always-multiple defensive coordinator James Bettcher. What is key to understanding the scheme is that he has favored mostly zone blitzes this year (rushing five defenders) and combining certain looks with the various pattern match coverages the secondary is used to running. Overall, this is not the 2017 Arizona Cardinals unit that he coached, widely known for the aggressive schemes and man coverage behind them. There are many reasons for that, some of which will be addressed in the offseason. For now, we turn our attention to how the Giants held Redskins quarterback Mark Sanchez to only five completions on 13 attempts for 30 yards and two interceptions in the first half. One could easily sum up that the wounded divisional foe was the main reason for the strong blowout performance, with Sanchez only on the roster a matter of weeks. A closer look, however, reveals some interesting aspects of Bettcher’s unit, and his ability to use the limited but still versatile defensive personnel currently in turn around mode.
The Giants’ pressure came early and often for the Redskins, with the first possession culminating on a 3rd-and-9. Bettcher dials up a blitz package to overwhelm the interior offensive line of the Redskins and limit their options to answer back. See below:
A blitz is not just the number of pass rushers or where they come from, but also how the coverage behind it helps freeze the QB, or at least give him indecision in the pocket. One of the upsides of using a quarters-based pattern match (Bettcher features this frequently) is the indecision it can elicit in the QB. Overwhelming the A gaps assumes one of those rushers will get through and virtually guarantees the RB stays in for pass protection duties. Linebacker Alec Olgetree and rookie OLB Lorenzo Carter’s technique cut off both inside creases early in the down. Sanchez is still new to the offense and will be looking for quick outlets out of the 2×2 set. The pass rush gets home, as designed, and although Riley could not get Sanchez, the throw is forced incomplete. Neither this coverage nor any is perfect. The offense is actually running a Mills Concept essentially on the right side, and the deep post is going to be wide open. But the choice to limit a new quarterback with strategic pressure foreshadows how most of this half went for Sanchez.
Answer to RPOs: Get After It
Bettcher just answers some things with aggression (hearing Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown in my head as I type that). The Redskins like to tag a wide zone run out of shotgun with a slant and read it either pre-snap or post-snap. Early season starter Alex Smith has been executing quick reads like this his entire career, and they certainly have helped lighten boxes for running back Adrian Peterson. On a 2nd-and-15 on their second possession, they attempt to run this play against two high Giants safeties. See below:
The play above at first looks like a good blitz and a somewhat dumb throw by Sanchez, but the video shows a few things. First, the Giants have two high safeties, and nickel back Grant Haley’s full cover down on the 3rd receiver makes it six men in the box for the Giants. The old adage is five in the box, run it, six in the box, read it (a defender), and seven in the box, pass it. The Giants’ alignment encourages a read, and then Bettcher sends the likely sixth defender being read and nickel back Haley. Boundary safety Michael Thomas and linebacker Alec Ogletree do have to cross the defense to get into position, but the design of the play works with Sanchez’s pass batted down. RPOs have put defenses on their heels in conflict deciding the lesser of two evils. Blitzing the formation these plays come from puts the initiative back on the defense. Bettcher was able to take away an easy comfort for Sanchez, as RPOs offer simplistic one-read throws for QBs, easing them into the flow of the game. Nothing was easy this game for the Redskins’ offense.
The NFL Match Up Show on ESPN should be required viewing for all football fans. Their Twitter account is also a good follow, providing a lot of statistics that accompany their video production. A tweet of theirs last week left many in #GiantsNation perplexed:
As mentioned above, James Bettcher’s Arizona Cardinals defense was known for its blitzing frequency in recent years, so why the lack of blitzing this year? The answer has multiple facets, from the Big Blue personnel to situational play. One aspect that gets overlooked is the use of zone exchanges in the pass rush, where the number of Giants pass rushing is four, but the rushers are coming from areas outside the down linemen at the line of scrimmage. Most data services (and coaches alike) count blitzes as five or more rushers but do not have criteria for where the rusher originated. Let’s look at an example on 3rd-and-11 in the first quarter:
Conclusion: Trust the Process
The Giants brought more than four rushers on four of the first 10 rushes of the game, math more in line with Bettcher’s historic tendencies. They quickly struck at Sanchez’s weaknesses and helped produce sacks and turnovers. Of these early blitzes, not one was pure man coverage, and as shown, it’s not added complexity for complexity’s sake. There is no window dressing in the NFL; every piece and detail counts toward the process. So, has much changed on the defense as of late to account for this surge in production? Quite simply, all facets of the team (how it works at all levels) have been incrementally better or more fortunate to get the desired results. Ogletree and Carter were cited this game, but in previous games, it was now-injured safety Landon Collins or Kareem Martin (who also had a strong performance this week). The blitz schemes are the focus of this piece, but the coverage designs provided solid opportunity for “regular” four-man rush sacks, like from DE Olivier Vernon. The frequent use of Cover 2 Invert (Or 3 Robber) was particularly well done, a look that is very dynamic. Overall, there is no perfect blitz call, just as there is no perfect play call, but a good defensive coordinator is heating up at the end of the season for Big Blue.