New York Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher was brought in by head coach Pat Shurmur to shore up a unit that came up short of expectations last year, for many reasons, after a very good 2016. We will save the gory rehash of 2017 for another piece; suffice it to say that the word ‘turmoil’ was used often. Moving forward, many in the NY-area media report that Bettcher will bring a more aggressive scheme than well known former DC Steve Spagnuolo, which will be more “multiple” (citing personnel groupings from Pro Football Focus or NFL GSIS) and be very “aggressive”(citing his blitz and pressure statistics). These blitzes are known as creative with a “method to his madness,” and other window dressing catch phrases tossed around too often. In reality, the two coordinators have a bit in common as play-callers but are very different in terms of style in particular in regards to the blitz. Their differences center around this key statistic from Football Outsiders (FO), DVOA for defensive back blitzes. Both focus very much on DBs to get after the quarterback, yet last year the Giants’ DVOA (explanation here) was 43.9 percent or 28th in the league, while Arizona’s was -19.7 percent or 11th in the league (note for defense a negative number is a good thing) This piece, like much of my work, will use a combination of tape study and the above statistic to try to properly illustrate the contrast between these two talented coordinators, and what it means this year for the Giants.
Giants fans are very familiar with outgoing defensive coordinator and interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo. As a reminder, he was an assistant defensive coach under legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in Philadelphia for eight seasons. Johnson was known for his blitzes, pioneering double A-gap blitz looks and other types of exotic delayed blitzes from safeties and other overload looks before the snap that wrecked havoc on the 5- and 7-step passing schemes of the era. Throughout Spagnuolo’s coaching career (New York Giants, obviously, but don’t forget St. Louis Rams head coach, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens defensive assistant) the amount of pressure he has brought via the blitz has varied, but many of Johnson’s schemes were backbones of his attack.
Fast forward to the 2017 season and Spagnuolo is back in Big Blue and coming off a strong 2016 season. His defense was, in his words, in “graduate school” in regards to understanding the schemes and concepts they could now run. This absolutely applied to the blitzes from the secondary, often delayed and originating from off the line of scrimmage. Their design centered on almost a one-two combination, in which a blitz look was shown on one side, and then a blitz would come from an unknown area on the opposite side. There was no better example of this than versus the Eagles in week three of 2017, a game that if the scales had tipped in the Giants’ favor, the entire season may have ended up on a starkly different trajectory. This was a 3rd-and-8 near the end of the second half, and a big stop by the Giants:
The clear front side distracting pressure (and resulting relatively complicated man coverage scheme) was coupled with the back side boundary safety blitz. Spagnuolo wanted the offense to react as it did with a protection slide to the initial pressure look, allowing one of his blitzers (Collins) to face a lesser quality blocker (RB Blount). This is an example of things that should work, and this game partially laid a foundation of how teams attacked Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz for the rest of the season.
Unfortunately, though, many of the secondary blitzes featured last year were not as successful. Spagnuolo featured secondary blitzes often, according to FO again, with a frequency rate of 14.7 percent, or 3rd highest in the league. They came from both safeties, outside cornerbacks and slot corner/nickel back positions Please see below the three examples from early in the season in 2017:
The three examples are alike in one basic way, in that none of them actually registered even a pressure on the QB. In all three, the offenses are employing some sort of quick game, and yes, this is partially to blame for the Giants’ lack of success. Quite simply, a large percentage of the routes run in the NFL now are under 10 yards, which makes it almost impossible to generate pressure, especially schemes that have effectively two parts. This is not to say that these blitzes were completely ineffective, but excluding DVOA for a second, the Giants overall last year ranked 25th in pressure rate (and that does include plays that they did not send blitzes). Registering a sack is not the only positive aspect of blitzing, but it should be noted that the most recent sack in the 2017 Giants season where more than four rushers were sent was in week six. These more complicated rushes were simply ineffective.
Sometimes, the Giants would accompany the defensive back rush with a Cover 0 coverage behind it. The significance of the actual number of rushers is not often highlighted to the general football public; usually, blitzes are described as a zone blitz (with five total rushers, most often) or all-out blitz” with some number greater than five. But rushing six or greater generally has to be man scheme blitzes with the only five defenders usually “man free,” with four covering receivers and one deep safety playing center field over the top. Rushing seven or eight basically eliminates that deep safety help, and therefore “Cover 0” with no help in the deep middle for man defenders. The significance of pressure is paramount during Cover 0 blitzes. If there’s no pressure, the results can be disastrous. Spagnuolo would not always leave his secondaries bereft of help in man coverage and would try to nullify the quick passing game mentioned above. In week six against Denver, the Giants again showed a blitz on the defense’s left and sent pressure from their right (defensive back Donte Deayon) and delayed left (boundary safety Landon Collins). Please see below:
Instead of adding to the pressure, both defensive end Robert Ayers and linebacker BJ Goodson retreat from the line of scrimmage, widen a bit, and play a rat role, trying to read the QB’s eyes and get in the under throwing lanes. Again, Spagnuolo tries to have the secondary blitzers counter punch, but their distance from the line, as well as solid blocking by running back CJ Anderson, nullifies their pressure, allowing the quarterback to get the ball downfield on an intermediate route. This example is a good microcosm of Spagnuolo’s pressure: deceptive look pre-snap, delayed blitz from the secondary, and a bit of a guessing game on the routes coming from the wide receivers (with the rat underneath help).
Later in the season, in the wake of head coach Ben McAdoo’s firing, the Giants faced the Cowboys in week 14, with many speculating that Spagnuolo, as the interim head coach, was effectively putting himself on display for the permanent job. One could go as far as to say it was an interview, and against a divisional rival, the defense needed to be tight. See the below two plays:
The Giants featured two Cover 0 blitzes, sending seven rushers each time, and both saw the ball quickly out of Dak Prescott’s hand on slant and quick out routes for big gains. Both throws required little effort by Prescott to find a throwing lane to his left, a key element of seven-man blitzing that was missing from the Giants (getting hands or bodies in the air in throwing lanes disrupting the timing of the quick game). Many would want to crucify the tackling of both man defenders (first was CB Dixon, second was S Collins), and there is certainly merit to that, but if a seven-man rush can’t at least disrupt, the secondary must be perfect in their tackling, and quite simply, the Giants had many issues with that last year. This is not to indict Spagnuolo’s defensive schemes, and yes, the previous examples illustrated some of the bigger mistakes made by both coach and players (there are lots of those on 3-13 teams). Spagnuolo is a great coordinator, and the changing of any guard in coaching does usually lead to some level of bashing of the way things were done, particularly when the previous year’s team was not successful. The above plays were chosen, however, for their proclivity, as well as style contrast to the majority of Bettcher’s blitzing schemes, which are coming up in Part 2.