Giants’ mid-season grades, Part deux: The defense …

November 13, 2021

When we posted the offensive grades earlier in the week we asked ‘would the real Giants please stand up! Are they the guys that bumbled their way to a disastrous 0-3 start in one of the easy parts of the schedule to open the year, or are the group that has gone 3-3 during arguably the toughest part of the schedule?’ The same question could be asked about the defense which allowed opposing QBs to complete at least 75% of their pass attempts in each of their first 6 games in which opponents averaged just under 30 points per game, but really tightened up the past three weeks in which they have allowed just 13 PPG.

Whichever group does show up on D for the Giants, though, we are probably still in for a couple months more of a ‘bend, but don’t break’ style of defense. That’s largely a reflection of the fact that the Giants just haven’t been able to generate much of a consistent pass rush so far this year. And if you can’t rush the passer in today’s NFL it’s tough to compete, again at least on a consistent basis.

In fact, there are some real structural issues on the Giants’ defense which are difficult to mask. While the Giants are nominally a 3-4 team, they actually play a 4-2 on close to 65-70% of all their defensive snaps in response to the fact that most other teams around the league run a 3-receiver set as their base offense. The initial problem for the Giants is that they simply have no 4-3 DEs on the roster at all. As a result, they have to bring their 255-pound OLBs up to the LOS and ask them to play with their hand in the ground against 320-pound NFL offensive linemen. And that’s a tough gig for guys that size.

The other issue are the ILBs. If you are going to have only two middle backers, they have to be able to run because they are going to be asked to make plays sideline to sideline. And right now with Blake Martinez sidelined, the Giants just don’t have anyone who can do that.

Bottom line is that one of the things the Giants are going to have to do in the off-season is decide what they want to be defensively. If they are going to be a 3-4 team then they need some legit 3-4 DEs; traditionally guys in the 6-5, 290 range with some pass-rush ability. On the other hand, if they are, more logically, going to build around the 4-2 concept, they are going to need to start drafting some true DEs in the 6-5, 270 range who can also defend the run, as well some ILBs that can run.

For now, though, the defensive grades:

Defensive tackles: This group hasn’t been quite as good as last year, but they remain the strength of the defense. Leo Williams, for example, is on pace to hit double digits in sacks for the second straight year – he is tied for the team lead with 5.5 – although he hasn’t been quite as consistently disruptive as he was last year, although to be fair he’s also gets chipped or double-teamed on almost every play. At the same time, Dex Lawrence does what Dex Lawrence does: he collapses the pocket and eats up opposing blockers, but he lacks the lateral quickness and agility to make a lot of plays on his own.  Meanwhile, if there’s an award for the ‘unsung player of the year’ Austin Johnson wins it walking away as he already has 39 tackles including 3 sacks and 6 tackles for loss. Grade B

OLB/DEs: Coming into the season, the Giants had hoped that this would be the break-out year for former 3rd-round ERs Zo Carter and Oshane Ximenes. Instead, they got nothin’! Indeed, the two combined to produce 0 sacks and all of 1 TFL in 15 games so far this year; in fact, Ximenes only notable play all year was an offside in the KC game that wiped out a potential game-changing interception. Bottom line is that neither one has shown much, if any, ability at all to get off blocks. As a result, it appears that they may have been pretty much supplanted on the Giants’ depth chart by rookies Az Ojulari and Quincy Roche, who by way of contrast, have combined for 6.5 sacks and 8 TFLs. Ojulari, in particular, is actually tied for the team lead with Leo Williams with 5.5 sacks and has shown some ability to get around the edge, although his production is still kind of hit and miss. Meanwhile, Roche, who was originally a 6th round pick by Pittsburgh, hasn’t been activated until recently, but has also shown a willingness to get off blocks and turn the corner and his strip-sack late in the Raiders’ game may have saved that day. Grade: D

Inside linebackers: Ouch! The myriad of Giants’ injuries this fall, especially those on offense, have been well documented, but the loss of MLB Blake Martinez to a season-ending ACL, may be the most problematic of them all. Martinez was kind of the glue that held the defense together; he was also the only ILB who even remotely has the skill set to be successful in the Giants 4-2 sets. Tae Crowder, the former Mr. Irrelevant, is a try hard guy with some athletic ability, but just doesn’t have the instincts to line up 5-6 yards off the LOS and read and react. In fact, one wonders if he might be more productive just bringing him up to the LOS, putting him in a gap and telling him to just run to the ball. Meanwhile, Reggie Ragland is a typical Alabama ILB; he’s a big, physical guy who is solid enough patrolling between the tackles, but is a fish out of water if asked to make plays sideline-to-sideline. For the season, the two have combined for over 100 tackles, but neither has a sack and between them they have just two TFLs. As we said: ouch! Grade: F

Cornerbacks: On paper, James Bradberry looks like he’s having another solid Pro Bowl type season; he’s got three picks and has broken up ten passes. However, sometimes paper lies, as there have been times this year when Bradberry has been picked on. Hard to tell what’s going on there, but it just appears that he’s mostly reacting – and reacting slowly – rather than being aggressive and forcing the play as he did in 2020. Meanwhile, there have been times this year when it seemed that Adoree Jackson should have been asked to buy a ticket, he’s been that invisible. Certainly, the numbers – 0 picks, 5 PBs – haven’t been much, but for the most part, it appears that, except for the odd underneath route when Jackson is lined up deep, other teams have pretty much stayed away from his side of the field. Which is a good thing. At the same time, Darnay Holmes has held up well enough as the slot corner, although unfortunately his one big play – a late potentially, game-changing pick in the loss in KC – was wiped out by an inconsequential offside penalty against the Giants. Grade: C+

Safeties: Speaking of sometimes appearing invisible, that was kind of the story for the Giants’ safeties this season. Not so much that they weren’t making plays, but they were being lined up so deep off the line of scrimmage. However, there appears to have been a rather subtle shift the past few weeks with the Giants moving their safeties much closer to the LOS. And that’s allowed them to make some plays like Xavier McKinney’s game-changing pick six in the win over the Raiders. In fact, McKinney leads the team – and is 5th in the entire NFL – with 4 picks. However, other than those there haven’t been many big plays by the Giants’ safeties. Logan Ryan does lead the team with 72 tackles and forced a couple of fumbles, but the safeties combined have just one sack and three tackles for loss. Grade: C

Special teams: I doubt that you’d get many arguments from the Giants if one were to nominate PK Graham Gano for MVP. He’s been that reliable, hitting on 19 of 21 FGs, including a bunch from distance. On the other hand, P Riley Dixon has been okay but not much more, while the return games – both ways – have been largely inconsequential. Grade: B+