The Giants are not what they expected to be, Part 2: A look at the defense

Adoree’ Jackson after his dropped interception vs. Atlanta. | Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Giants have gone from one of the league’s best defenses to one of its worst, despite seeming to have better personnel

A year ago, the New York Giants were surprisingly good on defense, ninth in points and 12th in yards allowed. That isn’t dominant, but it is top third of the league defense. Certainly good enough to win with adequate help from the offense and special teams.

The Giants expected to be better defensively in 2021. Yes, they lost defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. They kept Leonard Williams, though, and Williams over Tomlinson is a choice most analysts agreed with.

They were fortunate to find edge defender Azeez Ojulari still on the board at No. 50 in the draft. Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines are back from injury. The Giants spent big money on cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, on paper a massive upgrade from Isaac Yiadom and the cast of thousands the Giants used at cornerback opposite James Bradberry last season. Xavier McKinney, the exciting you safety who was drafted in Round 2 last season, is healthy after missing most of last season with a broken foot.

By any measure, the personnel would appear to be far superior to what the Giants fielded in 2020. So, they should be even better. Right?

Well, through five games it is not working out that way. The Giants are 26th in the league in points allowed and 29th in yardage allowed. After giving up 22.3 points per game a season ago, the Giants are allowing 27.8 so far in 2021.

The only team in the NFL with fewer sacks than the Giants (8) is the Kansas City Chiefs (7). The Giants are 30th in pass rush win rate.

The Giants are 28th in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.7). A year ago they were ninth at 4.1.

The Giants are 27th in the league in passer rating against (108.5). A year ago the Giants’ passer rating against was 93.2.

The Giants are 24th in the league in yards allowed per play (6.1). A year ago they were ninth at 5.3.

The Giants are 29th in the league in third down conversion percentage, with opponents converting 47.06 percent of the time.

The Giants have given up touchdowns in the last two minutes of games or halves in every game this season.

In other words, the Giants have been bad thus far in virtually every way you can measure a defense?

What happened? Let’s go position by position and try to uncover some answers.

Defensive line

The Giants’ biggest offseason decision with this group was whether to sign Tomlinson or Williams. With salary cap constraints and needs elsewhere, especially on offense, it was always clear that the Giants would only be able to keep one of the two.

In my view, the Giants clearly made the proper choice. Williams was their best pass rusher and overall probably their best defender a year ago. He can impact the pass and the run. He has versatility to move all across the line. He plays significantly more snaps than Tomlinson.

Some want to blame the Giants’ defensive woes this season the fact that Tomlinson is now a Minnesota Viking. I would argue strongly that is not the case. Many of the Giants’ defensive issues have come, as Giants fans can attest, at the end of halves and games. In those two-minute situations Tomlinson would likely be off the field in favor of an extra pass rusher or defensive back.

Besides, Austin Johnson has been just fine replacing Tomlinson. At a fraction of the cost, with Johnson making $3 million on a one-year deal while Tomlinson signed a two-year, $21 million deal with $15.9 million guaranteed.

The true problem at this position is that the Giants are not getting the production they expected from Williams or Dexter Lawrence.

The Giants had to be hopeful that Lawrence, the 17th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, would take a step toward becoming a Pro Bowl type player this season. So far, that’s not happening.

Lawrence is averaging 2.4 quarterback pressures per game, up from 1.8 per game his first two seasons. He has no sacks, though, and just one quarterback hit. Thus, some pressure without any real production.

Lawrence’s PFF run defense grade is down to 54.5 after being in the mid-70s in each of his first two seasons. He has five run stops, a pace that would give him 17 for the season, after collecting 33 stops a season ago.

When it comes to Williams, what we have seen so far this is really a common theme throughout the defense. The Giants’ big-money defenders are not giving the Giants the production they are paying for.

After Williams posted a career-best 11.5 sacks a season ago, the Giants — in no position to let a double-digit sack player walk — did what they had to do. They paid the going rate for top-tier defensive lineman, giving Williams a three-year, $63 million contract with $45 million guaranteed.

Problem is, Williams is playing like 2015-2019 Williams rather than 2020 Williams. That means he has been good, but he hasn’t been a game-changer.

Williams is on pace for a career-high 88 tackles (his previous best was 68 in 2016). He is, though, on pace for just 5 sacks after last season’s 11.5, and 13.6 quarterback hits after 30 last season.

So, the problem here is that the Giants aren’t getting what they need or expect from their best players. As I said above, that’s the case throughout the defense.

Edge

The Giants entered the season excited about this group. Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines were back from injuries that cost them both most of the 2020 season. Azeez Ojulari, thought by some to be a first-round talent and the perfect edge defender for Patrick Graham’s defense, was stunningly available to the Giants at No. 50 in the draft. Elerson Smith, another high-upside pass rusher, was taken in Round 4. There were hopes that second-year man Cam Brown would develop into more than a special teams ace.

Ojulari has given the Giants 3.0 sacks and is second on the team in quarterback pressures with 10. He has not, though, been dominant. Smith missed all of training camp and remains on IR with a hamstring injury. Brown is on IR, also with a hamstring. Carter had a nice interception vs. the Dallas Cowboys, but otherwise has given the Giants little. He has no sacks and one quarterback hit. Ximines has one quarterback hit on the season, and Zack Rosenblatt of NJ Advance Media pointed out Wednesday that the 2019 third-round pick does not have a sack in his last 24 games, spanning more than 300 snaps.

The lack of production from the edge is a big reason why the Giants are 30th in the league in pass rush win rate.

The chart below shows that the Giants’ edge rushers are not productive. Nor do teams respect any of them enough to bother with double teams, making it easier to block everyone else.

Double team rate at edge (x) by pass rush win rate at edge (y), through Week 5.

Realized Raiders and WFT were omitted accidentally last week (name change error). Fixed now.

(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/T3BX8kbxNA

— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 12, 2021

Carter seemed indignant earlier this week when asked directly why the Giants edhe group was coming up short in “pressures, sacks, quarterback hits, literally any metric.”

“Honestly, if that’s how you rate football players or edge groups, then that’s one thing. But we do more than rush the quarterback. We affect the game in multiple ways. We try set the edge, play the run and do different things. We drop, we help in different ways more than just sacks and there’s different ways to affect the game,” Carter said. “Yes, of course, sacks are the pretty thing that people like. It’s the popular statistic, but we’ve got to – like you said, we’ve got to get pressure. That’s a part of the game. But I feel like as long as the guys you named, Azeez, me, X, Quincy, and even our practice (squad) players, we have the ability. We’ve got the guys and we know what we can do, so we’ve just got go out there and like I said, it all comes back to execution.”

Problem is, the Giants have not set the edge well against the run all season. Look at this chart from Sunday, when Dallas ran for more than 200 yards against the Giants. Where were they having success, again and again?

Running at the right edge of the Giants’ defense.

During the Dave Gettleman era, the Giants for a variety of reasons have passed on edge defenders Bradley Chubb, Josh Allen and Montez Sweat. They traded away Markus Golden after a 10.5-sack season. When they drafted Carter, they left Fred Warner, an inside linebacker who was an All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers last season, on the board.

The inability to get dynamic play-making and consistent run defense from their edge defenders is a huge problem for the Giants. It isn’t really one they expected to have, but perhaps this is a case of the Giants not properly evaluating their personnel. Especially in the case of Carter, they seem to keep hoping/expecting he will turn into something he has never been.

Whoever and whatever you want to blame, edge play has been a major issue.

Linebacker

Blake Martinez is the Giants’ defensive captain, signal-caller and leading tackler. He is also the one linebacker counted on to play every down. Now, after a Week 3 torn ACL, Martinez is lost for the season.

In his place are Tae Crowder, Reggie Ragland and very occasionally Carter Coughlin. None are close to the player Martinez is.

Crowder, a second-year player, has taken over as the team’s defensive signal-caller. He is second on the team in tackles with 35. He has played every snap the past two weeks. He has also been Pro Football Focus’s lowest-graded Giants defender in those two games, and is the team’s lowest-graded defender through the first five games. For a guy who was the final selection of the 2020 NFL Draft, he’s been a great value. He isn’t, though, Martinez. Not close.

Ragland is a journeyman on his fourth NFL team. He provides adequate run defense, but over time will be exposed in pass coverage.

Coughlin is a young player just learning the inside linebacker spot. He has played just 22 defensive snaps thus far.

Cornerback

When we talked about Leonard Williams, we talked about the fact that he is a highly-paid player who to this point has not given the Giants the production they are paying for.

At cornerback, James Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson fall into the same category.

Bradberry signed a three-year, $43.5 million contract with the Giants a year ago. He gave them an outstanding Pro Bowl season in 2020, tying a career high with three interceptions and setting a career high with 18 passes defensed. He might not have been a true lockdown cornerback, but he was really, really good. He looked worth the money.

This year, not so much.

Poor plays by Bradberry — a blown coverage, a dropped interception, a pass interference that set up first-and-goal — led directly to 18 Dallas Cowboys points on Sunday. Bradberry was no match for Washington’s Terry McLaurin in Week 2. Bradberry his surrendered 23 completions in 31 targets, a career-worst 74.2 completion percentage against. His passer rating against of 117.9 is roughly 47 points higher than last season 70.1. That all amounts to a massive regression.

The Giants gambled a three-year, $39 million contract on Jackson after an injury-plagued season in which he played only three games for the Tennessee Titans, who did not want him back. To this point, Jackson has done nothing to justify that money. He has a 100.3 passer rating against thus far, and dropped an easy interception Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons that ultimately cost the Giants a game.

Darnay Holmes, a 2020 fourth-round pick, has barely seen the field in recent weeks. That may change now that 2021 sixth-round pick Rodarius Williams, who truthfully wasn’t playing very well himself, is on IR with a torn ACL.

Aaron Robinson, drafted in the third round to perhaps become the slot cornerback, remains on PUP.

Safety

The story is the same here. This is yet another position where the Giants have not gotten the quality of play they expected.

Logan Ryan is another of the Giants’ highly-paid defenders, in the second year of a three-year, $31 million deal. He leads the team in tackles with 43, but has come up short this season in a number of situations where he had chances at difference-making plays. He dropped a pair of would-be interceptions in a 17-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Ryan’s PFF grade, which I have said many times is not the be-all, end-all, is a career-low 53.4. He has surrendered 10 completions in 13 targets with a passer rating against of 134.8.

Jabrill Peppers is an energizer, but he has been hurt and his coverage deficiencies always seem to show up at inopportune times.

Finally, the Giants were hoping for a breakout season from 2020 second-round pick Xavier McKinney. To this point, though, McKinney has been adequate at best. His next difference-making play will be his first of the season. He has compiled. mediocre 52.8 PFF grade and a 111.7 passer rating against.

Final thoughts

What it comes down to for this group is that the only defender you can possibly point to who is playing above expectations is Austin Johnson. You can point to a number of them — Williams, Lawrence, Bradberry, Jackson, McKinney, maybe you include Holmes — playing below expectations. There is not, honestly, a single position group that has thus far played to 2021 expectations.

There is also, of course, the injury to Martinez.

Were expectations too high? Was last year a case of defensive overachievement? Have the Giants overvalued some of their own players? Does Martinez mean that much?

Maybe it is a little of all of that. I just know you can’t win very many games with one of the league’s worst defenses.

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