Earlier we explored the steps the Giants have taken this offseason to Fix their Broken offense. The Giant defense was solid last season after their acquisition of linebacker Jon Beason from the Carolina Panthers on October 4. However, this offseason, the unit is being heavily retooled as the team is adjusting their strategy based on how NFL offenses have attacked them and to better match up with Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia. Their kick return game will also be significantly improved due to the signing of aces Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday.
While the Giants offensive coaching staff was overhauled, the defensive staff returns almost intact. Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell is in his fifth season with the team and all but one of his assistant coaches are also back. Robert Nunn, also in his 5th season, coaches the defensive line. Linebackers coach Jim Herrmann has been with the team for six seasons. According to the team’s website, the defensive backfield will have familiar faces with a split in responsibilities this year. Peter Giunta has coached the Giants secondary for eight seasons and will focus his attention on the cornerbacks in 2014. The safeties will be coached by Dave Merritt, also with the Giants for eight years. The one change on the staff is Rob Leonard replacing Al Holcomb as the Defensive Assistant. Holcomb left to become the linebackers coach for the Panthers. Leonard joins the Giants after spending 3 years as a graduate assistant at North Carolina State.
In 2011, the Super Bowl champion Giants dominated by pressuring the quarterback and the team ranked 3rd in the league with 48 team sacks. In 2012, that number plunged to 33, only ranking 22nd, and even though they had one more sack, with 34, in 2013, they dropped to 25th in the NFL. This can be largely attributed to opposing quarterbacks using 3 step drops and quick release passes to neutralize pressure from the Giants talented defensive ends. This often allowed opponents to sustain drives, especially late in games, and exposed coverage issues in the Giants secondary.
Gone are cornerbacks Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, and Terrell Thomas. Replacing them on the roster are Walter Thurmond, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, who signed a 1 year, $3.5 million contract, Zack Bowman (Bears, 1 year, $795,000), and the crown jewel of the 2014 Giants free agency class, former Arizona Cardinal, Philadelphia Eagle, and 2013 Denver Bronco Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (5 Years, $35 million). The Giants also re-signed veteran Trumaine McBride (1 year, $2.875 million) who was solid in 10 starts last season.
Changes were also made at safety where 10 game starter Ryan Mundy signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears. He will be replaced on the roster by the re-signed Stevie Brown (1 year, $3 million), who was a projected 2013 starter until he injured his knee in the preseason. Brown started 11 games in 2012 and recorded 8 interception and 2 fumble recoveries. His ball hawking ability will provide a boost to the Giants defense if he is fully recovered from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost him the entire 2013 season. Also joining the Giants secondary is Demps, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs (1 year, $1 million), who is expected to provide defensive backfield depth and a huge boost to the Giants 19th ranked kick return game.
Rodgers-Cromartie gives Fewell one of the league’s top cover cornerbacks to pair with returning 4th year veteran Prince Amukamara. Thurmond, McBride, and Bowman provide solid depth and coverage ability at the position. Returning third year player Jayron Hosley may be the odd man out despite starting 7 games and playing well over the past 2 seasons. His game improved noticeably in his second season with the team.
At safety, Antrel Rolle and Will Hill give the Giants one of the NFLs best starting tandems. Despite missing 4 games with a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy, Hill returned in October and stabilized the Giants secondary. If Brown returns to his 2012 form, it will allow Fewell to play the three safety style of defense that proved extremely effective when utilized during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Free agency hit the Giants vaunted defensive line hard this year as two stalwarts took advantage of contract offers from other teams. Justin Tuck, a key member the two most recent Super Bowl winning teams agreed to a contract with the Oakland Raiders and Linval Joseph, one of the league’s top defensive tackles, accepted a 5 years, $31.5 million contract from the Minnesota Vikings. While the Giants would have liked to retain Joseph, his contract demands and the realities of the salary cap made it impossible.
Tuck’s leadership will be missed more than his recent play on the field. His 11 sacks this past season are misleading as 9.5 came in final 7 games of the season. In the first 9 games of the 2013, he had only 1.5 sacks. This follows two down years that saw Tuck register only 9 total sacks combined. He is a solid defender against the run, but not worth the 2 year, $11 million contract given by the Raiders. The team obviously agreed with this assessment as Tuck called the Giants offer “insulting” upon agreeing to terms with Oakland. His declining skills and the salary cap required the Giants to allow Tuck to move on when they declined to match the Raiders offer. While disappointing to many fans, it was the right decision.
Joseph’s departure, on the other hand, will have a more significant impact on the team. He’s been a top run defender since being inserted into the starting lineup in 2011. Second year player Jonathan Hankins will have the first opportunity to replace Joseph in 2014. He’s played well in limited opportunities. Other Giants in the defensive tackle rotation include the re-signed Mike Patterson (1 year, $920,000), and returning veterans Cullen Jenkins, and Markus Kuhn. Shaun Rogers remains unsigned and is not expected to return.
If the Giants are to regain their pass rushing swagger this year, it will be due to the full recovery of star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul from his back surgery last June and a shoulder injury he suffered against the Raiders on November 10th. He appeared to be regaining his form in that game before suffering the shoulder injury that ended his season after week 11. In his second season returning to his natural position of defensive end after several seasons playing linebacker, Mathias Kiwanuka needs to improve on his 6 sack total from 2013. The Giants signed former Denver Bronco Robert Ayers to a 2 year, $4 million contract to help fill the void created by Tuck’s departure. Like Tuck, he can play both end and tackle. While not as accomplished a pass rusher as Tuck, Ayers is solid against the run. Rounding out the rotation at defensive end is promising second year player Damontre Moore who flashed ability last season and should make progress this off season. One of the Giants top draft picks will likely be another pass rushing defensive lineman to add to the mix.
The key re-signing of the 2014 offseason was inside linebacker Jon Beason to a 3 year, $16.8 million contract. The Giants acquired Beason for a 2014 7th round draft pick when the team was 0-5. After nearly beating the Bears in his first game with the team, the Giants saw their defense solidify under his leadership and stout run stopping ability, and were in playoff contention until their narrow loss to the Cowboys at home on November 24th.
Prior to Beason’s arrival, the Giants were giving up 36.4 points and 396 yards per game (126 rushing and 270 passing). These ranked near the bottom of the league in all categories. After he joined the team, their points surrendered per game dropped to 18.3, and yards to 305 (101 rushing and 204 passing). All would rank in the top 7 of the NFL’s year end 2013 statistics. The impact in points per game is even greater when you consider that the Giants gave up 9 non-defensive touchdowns last season. Three interception returns, three fumble returns, and three punt returns. Quarterback Eli Manning was also sacked for a safety against the Detroit Lions. When these 64 points are factored out (Dallas missed a two point conversion attempt on an interception return in the season opener), the pre-Beason points per game drops to 31.0 and post-Beason to 14.9, an eye popping improvement of 52%. The weakness in Beason’s game is his pass coverage, often exploited by opponent’s tight ends, who frequently had big games against the Giants in 2013.
Also re-signed was inside linebacker Mark Herzlich (1 year, $1 million), who will have the most impact on special teams. The Giants added Baltimore Ravens free agent inside linebacker Jameel McClain to a 2 year, $4.5 million contract to further bolster the middle of the defense. Outside Linebacker Spencer Paysinger returns on a 1 year, $1.431 restricted free agent tender. He joins returning veteran Jacquian Williams, who has flashed ability when healthy. Kiwanuka’s versatility will allow him to play linebacker if needed and I expect a third day draft pick or rookie free agents to be added to compete for roster spots in July’s training camp.
The changes made to the roster indicate a new direction for the Giants defense and is a direct response to tactics teams have been using against the Giants. Rather than focus their efforts on pressuring the quarterback, the new blood will allow a combination of coverage and pressure to stop opponent’s passing attacks. None of the middle linebackers on the roster have the speed or range to allow the team to use the Tampa 2 scheme that Perry Fewell favors but the upgraded talent in the secondary will result in more coverage sack opportunities than in previous seasons. The team will also match up better with the Philadelphia Eagles high tempo, spread offense that head coach Chip Kelly implemented last season.
The resigning of Jon Beason, healthy return of Jason Pierre-Paul and Stevie Brown, and integration of the newly signed players will ultimately determine how formidable the Giants defense is next season. After week 6, the team was among the league leaders in both yardage and scoring defense, surrendering more than 24 points only the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks. The weakness is at linebacker, and defensive line depth is precariously thin, but the infusion of new talent has the Giants poised to play solid defense in 2014. If they stay healthy.
Early last season, special teams errors cost the Giants dearly as three opponents returned punts for touchdown. The swing in momentum was most evident in their 31-7 loss in week 4 to the Kansas City Chiefs as Dexter McCluster’s 89 yard punt return turned a 10-7 deficit to 17-7 instantly, and opened the flood gates that swept the game away. For the season, the punt coverage unit ranked near the bottom of the league (30th) and neither of their return units provided the spark or the starting field position that can turn a game around or shift its momentum. Their kick return unit ranked 27th with rookie Michael Cox serving as the primary returner, and punt return unit 26th, lead by Rueben Randle. Only their kickoff coverage team was respectable, ranking 11th.
The Giants punt coverage team was tale of two seasons. The worst of times were the 8 games leading up the team’s week 9 bye, as they surrendered 424 yards on 21 returns, and three touchdowns of more than 80 yards, including the McCluster return. The average of 20.2 yards per return would have ranked dead last in the league. The best of times came after the bye, when the unit improved, surrendering only 231 yards on 27 returns, with a long of 50 yards (against Detroit, week 16) and no touchdowns. This average of 8.6 yards ranked a respectable 14th in the league’s season ending statistics.
The improvement allowed both Special Teams coordinator Tom Quinn and Assistant Special Teams Coach Larry Izzo to retain their jobs for 2014. The coaches will have some new toys to play with this year as the Giants signed Demps and Holliday for their kick return abilities. Demps ranked 7th in the NFL in kickoff returns, averaging 30.1 yards per return and returning one kickoff for a touchdown in 2013 for the Chiefs. Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown and ranked 14th in the league kickoff returns for the Broncos. Holliday’s biggest challenge will be hanging on the ball as he has fumbled 11 times, losing 3, in his 2 NFL seasons. He will not remain on the field if this trend continues while wearing a Giants uniform as Tom Coughlin is notoriously impatient with players who fumble.
Part of the issue with the Giants punt coverage unit is punter Steve Weatherford’s strong leg. He has ranked in the top 10 in the league gross punting average and top 3 in percentage of punt returned in each of the past two seasons. Combined with his middle of the pack hang times (Per ProFootballFocus.com), we have a classic case of out kicking the punt coverage. This is a major contributor to the Giants punt coverage woes. Placekicking and kickoff duties will be handled be the re-signed Josh Brown (2 years, $2.5 million), who connected on 23 of 26 field goals last season. Brown sent 49% of his kickoffs for touchback in 2013, average for the league.
If the Giants are able to sustain the improvement achieved in their punt coverage, special teams will be more asset than liability for the 2014 team. The addition of Demps and Holliday will provide a much needed boost for the return units and provide better starting field position for Eli Manning and the offense. Reliable, strong-legged Brown will continue to make field goals from all distances when the offense is unable to punch the ball into the end zone.