Did the giants’ midfielders cover things up?

Off-ball quarterbacks are the forgotten men of modern NFL football. They’ve always done a lot of the dirty work of supporting running, and the history of the New York Giants is filled with greats who have been strong against racing like Sam Huff, Harry Carson and Karl Banks. In Wink Martindale’s offensive defense, off-ball midfielders can be chess pieces sometimes rushing into the lane.

But in the pass-dominated NFL of the 21st century, linebackers are increasingly being required to cover tight ends and running backs as well as stop runs. And that’s been bad news for the giants in recent years. The Giants’ 2021 season went south in Week 2, when a 26-20 lead with less than 5 minutes to go, their defense gave up two games, 75 yards from TD. The first driving game was a back pass by JD McKissic which went for 56 yards. Linebacker Tae Crowder was in charge of McKissic, but running back put a stride on Crowder and blew right in front of him for an easy capture and an open field in front of him (photo from NFL.com video):

In the next play, Washington completed the lead with a 19-yard TD pass into tight end Ricky Seals-Jones.

Plays like this have been very popular in recent years. Here are the passing coverage stats for each Giants off-ball LB for the 2021 season of Pro Football Focus:

Crowder played by far the most coverage shots of any Giants LB last season, and was so bad, allowing a 74.4 percent completion rate and 578 yards, about half of them YAC, for an awesome 34.8 PFF coverage score of the season. The Giants’ other options for most of the season were hardly better: Reggie Ragland (57.5 coverage score) gave away a completion rate of 86.7 percent, with most yards being YAC, and Bernardrick McKinney (score 28.6) allowed a 68.4 percent completion rate of 70 percent. Of the squares are YAC. Even Blake Martinez, the Giants’ best left-back, allowed to complete all 10 of his goals before getting injured. Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown and TJ Bronson played too few (or no) defensive shots for any of them to be considered answers.

The Giants will see four of the best players earn tight ends in the NFL next season: Dallas Guedert (91.1 PFF gets the score), Mark Andrews (91.0), Dalton Schultz (77.4), and T.J. Hawkinson (73.6), as well as the Novices. Gilani Woods, Charlie Kollar, Jake Ferguson and Isaiah Leakley. They will also see six of the top runners running in passes: Christian McCaffrey (92.8), JD Makisch (76.2), Kenneth Jenwell (75.9), Niheim Hines (74.3), Amir Abdullah (73.9), and Aaron Jones (72.6). It will be their duty to improve chronic deficiencies in coverage.

Did the giants tackle the problem of covering the full back?

The 2022 NFL draft was deep in talented fast-cover streak players, but the Giants waited until Rounds 5 and 6 before drafting Micah McFadden and Darian Bevers. The position value arguments suggest that this was the correct strategy, since LB is a position where value can be found outside of the first few rounds. Both players have attractive qualities in Martindale’s defense. For example, McFadden’s PFF pass rush score in 2021 was 92.0, while the Beavers’ score was 86.1.

But can they cover TEs and RBs? McFadden recorded a coverage score of 65.4 and the Beavers 68.0 in 2021. That’s enough and not amazing, but given how poorly the second-tier giants are covered, it would fit a huge step up.

This is what draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic had to say about McFadden and Beavers in his draft guide for 2022:

McFadden:

“Limited range in coverage, both horizontal and vertical…has no open field blast to lock in on throws…his athletic and coverage limits take away the excitement of his professional rating.”

beavers:

“Above average reaction speed for…staying within arm’s length in coverage…normal range and speed of play…working on his transitions versus sudden offensive skill players…showing some solidity in man covering”

The 2022 Spring Draft Guide from Mike Renner says:

McFadden:

“Balance when you are asked to play in space. The guy you want is not a match for the hole.”

beavers

“There is no real marginal man. He will sometimes run away.”

Other options for the full-back outside the ball

The forgotten man of the 2021 giants appears to be Jaylon Smith. Smith has an excellent coverage score of 80.6 PFF for the season, and that includes six games with Dallas and Green Bay in which he hasn’t played well. That division was the fourth-highest in the NFL among linebackers in 2021. In a small sampling of four games with the Giants, Smith only allowed 3-in-6 completions for 17 yards. According to Pro Football reference.

Jaylon Smith remains a free agent. Ed Valentine suggested back in January that the Giants give Smith a chance to make the roster. Last week, Kyle Smith of SB Nation’s Washington leaders’ Hogs Haven expressed a similar feeling about his team. The giants currently own a stash of $6.2 million according to Over The Cap. Will the 2022 Giants LB team of Martinez, McFadden, Beavers, Smith and Crowder be an upgrade over the Crowder, Ragland and McKinney combination that have taken over the field for much of 2021? defy. But at this point there is no indication that such a reunion will happen.

Now that we’re into June, the market for trade and free agents is likely to get a little hotter since the rules on how player transactions affect the salary cap change. It is possible that there will be one or more surprise cuts on the list in the coming weeks, with the goal of freeing up more space for a potential deal. However, none of the free agents LBs currently available besides Jaylon Smith look particularly attractive from a coverage standpoint.

Cover tight ends and running backs with other people

The role of the linebacker is not always limited to covering narrow ends and linebackers. In particular, when Wink Martindale rushes to their quarterback, the responsibility will often fall on their defensive backs. Here are the PFF midfielder’s coverage stats for the 2019 Ravens season, when their intimidation of opposition offenses was at its peak:

There are many more things to note from this chart compared to similar things to the giants. None of these players are exactly household names — in fact, none of them ever made a Pro Bowl, and all of them were unoccupied free agents. However, Baines was above average in coverage, while Fort and Onwuasor were average and slightly below average. So Martindale got the job done without a star at LB. The only time Baltimore drafted an off-ball LB card, it was a flop: Patrick Quinn, taken in the first round in 2020, had coverage scores of 30.0 and 35.1 in both seasons (and low overall scores as well).

The second thing to note is that the Ravens’ four off-ball players for 2019 played a total of 535 shots in coverage, less than half of the 2021 Giants’ shots covering 1,170 LB and less than those played by Tae Crowder alone. So, whatever the 2022 Giants LB’s coverage deficiencies may be masked by using defensive defences too often to cover in the second tier.

Cornerback James Bradberry played one of his best games of the 2021 season against Kansas City, often assigned to Travis Kelce. Adoree’ Jackson played on tight ends as well, but his most famous game in 2021 was getting beaten up by Ricky Seals-Jones at TD after JD McKissic was arrested in Washington.

Julianne Love, and maybe sometimes Xavier McKinney, will get some second-tier business off the tight ends. But also watch safety apprentice Dane Belton, about whom Brugler says:

“Patient, the athlete outstanding in his drops…balances his eyes between a quarterback and knocks to get a head start on the ball’s trajectory…takes calculated risks, comes out of his coverage to overlap and makes a play in another area…Soft hands show the natural sense of timing to finish.” Interceptions (second in the Big Ten with five interceptions in 2021)…trusts his angles to maintain proper spatial relationships in the area…relaxed rotation and physical matching of the tight ends in a human.”

Pelton feels more comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage rather than falling deep, so expect him to get a chance to play the role Gabriel Peppers has played in the past few seasons. Peppers was good at covering with Cleveland but struggled with Patrick Graham’s defense, scoring 57.2 and 53.2 PFF scores in the last two seasons.

Regardless of who’s in second-tier coverage, Martindale’s defense has the same goal: forcing the quarterback to get the ball out quickly and put it back on his back:

This style of defense may be a midfielder’s best friend.

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