Saints v. Giants
Defensive backs’ tight, smart coverage led the way to Giants’ surprising victory
As a former player, I have grown frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and coaches’ game plan.
After putting up 423 yards and four touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders in week one, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had to be feeling good, despite losing. Especially after he looked at the schedule and saw New York Giants on week two. Last season, Brees
played owned the Giants. I am not sure there is a word that fully encapsulates what Brees did to the Giants’ defense last year. He threw for more than 500 yards and tied the NFL’s single-game passing touchdown record of seven. Enjoyed, that’s the word. Last season, Brees enjoyed the Giants’ defense.
So, when I saw that the Giants held Brees and the Saints to 13 points, 39 less than the 52 points they gave up last year, I had to see how they did it. So, I dove into the coach’s film to see what happened.
Obviously, Brees was not perfect, but this game was not about him failing as much as it was about the Giants’ defensive coaches and players succeeding, particularly in the secondary. As a member of the defensive back fraternity, I love few things more than to watch those wolves in the backfield hunt.
OK, so the Giants’ defense was great, but not perfect. Let’s start with the weak points.
1. The underneath zones lacked depth.
Late in the game, the Giants played more zone and left some windows between the safeties and linebackers/nickelbacks. Once those underneath defenders recognize that the play is a pass, they should get to the depth of intermediate routes and force the quarterback to check it down. Then, only after the quarterback has checked it down, they should run up and tackle the ball carrier. A few times on Sunday, the defenders prematurely converged on the checkdown, making for an easy throw and catch.
2. Eli Apple was slow to replace when the safety was blocked.
The Giants had a great scheme to stop the inside runs. On early downs, rather than have their defensive ends fill the “C gap,” the space outside of the offensive tackle, the ends ran slant stunts into the “B gap,” the space between the guard and tackle. The stunts disrupted the Saints’ blocking scheme, resulting in negative plays for the offense. Eventually, the Saints countered by inviting the inside stunts, blocking the ends in and running outside. The receivers would crack block the safeties, leaving just the cornerback to replace the safety and make the tackle on the running back. At first, Apple was late replacing and the Saints had their best running plays of the day, but the young Apple learned fast and made some impressive tackles in the fourth quarter.
3. At times, the pass rush was lacking.
During the Saints’ two-minute drive just before halftime, the defensive line did not hurry Brees at all. D-linemen normally live for those opportunities when they can rush the passer with no concern for run responsibilities. However, Brees had time and moved the Saints into field goal range before the half.
4. Formation awareness.
The Saints’ only touchdown was on seam route to Willie Snead. The Saints fooled one of the safeties. The Giants were in cover 4 and the initial offensive formation had the tight end aligned to the offensive left, two backs in the backfield and two receivers to the right. Versus that formation, the tight end side safety should double-team the tight end with the cornerback. But that wasn’t the final formation. Before the snap, the fullback motioned to the right, past both receivers, creating a three-receiver formation and the threat of four verticals passing routes. When there are four eligible receivers near the line of scrimmage before the snap, the safeties are responsible for the two inside receivers if they run vertical routes. Of course they did. The safety didn’t recognize the fourth vertical threat, so he turned to double the tight end. Brees immediately recognized the mistake and found Snead wide open for the touchdown. I also thought that the defensive backs misplayed the Saints’ stack formations, but it didn’t hurt them. When receivers are “stacked,” aligned within a couple of feet of each other, inevitably one runs deep and the other runs a short route. The two defenders responsible for those receivers can “hi low” the stack. One defender bumps the first receiver at the line and sits there waiting for the short route and the other defender stands off of the line waiting to cover the deep route. It appeared that the Giants’ coaches didn’t give the defensive backs that tool. And as a result, the low guy was often open.
5. Not enough dancing from the defensive backs.
Though they balled, it is incumbent upon all defensive backs to pay homage to the godfather of modern NFL swag, Deion Sanders, and dance at every opportunity. Janoris Jenkins scooped up a blocked field goal and scored a touchdown. Sadly, he didn’t dance. Jenkins, who has scored touchdowns in the past, didn’t have a dance prepared. He committed the cardinal sin for defensive backs. He acted like he had been there before. All defensive backs know the third defensive back commandment: Thou shall not act like he has been there before. And the fourth defensive back commandment: Thou shall behave as if he has never been there before and will never return, bask in your own greatness.
1. Defensive end stunts.
I explained the stunt above, but it is worth mentioning again. The stunt was a savvy wrinkle installed by the coaches. Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre Paul deserve credit for committing to it and executing. Prolific pass rushers like them tend not to like slanting into the chaos.
2. Coverage and blitz disguises.
When trying to get a pre-snap read on the defense, quarterbacks look at the safeties for clues. When there is a blitz, the safety has to cover the blitzing defenders coverage responsibility, so before the snap he will try to creep into good position. Veteran quarterbacks are pretty good at predicting where the blitz is coming from based on the safeties’ alignment. Many times quarterbacks know the exact defenses before the play. When watching film, I can almost always tell the coverage before the snap. But not this time. The Giants safeties’ disguises were very risky. There was one play where the safety appeared as if he was down to cover the slot receiver, I assumed it was cover 1. I thought there was no way he could get back and man his deep cover 2 zone, but at the snap of the ball he sprinted out and got to his position. On several of the early nickel blitzes, the safety responsible to cover the receiver left uncovered was too far away to cover the receiver, so Brees and the offensive line assumed the nickel wasn’t blitzing. They were wrong. The blitzer came in untouched and the receiver was open early, but the pressure got to Brees before he could recognize the weakness. Lesser quarterbacks will not take the sack. They’ll throw into coverage.
3. Man coverage.
The Giants played a lot of man coverage and played it very well. Brees tried each of the defensive backs on go routes when in man coverage. Not one was caught. And there were no defensive holding or pass interference penalties.
I know not everyone loves defense as much as I do, but the Giants put together a special game that should be appreciated. Especially the defensive backs. Led by Landon Collins, they were the best group on the field. I am excited to watch them get better as the season progresses. If Eli Apple, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Collins can keep up this level of play, the Giants are certain Super Bowl contenders.