The New York Giants had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL in 2019, and while the majority of fans who long for the defensive lines of yesteryear would tell you their (lack of) pass rush was the main culprit, a stronger argument can be made against their (lack of) pass coverage. A group of young defensive backs constantly fell prey to mental lapses in coverage in an overcomplicated defensive system. Couple that with no answer to counter the quarterback-friendliest position on the field (slot receiver) and it's easy to see the true culprit on a defense that finished as the second-worst pass defense overall, according to Football Outsiders. But there is good news on the horizon for Giants fans -- the defense will be simplified under first-year defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and they have a legitimate plan to defend the slot for the first time in what feels like a decade.
Of course, it won't be easy for Graham, first-year head coach Joe Judge and the positional coaches because the secondary will already look different in 2020 than what the team planned for. Former 2019 first-round pick Deandre Baker, who had consecutive dominant seasons in the SEC (with a grade higher than 90 overall, per Pro Football Focus) struggled as a rookie but was an excellent bet to take a big step forward in 2020 in Graham's coverage scheme. Baker has since been charged with four counts of armed robbery and his status for 2020 is murky at best. The Giants used a premium pick in the supplemental draft to land Sam Beal, another cornerback who projected as a better fit in Graham's man-heavy defensive system. Beal has decided to opt out of the 2020 season.
On paper, the Giants are left very thin at the boundary (outside) cornerback position, and that could be an issue considering the mounting data that suggests pass coverage is more important than pass rush. However, a case can be made that they have also upgraded their talent (via the additions of James Bradberry, Xavier McKinney and Darnay Holmes) at the top end of their depth chart. Ultimately, creating an improved secondary will be a tall task for the coaching staff -- but a doable one -- and here's how I think they'll get it done.
Man coverage early and often
Former defensive coordinator James Bettcher asked a lot of his defensive backs from a coverage standpoint regardless of their experience level. Some concepts, including pattern-match coverage, proved overwhelming and led to mental lapses in coverage. That will change in Year 1 under Graham.
As defensive coordinator of the Dolphins in 2019, Graham called man coverage on the back end on over 50 percent of Miami's defensive snaps.
The Dolphins tied with the Patriots for the most snaps in man coverage -- second-most in the NFL behind only the Detroit Lions --with all three defensive systems based on the "Patriot Way," which stresses heavy man coverage. This is excellent news for a Giants secondary that could feature up to four players still on their rookie contracts (when the team is in nickel -- and that should be on at least two-thirds of the snaps). The mental lapses we saw in coverage last year could be remedied sooner than expected by simply using a lot more man coverage.
A higher blitz frequency
When Bettcher joined the Giants as defensive coordinator, fans were promised a bill of goods -- they were promised a heavy-blitzing play-caller. That never came to fruition. If you ask Bettcher, he'll probably tell you that his lack of confidence in the coverage on the back end made him hesitant to blitz often. That's about to change under Graham, though.
Despite only really having one sure thing in the secondary in Miami last season, Graham blitzed (sent at least one more than four pass rushers) on 35 percent of the snaps in 2019 -- the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. Graham also liked to turn the notch up in third-down situations when he blitzed on 41 percent of the snaps -- the third-highest rate in the NFL. Unlike Bettcher, Graham promises an aggressive blitz-heavy, man-heavy defense and he delivers on it regardless of the personnel. Miami dealt with injuries and a young and not exactly super-talented secondary in 2019 -- but Graham held true to his defensive principles and play calling.
This is especially important for a Giants defense that lacks a true "blue goose" pass rusher who can consistently win in one-on-one matchups. With the absence of a blue goose, the Giants will have to rely on creative ways to pressure the quarterback and Graham isn't afraid to try them.
More diverse blitz packages
In addition to blitzing more often, Graham's defense that he brings over from Miami will also feature a more diverse series of blitz packages. This can best be summed up by how often he called "Cover 0" in 2019 -- a blitz package that brings extra rushers and sacrifices any safety help over the top. Graham called a Cover 0 blitz on 28 snaps in 2019 -- only six defensive coordinators called this high-risk, high-reward blitz package more in 2019.
Matchup-based personnel decisions
After losing Beal and (likely) Baker for 2020 -- two players projected as the boundary CB3/4 and CB2, respectively -- the Giants will have to get creative with their personnel and play matchup-based football. Simply put, 2019 sixth-round pick Corey Ballentine and a slew of late-round or undrafted players are going to lead to a lot of trouble for the Giants pass defense if they're on the field for 85 percent of snaps or more. The good news is that this plays right into Graham and Judge's coaching history and everything we should expect to come from the installment of this defensive system.
For starters, the Giants will have to consider reverting second-year defensive back Julian Love back to the boundary cornerback role. As a rookie, Love spent the majority of his season learning a new position he barely played at Notre Dame -- a safety-hybrid role -- nearly identical to how Nick Saban used 2020 Giants rookie Xavier McKinney. And although most evident in their road game against the Bears, Love was solid in his new role. This offseason, the Giants may have to ask Love to transition back to the boundary on at least a temporary basis. Coming out of Notre Dame, although Love had locked down the boundary there, his straight-line testing speed (28th percentile 40-yard dash among all cornerbacks) had some draftniks penciling him in as a slot cornerback only -- or an eventual safety.
As a rookie, Love only played eight snaps on the boundary. As he transitioned to a new role, the old Giants regime used him in the box, over the slot, and as a deep-half safety -- the majority of his snaps came in the box. It's not wise to project college success to NFL success on a one-to-one basis, but Love combined for 36 passes defensed and four interceptions during his sophomore and junior seasons at Notre Dame -- so it's not like he hasn't held his own at the boundary on any level.
More than likely, the Giants will play Love at all four positions based on the matchups, depending on which opposing receivers are lined up in the slot and on the boundary.
In addition to Love, rookie Darnay Holmes, the former No. 1 cornerback recruit in his class, could be an option to play the boundary (where he played exclusively at UCLA) or kick inside to the slot (where he projects at the NFL level due to his short arms). Holmes is a player I'm extremely high on heading into his rookie season based on his 2018 game tape (he played through a high-ankle sprain in 2019). In 2018, he matched up and shut out elite collegiate receivers including Marquise Brown and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
In Graham's defense, I expect Holmes to have a shot at playing the boundary when an opposing team matches up a smaller, quicker and faster receiver outside and the slot when he is matched up against a smaller, quicker and faster receiver there.
Speaking of the slot -- the Giants are loaded with options to take away the quarterback's most efficient and most targeted option. This is really good news because the Giants have been burned up the seams by slot receivers, tight ends and running backs out of the backfield for a long time. You can expect Graham to deploy Love, Holmes, safety Jabrill Peppers, McKinney (who matched up in the slot in Saban's defense) and potentially Grant Haley as well. The days of having to watch a pure-boundary cornerback like Ballentine try to navigate his way in the slot are over.
Speaking of Peppers, Sports Illustrated's Pat Ragazzo floated the idea of moving the versatile weapon a look on the boundary at cornerback and I don't hate the idea. Peppers played the boundary at the high school level before playing elite football in the slot at Michigan. I don't think it should full-time transition for Peppers, but I think there are some situations -- based on down, distance and opposing personnel -- where Peppers on the boundary would give the defense its best chance to succeed.
If you're looking for a sleeper to line up opposite of prized free agent cornerback James Bradberry, look no further than Montre Hartage. He will have a leg up in the camp battle because he comes over from Miami and has the experience having played in Graham's defensive system. Hartage -- like just about every defensive back on this roster not named Bradberry -- is not a natural boundary cornerback, but that doesn't mean he can't fit in some matchups.
The biggest question mark the Giants will have to answer is: Do they have enough talent at the boundary cornerback position?
And if the answer is no -- as I tend to believe -- they need to do something about it fast. Veteran free agent options with boundary experience should be on their shortlist. This is a team that is also in a position where they need to be closely monitoring the waiver wire for veteran cornerbacks who have played in man-coverage heavy schemes on the boundary. Having said that, if they convert Love back to the boundary and if Ballentine takes a massive step in Year 2, this problem looks a lot smaller than it seems right now. With the wholesale changes made to the defensive system and Graham's play-calling tendencies, coaching will be a massive factor in 2020. Giants fans should feel confident about the changes headed their way, but ultimately, how fast the young defensive backs develop will be the key to an improved pass defense.