FRONT 4 GIVES GIANTS A CHANCE TO BEAT ANYONE
The Giants' front four is their great equalizer.
Eli Manning can go from elite to
inept and back again, but if the front four is playing well, the Giants can win.
The wide receivers can play hacky-sack with the football, and the running backs
can battle injuries and mood swings, but if the front four is playing well, the
Giants can win. The rest of the defense can be lined up at the MRI machine, but
if the front four … you get the idea.
Justin Tuck. Jason Pierre-Paul.
Injured Osi Umenyiora. Interior linemen and role players Chris Canty, Dave
Tollefson, Linval Joseph. Honorary lineman Mathias Kiwanuka. There are more than
four of them, and they don’t always line up as a foursome, as the diagrams to
come will show.
But we think of them as the Giants
front four, and not only have they accounted for 40 of the team’s 42 sacks, but
they have compensated for injuries at other positions by dropping into coverage
and acting as decoy defenders.
In a season of injuries and
uncertainty, the Giants linemen have a good chance to drag their
not-always-cooperative teammates into the playoffs.
Every team must deal with injuries, but few teams in
history have had to deal with the number of injuries the Giants suffered on
defense this year.
At Football Outsiders, we use a
metric called Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) to determine how severe a team’s injury
situation has been. AGL separates starters and key reserves from subs, so an
injury to Umenyiora or another starter gets more weight than one to some
It also accounts for weeks when a
player is listed as “questionable” or “probable” but still takes the field, so
when someone like Tuck shakes off a toe injury and takes the field in a limited
role, it counts as a partial injury.
AGL is a great argument settler,
because it takes conversations past the “who cares about your whole linebacker
corps, we lost our punt returner” stage.
The Giants are on pace to finish
the season with the third-highest defensive AGL of the last decade, behind only
the 2008 Lions (who went 0-16) and the 2009 Bills (who went 6-10 and got their
coach fired). Through Week 14, they lost the equivalent of 58.9 games by
starters to injuries. That means the Giants go into the average game missing
four defensive starters and key reserves.
They have entered some games in
far worse shape. Cornerback Corey Webster and safety Antrel Rolle are the only
defenders to start all 15 games. The Giants lost top cornerback Terrell Thomas
to an ACL injury in the middle of training camp. The mix-and-match job at
linebacker has forced special teams ace Chase Blackburn to start a handful of
games, and undrafted rookie Mark Herzlich climbed all the way to the starting
middle linebacker job before suffering an injury of his own.
The front four has been hit as
hard as any other unit. Rookie tackle Marvin Austin was lost in training camp.
Tuck and Umenyiora have only taken a handful of snaps together. The front four
has been able to maintain its high standard of play because Perry Fewell has
found creative ways to use his best players, creating confusion and applying
pass pressure without resorting to rampant blitzing.
Let’s look at how Pierre-Paul and Tuck can create havoc
without going near the quarterback. Figure 1 (right) shows the Giants on third
down, near midfield, late in the first quarter against the Jets in their game
The Giants start with Jason
Pierre-Paul (90), Dave Tollefson (71), Chris Canty (99), and Justin Tuck (91) on
the defensive line, with Michael Boley (59) and Jacquian Williams (57) at
linebacker. There is nothing unusual about this defensive front … yet.
Those squiggly lines on the
diagram mean the Giants will start shifting in an attempt to create chaos among
the Jets pass protectors.
Figure 2 (left) shows where the
Giants end up after all that shifting. Boley and Williams are now defensive
ends. Tuck is right over the center, leaning back and forth, threatening the
A-gap. Pierre-Paul is just beside Tuck. The two pass rushers appear poised to
execute a double A-gap blitz, sometimes called a Fire or Fire-X blitz.
That’s a lot of pass-rushing beef
stacked up in the middle, and when the television camera closes up on Mark
Sanchez, he has “that look” in his eyes as he calls out some adjustments.
Tuck and Pierre-Paul do not blitz.
They drop into zone coverage when the ball is snapped. But Sanchez and the Jets
cannot take a chance. They pinch their protection, meaning that left tackle
D’Brickashaw Ferguson blocks Canty so the interior linemen are available to stop
Tuck and Pierre-Paul.
That leaves Boley unblocked, and
he gets into the backfield in a hurry. Sanchez rushes his pass before tight end
Dustin Keller can turn to look for it, and the ball bounces off his helmet.
Officially, this play is not even
a blitz: the Giants rushed just four defenders. Tuck and Pierre-Paul created
pressure, not as rushers, but as decoys. A defensive call like this allows the
Giants to rattle the opposing quarterback while still keeping seven defenders
back in pass protection.
You may be looking at those diagrams and thinking:
“boy, using Tuck in zone coverage is a crazy idea.” It is so crazy it has worked
throughout the season when Tuck has been healthy. In fact, Tuck dropped into
coverage numerous times against the Packers, causing confusion that led to the
rushed throws and sacks to keep the Giants in the game against the league’s
Figure 3 (right) shows the Giants
trailing 28-27 midway through the fourth quarter. It is first and 10, and with
the Packers in a spread formation (the player in the backfield is actually
receiver Randall Cobb), the Giants counter with a three-man front.
Kiwanuka (94), nominally a
linebacker, is at right end, while Tuck is one yard behind the line of
scrimmage, standing up, and threatening the A-Gap. This is the middle of a long,
late-game drive, so Pierre-Paul and Joseph are getting a breather.
The Giants hope to create pressure
using backup personnel and Tuck as a decoy, but it is a dangerous gambit: on
paper, Tuck against tight end Jermichael Finley (88) is a big mismatch.
Tuck drops into coverage at the
snap, but his presence in the middle has the exact same effect it had against
the Jets. The center and left guard double-team Canty, while the right guard
stands and waits to make sure Tuck does not blitz. That wastes three blockers on
one player, creating one-on-one matchups for Tollefson and Kiwanuka.
Tollefson, who has been subbing
along the Giants line since the 2007 Super Bowl season, is facing an
inexperienced right tackle. He has no trouble turning the corner, and with
Kiwanuka collapsing the other side, Tollefson makes an important sack.
The most interesting thing about
the play in Figure 3 is Finley’s response to Tuck. Finley is supposed to run a
quick hitch in the middle of the field, but when he sees Tuck, he appears to get
flummoxed. Finley collides with Tuck, then jostles with him as he tries to
provide Rodgers with a target. Finley is Rodgers’ second option on this pass,
but because the tight end does not anticipate Tuck’s presence, Rodgers has
nowhere to throw and must eat the football.
If Fewell had a healthy stable of linebackers, he probably would not send Tuck,
Pierre-Paul, and others into zone coverage quite so much. But by using his best
players as all-purpose threats, Fewell is creating the illusion that the Giants
have more manpower than they actually posess.
It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game, but
Tuck’s experience, Pierre-Paul’s uncanny athleticism, and Fewell’s creativity
make it viable. And if the Giants can create pressure when Pierre-Paul is
resting and Tuck is dropping, imagine what can happen when everyone is doing
what they do best.
The Giants are not as banged up as they were a few weeks ago.
Boley is back after missing a few games with a hamstring injury. Rookie Prince
Amukamara has returned from a foot injury to provide some depth in the
secondary. Tuck’s toe does not appear to be bothering him. Umenyiora even plans
to test his injured ankle this week, though that sounds more like a tease than a
ray of hope.
Tom Coughlin’s leg is healing
after a sideline collision, and you know the injury report has gotten out of
control when the coach is on it.
The Giants recorded three sacks
the last time they faced the Cowboys, one of them by Pierre-Paul for a safety.
Pierre-Paul later blocked what would have been a game-tying field goal.
If the Giants had not beaten the
Cowboys in that game, we would not be writing about them now. That win halted a
four-game losing streak and made this week’s do-or-die game possible.
It came on a night when the Giants
secondary could not stop anyone, running back Ahmad Bradshaw was suspended for
the first half, and Manning was scattershot until midway through the fourth
The Giants beat the Cowboys
because Pierre-Paul, Tuck, and the front four gave them a chance, and that
chance is now a chance to reach the playoffs. For the Giants, that’s the way it