Is Harris one of the league's top cover corners, or a product of the system in which he plays? Cian Fahey says the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
31 Jul 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
What do we make of the New York Giants? They’ve won two Super Bowls in the last five years, yet in that span, they’ve won more than 10 games just once. They’ve illustrated how the competitive nature of today’s NFL has created a system in which titles are won not by the best team, but by the team that gets hot at the right time. Surprisingly, the fallout from this has not been a nationwide discussion about whether the NFL model has become flawed. Instead, there’s been a rethinking of the defining characteristics of greatness. Hardly anyone claims that the Giants have gotten lucky or cut corners. Instead, we marvel at the way they blossom down the stretch.
They’ve done it through stability -– funny given that their paths to the top have been defined by spectacular ups and downs (they lost five of six before going on their season-ending six-game winning streak last season). We tend to think of "stability" as foundational football beliefs that are relentlessly adhered to, but stability is about people more than principles. Tom Coughlin is an old-school coach who believes you win with a ground game and defense, but a commitment to those beliefs is not what won the Giants a second Super Bowl. In fact, the Giants’ rushing attack ranked dead last in 2011. Even during their season-ending six-game winning streak, the Giants rushed for over 115 yards just once.
What won the Giants a second Super Bowl was their ability to deviate from Coughlin’s foundation without abandoning it. When Coughlin realized that his banged-up offensive line and backfield were not capable of carrying the offense, he had coordinator Kevin Gilbride, his eighth-year assistant, put more on quarterback Eli Manning’s plate. This was no problem because Manning has been eating off the same plate (i.e. working out of the same system) for essentially his entire eight-year career. Consequently, his quarterbacking has only gotten better and better (or, more and more "elite," if you will).
On the other side of the ball, whenever Coughlin saw that injuries and ineptitude in the back seven were becoming too severe, he, along with coordinator Perry Fewell (who had joined the staff in 2010 but worked with Coughlin in Jacksonville from ’98-’02), safeties coach David Merritt (on staff since 2004) and cornerbacks coach Peter Guinta (on staff since 2006) made adjustments to their nickel and dime packages. These involved things like moving $37 million safety Antrel Rolle into the slot on a more regular basis, benching first-round rookie Prince Amukamara later in the year or replacing some of the traditional zone coverages that Fewell prefers with more press concepts. Coughlin gets as much out of his assistants as any coach in the league.
Those assistants are empowered to coach in an uninhibited way because rigid habits and ego-driven loyalties to underperforming or miscast players simply don’t exist in New York. Coughlin and General Manager Jerry Reese (czar of personnel) have worked together since Coughlin’s arrival in 2004, when Reese was director of player personnel under Ernie Accorsi. They see eye-to-eye on how the personnel fits their system. Perhaps that’s why Coughlin, despite spending most of his New York career on the media’s "hot seat," has never coached out of fear. He’s been willing to make the big gambles during games, to demote the star player if need be (see backup defensive end Osi Umenyiora, or former running back Brandon Jacobs) and to tweak his philosophy when circumstance calls for it.
This is true stability. True stability comes from flexibility, not rigidity. It breeds confidence and security throughout a front office, coaching staff and roster. It keeps everyone abreast of the team’s core principles but also alert to the inevitable necessity of change. It fosters a commitment to winning that goes beyond t-shirt slogans and metaphors. It allows for improvements during the course of a season. And, as we’re learning, it can change Football America’s definition of "greatness."
Eli Manning is not elite because he won a second Super Bowl; Eli Manning won a second Super Bowl because he’s elite. Manning earned his first ring by managing the offense, avoiding mistakes, and making the occasional big play. He earned his second ring by directing the offense (both in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage), by succeeding on high-risk/high-reward throws (the type of throws that illustrate just how underrated his raw arm strength really is) and by improving his mobility and poise in the pocket (arguably his best, yet least-talked-about, trait). While most of today’s elite quarterbacks play in spread-oriented systems, Manning still operates largely out of base personnel. That’s primarily a function of Coughlin’s sticking to his core values without chaining himself to them. Even if the Giants aren’t running as much as they used to (they ranked 22nd in rushing attempts last season), they’re still forcing defenses to acknowledge the continued threat of the run, which is all it takes to maintain the control and balance that this team is built on.
It will be interesting to see if this foundation changes in 2012. Unless Manning goes down and the athletic but somewhat wide-eyed backup David Carr plays, it may be difficult for the Giants to resist the temptations of spreading the field. For one, they probably won’t get as much consistency out of their tight end this season, which could compromise the integrity of the base formations. Jake Ballard was an uninspiring, lumbering athlete, but he was at least dependable, especially going over the middle. If newcomer Martellus Bennett were anything like that, he’d still be a Cowboy. Bennett let his weight climb to 291 in June, which he attributed to increased muscle mass. ("I’m looking like Atlas, not Professor Klump," he said.) Coughlin and tight ends coach Mike Pope weren’t buying it, saying they’d like to see Bennett down to 270 or so. If Bennett can be right, he has the in-line blocking prowess and short-receiving suppleness to excel in Kevin Gilbride’s system. More likely, though, the Giants will find themselves disappointed and looking to use fourth-round rookie Adrien Robinson -– whom Jerry Reese has said can become the Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends –- or H-back Travis Beckum (who has gotten stronger and is reportedly recovering well from an ACL injury suffered in the Super Bowl).
A more enticing reason for the Giants to drift away from the run formations is they could have the best wide receiving corps in football by season’s end. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are matchup nightmares lining up anywhere on the field and facing any type of coverage. Both play with incredible body control and tempo, particularly in transition movement (in-and-out breaks, comebackers, etc.), which Manning has the timing and ball placement aptitude to capitalize on.
You can tell by the startling similarities in their fine-tuned mechanics that Nicks and Cruz are extremely well-coached. That could come from Coughlin –- who was a wide receivers coach with the Eagles, Packers and Giants from 1984-90 –- or from receivers coach Kevin Gilbride Jr., who joined the staff in 2010. Whoever gets the credit, it shines a promising light on the prospects of the second-round rookie Rueben Randle, a 6-3, 208-pound dynamo who many believe has the all-around skills to become a star.
Randle will assume the departed Mario Manningham’s No. 3 duties, with the diminutive dasher Jerrel Jernigan and lanky banger (or "should-be banger," if he ever learns to play with assertiveness) Ramses Barden filling niche roles in the four spot. There’s also the once-crisp route-runner Domenik Hixon, who’s hoping to return from back-to-back season-ending ACL injuries.
Besides the alluring talent at wide receiver, there’s another reason the Giants could be willing to morph from traditional two-back and two-tight-end sets to more three-wide concepts: first-round running back David Wilson. Wilson, at 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, and overflowing with quickness and track star speed, is a much more polished outside runner than inside runner. He’ll give the offense a very different dynamic than his departed predecessor, Brandon Jacobs. Wilson is likely to be most comfortable carrying the ball in space and out of single-back formations, rather than behind lead blockers Henry Hynoski or Bear Pascoe. Because Wilson got very little experience as a pass blocker and receiver at Virginia Tech, his carries should come predominantly on first and second downs.
That’s not a problem, of course, because Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the best third-down backs in the league. This isn’t to say Bradshaw will be relegated to third-down duties. He’s short, but not small. His compactness and physicality make him a tremendous inside and short-area runner. Third-string running back D.J. Ware can also fit this mold, if need be.
The final incentive for more spreads this season is that the Giants’ offensive line is not the road-grading unit it used to be. Left tackle William Beatty is adequate, but only just. Left guard Kevin Boothe is coming off a breakout season in which he showed previously undiscovered athleticism, but it will be difficult for him to thrive next to the somewhat finesse-oriented Beatty and the often-overpowered center David Baas.
At right guard, Chris Snee is top-five caliber, and next to him is David Diehl, who always manages to overcome his subtle limitations but is now readjusting to playing right tackle (a position he last played full time in 2004). If Diehl struggles, backup Sean Locklear could be an option, though Locklear’s much better served as a utility backup and or sixth lineman in heavy formations (which the Giants employed regularly down the stretch last season).
Because Boothe is a free agent after this season and because backup guard Mitch Petrus struggles with lateral movement in pass protection, the Giants spent a fourth-round pick on guard Brandon Mosley. He’ll initially develop as a backup alongside last year’s fourth-round pick, James Brewer.
The significance of New York’s monstrous four-man pass-rush is still understated, even for as much hype as it receives. The advantage of a four-man pass-rush is, obviously, you can get pressure on the quarterback while still leaving seven defenders to cover the offense’s five eligible receivers. The Giants’ pass rush takes that a step further. The biggest reason this team upset the Packers in the divisional round was that the Packers felt compelled to counter the four-man rush with near-max protection, which kept two running backs in to block. That meant seven blockers against four Giants pass-rushers, and more importantly, only three receivers against seven Giants pass defenders. No wonder the Giants’ back seven did so well in coverage.
There’s no indication that the Giants’ front four will be any less spectacular this season. Jason Pierre-Paul is frighteningly gifted. Osi Umenyiora, who finally got a restructured contract that turned out to be the ultimate compromise (he gets $6 million this season and the freedom to hit free agency next season), is still staggeringly quick (in part because he anticipates snap counts as shrewdly as any defensive end in football). Justin Tuck had only five sacks last season, but there isn’t an offensive coordinator in the league who’d feel good about his right tackle blocking Tuck one-on-one. Tuck has the strength and mechanical proficiency to be effective as an inside rusher on passing downs, which is what makes room for linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka to turn the corner as a situational edge-rusher.
Great as the Giants’ front four is against the pass, it can be equally voracious against the run. Pierre-Paul and Tuck are both tremendous on the playside and backside. Defensive tackle Chris Canty is a beast who often commands some sort of double team just because of his athletic build (6-7, 304). Linval Joseph is an emerging run-stopper with a knack for shedding blocks and identifying play designs. Behind Joseph is Marvin Austin, a second-round pick who missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Some felt that Austin, coming out of North Carolina, had first-round-type talent. Because Austin hasn’t played in two years (NCAA violations led to a ban for all of 2010), the Giants felt compelled to bring back veteran Rocky Bernard and sign Shaun Rogers for security. Bernard, at his best, can be surprisingly fluid for a 308-pounder. The 350-pound Rogers, at his best, can be a game-changer.
It’s hard to imagine run defense being much of a problem given the embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. Then again, this team’s proverbial weakness at middle linebacker the past few years has managed to nullify plenty of good defensive fronts before. Because Greg Jones was simply too slow, and Mark Herzlich too vulnerable against play-action (and banged up late), the Giants brought in journeyman castoff Chase Blackburn last November to fill the middle duties. Blackburn managed to survive (even making a critical interception in the Super Bowl), but in the Giants’ perfect world, this year’s off-season pickup, Keith Rivers, would capture the middle job. Rivers, a former No. 9 overall pick, couldn’t stay healthy and never lived up to expectations in Cincinnati. He has spent most of his football life playing on the outside but has too much natural ability not to beat out iffy competition inside.
Of course, even if Rivers does win the starting Mike job, he may not play much because the Giants’ base defense is not actually their 4-3, it’s really their 4-2 big nickel package. Michael Boley, who is very fluid in underneath coverage (particularly outside the numbers), is the critical nickel ‘backer, calling the signals and playing both run and pass. Jacquian Williams, a fluid sixth-round rookie last season, also draws nickel duties, though he must improve his run recognition if he’s to see regular snaps over the long term.
The Giants’ nickel package is described as "big nickel" because it features a third safety rather than a third cornerback. Last year, it was veteran Deon Grant who worked alongside the hard-hitting Kenny Phillips and the supremely important and versatile Antrel Rolle. But with Grant unsigned, 2011 sixth-round pick Tyler Sash will fill the third safety duties. Sash’s playing time will depend on how comfortable he is in coverage. He’ll need to be able to defend tight ends man-to-man and also pick up quick receiving backs out of the backfield (the Giants often actually prefer to put a safety on a running back and leave a linebacker on a tight end -– even if it’s a superstar tight end). If he can’t, ex-Redskin Chris Horton or talented-but-high-risk undrafted free agent Will Hill could get a look.
The Giants will be counting on Sash to prove reliable, because their plan to play more traditional nickel packages this season has already run into problems now that Terrell Thomas is expected to miss the season again. Luckily, it’s a cornerbacking group that, thanks to the four-man pass-rush, already overachieves because it has extra bodies and, thus, the luxury of pressing receivers at the line even when playing zone or off-man. First-round pick Prince Amukamara is healthier and more experienced than he was a year ago, and the Giants will have to give him a longer leash with Thomas and Aaron Ross both off the roster. Also in the mix is third-round rookie Jayron Hosley, whom scouts say has the ideal skills to be a slot nickel corner. And, of course, at outside corner is Corey Webster, who is not quite of shutdown quality but, in this scheme, has been able to successfully defend No. 1 receivers one-on-one.
Punter Steve Weatherford and kicker Lawrence Tynes form one of the more reliable special-teams tandems in the league. Both have performed well in big moments. Jerrell Jernigan wasn’t trusted as a rookie and got just eight kick returns last season, but he should get first crack at both punt and kick return duties in 2012. If he struggles, a window could open for Domenik Hixon, who was effective in this role before tearing his right ACL in 2010 and again in 2011.
The Giants have gotten deeper in some spots and shallower in others. But that’s a side note, as this team’s success derives from its underrated coaching staff, Eli Manning and his receivers, and the defensive line. Those areas have only gotten stronger -- but history says that may not translate to more victories.
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