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19 Oct 2007

Too Deep Zone: Four Giant Aces

by Mike Tanier

Like many observers, I wasn't too impressed by the Giants defense before the season started. The Giants appeared to have outstanding depth and quality at defensive end (especially when Michael Strahan announced his return), but the rest of their personnel wasn't great. They looked like a team that could generate some sacks but would be vulnerable against the run and the short pass. After the first two games of the year, that seemed like an accurate assessment.

But defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a unique plan to get the most out of defensive ends Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka. He developed a personnel package that put all four of them on the field at the same time: Tuck and Kiwanuka in the middle, Umenyiora and Strahan at their natural positions. I don't know what Spagnuolo calls it, and the New York media hasn't coined a nickname yet, so let's call it the Four Aces package. Whatever it's called, it caused serious problems for the Eagles, Jets, and Falcons.

Spagnuolo deploys the Four Aces package on obvious passing downs, when the Giants can easily sacrifice girth for quickness in the middle of their defensive front. On long-distance downs, there is little threat of a run, and the running plays that do work on third-and-long (like draw plays) are better defended by faster linemen than bigger ones. Teams like the Steelers go to a two-lineman personnel grouping, allowing them to blitz linebackers from all different angles. Other teams move one big defensive end to tackle and insert a pass rush specialist at end. The Giants are the only team I have seen regularly use four natural ends as their down linemen.

The key to the Four Aces package isn't just the speed of the Giants' ends. If Strahan and company just tried to beat their respective blockers to the outside, then opponents would kill them with delays and draw plays or fan their pass protection to the outside. The Four Aces have been successful thus far because each lineman possesses a great combination of athleticism, technique, and discipline, and because Spagnuolo's system integrates them well into some very creative blitz packages. Players like Tuck and Kiwanuka often use their speed on twists and stunts, but they also use power to defeat blockers, and most importantly they understand and maintain their responsibilities on each play rather than freelancing.

I reviewed tape of the Monday night game to see just how Spagnuolo was using his linemen. I was impressed not just by their play, but by the play of the defensive tackles who leave the field when the Giants put all Four Aces on the table.

A Simple Twist

Early in the game, the Falcons did a good job of controlling the Giants rush using quick-hitting pass plays. The few times that the Giants deployed their four-end package in the first quarter, the Falcons responded with a run or a short timing route. The Falcons avoided third-and-long situations, which is an excellent way to prevent sacks.

Early in the second quarter, the Giants start generating pressure. They don't need the Four Aces package to do it. When the Falcons face third-and-2 from the 48-yard line, they line up in a shotgun spread formation. The Giants' line consists of Tuck (91), Russell Davis (99), Fred Robbins (98), and Strahan (92). There are no additional defenders in the box, and the linebackers are playing four yards behind the line. The Giants are obviously thinking pass. At the snap, Davis runs a twist (Figure 1), attacking the left guard with his first two steps before looping behind Robbins and Strahan.

Figure 1: Russell Davis Stunt

Defensive twists only work when players follow their assignments. Strahan's initial move is to the outside, but he then aggressively attacks the B-gap on the left shoulder of right tackle Tyson Clabo (77). Clabo has no choice but to bend inside. Robbins takes the A-gap. Strahan and Robbins are plugging the running lanes (on third-and-2, an inside handoff is a real threat) but sacrificing themselves as pass rushers. The goal is to bend Clabo so that he is in no position to block Davis, and it works. Clabo does trade Strahan off to the guard at the last second, but he is in poor position to make an effective block.

We haven't mentioned rookie right tackle Renardo Foster yet. This edition of Too Deep Zone isn't going to be a fun read for him. On this play, Tuck releases to the outside, then squares his shoulders and attacks the rookie's outside shoulder. Foster overreacts to the outside move, so Tuck places his right hand on the rookie's right shoulder and easily shoves him aside. Jerious Norwood, who is probably responsible for any blitzes to the inside, leaks out into a pass route while Tuck shrugs Foster away. Tuck and Davis make this play successful for the Giants, but Fred Robbins makes the sack once Harrington tries to escape the pocket. Again, everyone does his job: Robbins' was inside containment, so he was in position to clean up the play.

The Giants run this same twist later in the quarter with slightly different personnel: Robbins runs the twist, Osi Umenyiora slaps Foster around. On this play (not diagrammed because it is so similar), Clabo manages to block Robbins, but Umenyiora embarrasses Foster. Like Tuck, Umenyiora releases wide and attacks Foster's outside shoulder. Unlike Tuck, he dips his hips, lowers his left shoulder, and keeps driving through Foster's block. At one point, Foster's torso is twisted and his legs are crossed, his feet pointing to five o' clock and his shoulders at 7:30. As you might guess, this is not proper technique. Umenyiora disengages and pursues Harrington, who manages to throw an incomplete pass.

Umenyiora didn't register a sack on that play, but he was just warming up.

Figure 2: Overload Zone Blitz

Four Ace Blitzes

As the second quarter progressed, the Giants took a lead, and the Falcons running game stalled. The Falcons faced more long-yardage situations, and Spagnuolo became less shy about using his Four Ace and blitz packages. Blocking four natural defensive ends on an obvious passing down is tough. Blocking four ends plus one or two of their closest friends is even harder.

Just before the two-minute warning, with the Falcons in hurry-up mode on first-and-10, the Giants deploy their four-end grouping and stack three potential blitzers in the box (Figure 2). At the snap, R.W. McQuarters (25) drops into coverage, as does Umenyiora. This is a classic overload blitz, designed to bring numbers to the offensive weak side. Again, assignment responsibility and sound technique are the keys to this play. Strahan releases wide and takes Clabo far to the outside. Kiwanuka (97) and Tuck initially attack the gaps in front of them, then cross their blockers' face while looping to the gaps to their right. This forces the center, left guard, and left tackle to flow to the left, and it attracts the attention of the blocking back. Antonio Pierce (58) blitzes straight into the body of the right guard. He gives himself up on this play. The goal of this blitz is to create a lane for Aaron Ross (31). Ross takes a direct path to Harrington and picks up an easy sack.

One play later, the Giants again show blitz. McQuarters and Pierce are again menacing the line (Figure 3). Umenyiora and Strahan each take a wider alignment than on the previous play. This is no red dog or zone blitz. The Giants bring six. And the Falcons use seven blockers to protect Harrington.

Figure 3: Antonio Pierce Blitz

Every blitz is a little different. On this play, Spagnuolo combines a six-man blitz with an inside stunt and an exaggerated alignment to completely defeat the Falcons line. Umenyiora, who starts out wide of Alge Crumpler (83), takes a long outside release. Crumpler doesn't so much block him as chase him. McQuarters blitzes to Foster's left shoulder. Kiwanuka and Tuck perform an inside stunt: Kiwanuka steps forward and slants hard to the backside B-gap, while Tuck jab-steps and loops behind his teammate into the front side A-gap. The technique and execution is precise, with both players making their moves on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage.

Strahan is the screen defender on this play. He rushes hard from the offensive right side, but he backs into coverage when he sees Dunn try to slip out of the backfield. That leaves Pierce, who blitzes right past Clabo, tosses Dunn aside, and chases Harrington out of the pocket for a huge loss.

The replay of this particular sack shows that Clabo ignores Pierce. He is focused to his left as Pierce breezes past him. How can a right tackle ignore both the blitzing Pierce and Strahan to his right? Dunn appears to have outside responsibility, so Clabo may be passing Strahan off to his back. It doesn't seem like a wise move, but it is plausible. As for Pierce, Clabo must have anticipated another rusher, possibly Tuck. Remember the twist from Figure 1? Early mistakes beget later ones. Clabo is so worried about picking up Tuck on a twist that he ignores a much greater threat standing right in front of him.

Aces High

The Falcons offensive line appeared to rebound in the third quarter. The Giants blitzed six when they had the Falcons pinned at the seven-yard line, but Harrington threw a quick slant to Roddy White that turned into a 38-yard gain. Later in the drive, the Giants rushed just three defenders, and a relieved Harrington converted a third down. Eventually, the Giants forced another third-and-10, bringing the Four Aces package back onto the field.

On this play, the Giants don't blitz. McQuarters dogs a blitz at the line, but he drops into coverage at the snap. It's just (offensive left to right) Umenyiora, Tuck, Kiwanuka, and Strahan. The Falcons are in shotgun, with Crumpler aligned next to Foster and Norwood in the backfield on the right side. Crumpler stays in to block Umenyiora. Norwood looks for blitzers then releases. The Falcons will block four with six. Harrington shouldn't feel any heat.

Figure 4: Umenyiora Beats Two Blockers

Let's look at an extreme close-up of the left side of the line (Figure 4). Umenyiora, aligned just outside of Crumpler, takes two steps to the outside, then performs an inside move. Tuck mush-rushes; he and Kiwanuka have inside containment responsibilities and can't do anything creative. Tuck shouldn't be in any position to sack anyone. All Crumpler has to do is take care of Umenyiora.

Unfortunately, Crumpler is no match for Umenyiora. (I began to think that blocking Umenyiora was Crumpler's punishment for badmouthing the offense, not a way to protect Foster.) He's not square when the defender hits him, so Crumpler immediately loses his balance. Umenyiora swims downward with his right arm, tearing Crumpler's arms off him. All the tight end can do is lean on the defender, who is on his way to have a word with Harrington.

Luckily for Harrington, Foster is also on the scene. Foster focuses on Tuck at the start of the play, but with Tuck contained, the rookie turns to help Crumpler. With Umenyiora working inside, Foster should be able to slide back, deliver a blow, and help Crumpler control him. Instead, Foster leans forward and lunges at the defender at an awful angle; he's almost facing 180 degrees away from the line of scrimmage when he attempts to block. Umenyiora works inside of Foster, too. In fact, Foster hits Crumpler a lot harder than he hits Umenyiora.

About the only thing Crumpler and Foster accomplish is riding Umenyiora further inside than he wants to be. The defender must reverse course to get to Harrington. Harrington flushes to his left. It's a speed mismatch, and Umenyiora is about to make the sack when Tuck appears out of nowhere! With Umenyiora working so far inside, Tuck is able to break containment and loop to the outside. This is not a twist or stunt (hence the blue arrow). It is a player adjusting to the circumstances after maintaining his assignment for a few seconds. Tuck steals Umenyiora's sack, but Umenyiora rips Tuck's helmet off with his foot, so everything is even. And the Falcons are forced to punt.

Conclusion

The Giants defense didn't record any sacks in the fourth quarter on Monday Night, but you can't register a sack when you are drinking Gatorade on the sidelines. The Falcons offense became a series of flat passes to Norwood late in the game. The Giants pass rush and their Four Aces package did its job, effectively eliminating the downfield passing game.

At the start of the article, I said that the Giants initially struck me as a team that would generate some sacks but would be susceptible to the run and the short pass. I still think that they are susceptible to the run, and that good wide receivers will be able to turn short passes into long gains against the Giants secondary. But the Giants are going to generate an amazing number of sacks this year. They have an elite pass rush, not just a good one. Sacks lead to turnovers and to good field position for your offense, and they erase a lot of mistakes. Teams with poor offensive lines or sack- and turnover-prone quarterbacks are going to get swamped by the Giants and their Four Acse package. That's what happened to the Falcons and the Eagles. It's what will happen to the Niners this week.

If the Four Ace package were just some gadget defense, teams would easily learn to defend it after a few weeks. But the Four Aces package is surprisingly versatile. Tuck and Kiwanuka are viable defensive tackles. The Giants can clog running lanes using the package. Most importantly, Spagnuolo can generate pressure without it. Robbins, Davis, and Barry Cofield are solid defensive tackles. When the Giants face a power running team (the Vikings and Bears are coming soon), Spagnuolo can shelve the Four Aces package for a few weeks knowing that his base personnel can also do the job.

The concept seems simple enough: Get your best defenders on the field and let them play. Give the Giants coaching staff credit for taking that simple credo to heart and maximizing their strengths.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 19 Oct 2007

28 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2007, 11:34pm by Jaime Speciale

Comments

1
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:10pm

Yeah, for the Vikings, sometimes even third and eight is no longer an obvious passing down, given Peterson's explosiveness, and the size of the offensive line. The Bears, due to guys leaving and injuries, are now forced to use what was their pass rush package much more often, and as a result, for instance, Mckinnie just whipped Mark Anderson like the proverbial leased horse/donkey hybrid. The Giants will not be using their 4 aces package nearly as much against the Vikings, unless the Giants put up a bunch of points in the first half. If the Vikings receivers can cut back on the drops, it'll make for an interesting match up.

2
by Jon (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:18pm

A lot of Giant fans think Tuck is actually playing the best of any of the defensive linemen this year, and have been calling for him to get more snaps. I thought the team was getting reasonable pressure inside during the game, Robbins is a little underrated as a pass rusher.

3
by JasonK (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:19pm

Nice writeup. One nitpick-- it's Justin Tuck, not Jason.

4
by Joseph (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:26pm

Boy, the way the Saints o-line has been playing, I'm glad the Giants aren't on our sched. this year. Good article. also first?

5
by Mike B. (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:32pm

Awesome read, as always, Mike. I wondered what the Giants were up to with that package, and now that I really see how it works, kudos to the coaches.

6
by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 1:48pm

Another minor nit-pick: Renardo Foster is a left tackle, yes? (If Clabo is the RT ...)

Rookie left tackle. Hmm. Hi Joey, welcome to Atlanta.

I love these articles: diagrams and explanations. awesome.

7
by JQM (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:03pm

Thanks for the column. TDZ is always outstanding. I'm thrilled to read that you think this scheme might be successful all year. I was worried opposing teams might figure out how to exploit it the 2nd half of the season. Spags is probably the best off-season pickup the Giants have made since Plax. If Coughlin is around next year, he owes his new d-coordinator a big thank you.

I, too, think the Vikings-Giants matchup is quite intriguing. Minnesota's o-line is a great matchup against the 4 Aces and AP's speed is a real problem for NY's back 7. On the other side of the ball, the Giants power running game will find it tough going, and Eli will really have to come through. That 3-game November stretch against NFC North teams will probably determine the Giants' playoff chances.

8
by TED F!@#ING GINN!? (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:03pm

Wow, this is my favorite TDZ ever. If I had to pick one aspect of football I find the most interesting, it would definitely be d-line strategy/execution.

One question though:

"Kiwanuka steps forward and slants hard to the backside B-gap, while Tuck jab-steps and loops behind his teammate into the front side A-gap."

Maybe I've got my terminology incorrect, but doesn't Fig. 3 show Kiwanuka
(97) attacking the C-gap?

9
by jd (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:20pm

Thank you for this article. Hopefully these guys can all stay healthy for a change. I'm a little worried about the London game too - at least they have a bye week after though.

10
by Bug (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:41pm

Seems to me that this defense would be failry easy to defeat. All it takse is getting one first down against the 4 aces switching to a no huddle offense and slamming the ball between the tackles until the Giants DT (who are really D-ends) get completely torn in half by the O-line. Am I wrong?
Bug

11
by Rick (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:41pm

Great article. Why'd a Philly sportswriter have to write it, though? LOL.

I think the Giants defense can get ripped with a strong run attack. The one flaw in the Philly game plan was ignoring what worked - Buckhalter gaining an average of 5+ yards per carry. Mix in some Tony Hunt for Correll to rest and the number of pass plays may have been able to be reduced, reducing sacks, and increasing the number of potential scoring opps.....AND keeping the Giants offense off the field.

Any team with reasonable quality RB and decent O line should be able to torch the Giants D. Remember 4 Aces is a really great hand, but can still be beat.

12
by Cyrus (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:47pm

Great article, good read. I wish they took time to point things out like this on MNF.

Actually, I wish I could get a regular dose of this sort of in depth analysis, anywhere. I'd love to see how the Patriots get their sacks as compared to Freeney or Pittsburgh.

13
by Frank (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:56pm

Great article, however, I disagree with your insinuation that the Bears have a running game of any kind.

14
by VarlosZ (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 2:57pm

How do we feel about the OLB Kiwanuka experiment? It seemed like an unmitigated disaster after the first two weeks, but not so much now. OTOH, it does seem that they're using him as a traditional LB less and less, and primarily bringing him in to attack the line of scrimmage. He still doesn't look comfortable operating in space.

Also, the Giants are making me look really smart. After that 0-2 start, when everyone (FO included, apparently) was convinced they were one of the worst teams in the league, I maintained that they were about average -- specifically, that a good O-Line and D-Line, along with decent QB play, will make up for a lot of deficiencies.

15
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 3:01pm

Re: 10

But then all the Giants would need to do is fake an injury to get their beefier DT's back on the field. Since the only requirement is that the injured player sits out one play, he could "get injured" after 1st, come out on 2nd, and be back on for 3rd and long.

Not that I'm suggesting any NFL team would intentionally fake injuries to slow down a hurry-up offense and allow for substitutions, of course. Nope, nobody'd ever dream of such a thing.

16
by B (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 3:02pm

6: I guess that's Atlanta's biggest problem, they have two right tackles. It's better than two left feet, though.

17
by TomC (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 3:04pm

The first thing that occurs to me when I look at figures 2 and 3 is: Where's the hot read? Assuming Ross, Pierce, McQuarters, or whoever has shown that blitz look before the snap, Harrington should have had time to identify a receiver who was going into the vacated zone if the blitzer(s) do indeed blitz.

In fact, I'd go as far as saying that this defense will be most vulnerable against a confident QB who has good rapport with his receivers. Luckily for Gints fans, that won't happen for at least three more weeks (SF, MIA, bye).

18
by JasonK (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 3:09pm

#10: In addition to #15's point, a quick no-huddle run would work only if the offense can run for power with the same personnel it uses in the 3rd-&-long situation. I'd imagine that the Giants coaches only send out the 4-DE look when the offense has 3+ WRs on the field.

#11: I think the Giants weakness against the run that we saw in the Philly game is more a result of scheme. The Giants coaches knew that Andy Reid was no threat to run the ball 30 times (especially with Westbrook out), and they had a decent lead for most of the game, so they had their defense consistently play the pass first. Outside of that game, the run D has been much better (-15.5% DVOA on the season). The weak point of the Giants D remains in the areas of quick passes to the slot WR or TE.

19
by kevinNYC (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 5:04pm

#18... Exactly. There really aren't a lot of teams that have the personnel to power run and spread formation pass with the same grouping. The only ones I can think of are NE, IND, and CIN. Perhaps SEA can do it too when healthy. The Jets tried to do it, but were incapable of running the ball.

The Giants are trying to stop opponents running games on 1st down. On 2nd & 7+, Kiwi comes off the field immediately and they got to nickel. That allows them to go to the 4 DEs on 3rd down. My only problem with this group is when there's no blitz, they have a tendency to not stay in their rushing lanes. That allows QBs to step up in the pocket.

20
by Gerry (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 9:26pm

"Any team with reasonable quality RB and decent O line should be able to torch the Giants D."

Well, we will certainly get to see it in a week or two. I disagree with this analysis, but that's why they play the games.

"The weak point of the Giants D remains in the areas of quick passes to the slot WR or TE."

As with Kevin, I agree with this. But I'll modify it a bit-- mobile quarterbacks like Romo, (or those wise in keeping plays alive, ala Favre) plus slot/TE working the middle of the field, that's our vulnerability.

21
by Scott (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 10:27pm

good article, but its JUSTIN TUCK!!!! NOT JASON!!!

22
by NY expat (not verified) :: Fri, 10/19/2007 - 11:36pm

Nice to hear something positive said about the Giants here :). And as someone who doesn't get to watch much of them out here on the west coast, the article is especially appreciated.
As for just running the ball down their throats, Michael David Smith had an article in the NY Sun on Oct 17 where he discusses the Giants rushing offense and defense. (Not sure why it's not in the FO Goes Mainstream section.) From the article, they're 3rd in the league in limiting first downs on rushing plays (18.1%). Even though the ends are often outweighed by 50+ pounds, they're not necessarily that easy to run on. The Right End ALY is an ok 4.29. The Left End ALY is 1.45, which is actually only 3rd in the league, but still...

23
by Raiderjoe (not verified) :: Sat, 10/20/2007 - 12:32am

re8

None of the gaps was indicated with a letter. Some might say that is B, some might say it is C. I might call it 2 or 3. Maybe it's just the Amstel Light talking but I hop this helps.

24
by JoshuaPerry (not verified) :: Sat, 10/20/2007 - 5:15pm

I just wanted to point out that the Giants 1st 2 losses were to 5-1 Dallas and 5-1 GB.

25
by JoshuaPerry (not verified) :: Sat, 10/20/2007 - 5:20pm

And the lesson vs the Giants is,as the Falcons and Eagles have learned the hard way, don't play bad Tackles without significant help

26
by James, London (not verified) :: Sun, 10/21/2007 - 9:24pm

Another outstanding TDZ. God this stuff is good.

27
by JACO (not verified) :: Tue, 10/23/2007 - 4:16am

I thought this was a great article, and I was wondering from day one when Kiwanuka showed promise last year why they didn't implement something like this sooner.

I've also been wondering since last year why the Chicago Bears don't do something similar. Imagine on 3rd and 7 or more to go if the Bears rush Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye at DE, and have Alex Brown and Tommie Harris (when healthy) coming from the DT position. Who is blocking against that consistently? Probably nobody, and they would safely be able to drop 7 and still generate a great pass rush. They would also be able to defend the draw and screen more effectively with all the speed to chase down errant running backs as well.

28
by Jaime Speciale (not verified) :: Fri, 10/26/2007 - 11:34pm

My family has held season tickets for 42 years. Am I stoked we are wining? Hell yeah, especially after 0-2 and the wheels looked like they gonna come off.
Let's put things in perspective here.
Currently we're in a strech of playing 4 of the worst teams in the NFL. We're compiling impressive stats vs. backup lineman & backup QB's. Our 2nd half schedual is drastically different from the 1st half. On 11/11 vs. the Boys we'll get an accurate idea what kind of team we have. Running twists, blitzes, & dogs on backups is one thing. Running them vs. seasoned OL veterans is for real.