Too Deep Zone: Four Giant Aces
y 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.