OK, so they just beat the Browns, and everyone has beaten the Browns. OK, their offense and their special teams remain frustratingly inconsistent. And, OK, this is probably not a defense that’s going to make anyone forget what they did in Super Bowls 42 and 46. But the Giants have won six in a row and they have the second-best record in the NFC, and their dramatic—and rare—defensive improvement is the biggest reason why.
It’s best to begin with where the Giants were a year ago defensively, which was a very dark place: dead last in DVOA, plus 4,783 passing yards—the second-highest total in NFL history—and 442 points against, third worst in the league. The Giants blew five fourth-quarter leads en route to a second consecutive 6-10 finish. Tom Coughlin didn’t survive the carnage, and it was safe to say Steve Spagnuolo had not picked up where he left off from his first go-round as the team’s defensive coordinator. Years of poor drafts finally caught up with GM Jerry Reese, who was put on notice right after the season by owner John Mara.
But Reese had a crapton of salary-cap space to spend, and he put much of it toward shoring up the defense by showering more than $90 million in guarantees upon three free agents—defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and defensive tackle Damon Harrison—plus another $10 million on a one-year deal to retain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. It’s proven to be money well-spent: The Giants entered Week 12 ranked eighth in defensive DVOA, which is the best one-season improvement in five years. In fact, only four teams in the last 10 seasons have made bigger jumps from one season to the next.
With Vernon complementing Pierre-Paul, the Giants in their own way are able to replicate the kind of scheme Spagnuolo used to halt Tom Brady and the Patriots’ undefeated season way back in 2007. That year, the Giants had Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora to bring pressure off the edges without frequently having to commit extra blitzers, and on passing downs they could bring in Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. This year, Vernon is versatile enough to also play inside, and while he and Pierre-Paul may not be quite as dominant as that group, they are leading a front four that’s bringing the kind of pressure that benefits the entire defense.* A defense which features Harrison as exactly the kind of dominant run-stopper he was with the Jets, Jenkins locking down on opponents’ No. 1 receivers, and the quick acclimation of rookie cornerback Eli Apple and undrafted free safety Andrew Adams. As a result, Landon Collins—last year’s second-round pick—has been freed to roam as a playmaking box safety, and he’s now being talked about as a defensive player of the year candidate. And Spagnuolo can be selective about blitzing when he needs to. Everything has fallen into place.
In Week 9, the Giants forced Eagles rookie Carson Wentz into a pair of first-quarter interceptions. They didn’t blitz on either one of them. On the first one, Wentz was flushed into an errant throw right to Collins because Harrison got pressure up the middle just as Vernon got to him off the edge:
On the second, Wentz sailed a throw because he had to step up in a crowded pocket that collapsed because backups Devon Kennard—a linebacker who lined up as a tackle—and Romeo Okwara got to him quickly:
Aaron Rodgers isn’t having his best season, and he loves to improvise, but the second of his two picks against the Giants in Week 4 happened because he was quickly forced from the pocket by a four-man rush, with Vernon leading the charge:
Per Pro Football Focus, the Giants have dialed up blitzes on just 28.3 percent of all passing plays, which is below the league average of 30.5 percent. Yet of their 10 interceptions, seven have come when they did not bring extra pass rushers. And five of their seven sacks against the Browns came with just a four-man rush. How are they doing it? JPP has a pass-rush productivity rating of 9.4, which ranks 14th among 4-3 defensive ends, according to PFF. Vernon has a PRP of 10.1, which ranks 12th. And both play nearly every snap. Harrison has the league’s best run-stop percentage (17.3), and Jenkins is allowing a passer rating of 67.5, which is ninth-best among all corners. Also, the Giants’ D—in this case, it’s most often Jenkins—has the second-best DVOA against opponents’ No. 1 receivers.
All of this has allowed the Giants to force mistakes when they disguise blitzes and coverages. In that win over the Eagles, the Giants blitzed Wentz on the last four plays he ran, which resulted in four straight incompletions to end the game.
Here’s cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (No. 30 toward the bottom) faking a blitz before masking his coverage on Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft, who is quickly picked up by linebacker Keenan Robinson. Andy Dalton saw neither Robinson nor Collins, who was playing deep cover. Dalton threw the ball right to Collins, who has five interceptions this season, the most of any safety:
Most importantly, the Giants are winning the close games they so often lost last season: All but Sunday’s win in Cleveland has been decided by a touchdown or less. If there’s a concern, it’s that teams are still moving the ball on them—they’re giving up 353.8 yards per game, which ranks 15th in the league—and their offensive sputtering has left them with a turnover margin of minus-5. There’s also this:
The Giants may not catch the red-hot Cowboys in the NFC East, but if their defense can perform close to the level at which they’ve played in recent weeks, and they can grab another couple of wins from their final five games, they should be looking at their first playoff appearance since Super Bowl 46.