Same coach, same scheme, mostly the same players. Alarmingly different results.
What the heck is wrong with the Giants’ defense? In a nutshell, absolutely everything.
Lack of pass rush? Yes. Porous coverage in the secondary? Yes. Missed tackles? Blown assignments? Undisciplined penalties? Yes. Yes. Yes.
“We’re not at the start that we wanted right now,” defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. “We hold ourselves to a high standard and hold ourselves accountable. So there’s only one way to go for us, and that’s where we tend to trend.”
Don’t be so sure that it’s only up from here. Anyone who has watched the Giants over the last decade knows it always can get worse.
The Giants were sent to an 0-2 start for the eighth time in the past nine years by an unlikely pair of quarterbacks: journeyman Teddy Bridgewater and XFL alum Taylor Heinicke. Former MVPs Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are just a few of the quarterbacks looming before Thanksgiving.
“At this point in the year, it’s not some magical scheme we draw up,” head coach Joe Judge said. “It’s about details. It’s about fixing the little things one by one. If everyone does their job the right way, we’ll have success.”
One theory to explain the drop-off is that last season, when the Giants ranked No. 12 in total defense and No. 9 in scoring defense, was the peak and not the start of a foundation. First-time Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry (18 passes defended), newly minted $21-million-per-year pass-rusher Leonard Williams (11.5 sacks) and others had career years that could be hard to duplicate.
Coordinator Patrick Graham oversaw the NFL’s last-ranked scoring defense with the 2019 Dolphins before coming to the Giants. His innovative week-to-week schemes earned him nicknames like “The Computer,” maximized talent and turned him into a head-coaching candidate.
“It’s a complete reset,” Graham said before Week 1, the last time he was available to the media. “There’s probably more scheme that we’re able to get to at this point than we were last year. I’m looking for us not to beat ourselves, no penalties, cut down on the mental errors, make sure we’re tackling.”
Up front, the Giants are averaging one sack every 3.7 percent of pass attempts, down from 6.7 percent in 2020. They have just three sacks and six other quarterback hits (nine total) on 82 pass attempts. They have blitzed on 20 percent of snaps, more than just five other teams.
On the back end, the Giants gave pre-snap cushions against Washington of 9.4 yards to Adam Humphries in the slot, 6.6 to Dyami Brown and 6.5 to Terry McLaurin. Graham is sticking with the zone coverages that worked during the second half of last season, after he abandoned his intended press man-to-man. But the results are much worse, especially on third and fourth downs (16-for-33 conversions).
“It’s hard to have a standstill against an offense that has weapons,” Bradberry said.
Bridgewater and Heinicke combined for a 110.5 passer rating — at the expense of the Giants’ best players. The completion numbers against Bradberry (12-for-15, two touchdowns), Adoree’ Jackson (8-for-14, one touchdown) and Blake Martinez (9-for-9, one touchdown) are eye-opening.
The Giants played three defensive series in the final five minutes Thursday night and collapsed twice:
— Trailing 26-20, Washington drove 75 yards on two plays in 17 seconds, exploiting a mismatch with linebacker Tae Crowder.
— Leading 27-26, Washington was intercepted by Bradberry.
— Trailing 29-27 with one timeout remaining, Washington drove 50 yards on 11 plays to set up the winning field goal.
“During that time, that’s just when you’ve got to know they’re probably going to do their best stuff — and we’ve got to stop them from that,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to get plays here and there, but we’ve got to stand up and make the right play at the right time to help the team win the game.”
In Week 1, the defense committed three personal foul penalties. At Washington, as an encore, Bradberry was flagged for two penalties for automatic first downs, Lorenzo Carter was hit with a clock-stopping penalty on the final drive and Lawrence (on special teams) jumped offside at the worst moment.
“We strive for perfection,” Bradberry said. “We haven’t been perfect. We’re below our standard. They definitely scored too many points.”
Points are only one of many problems.