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Eagle Eye: How Much Will Injuries Limit An Aggressive Giants Defense?

Posted Sep 21, 2017

The New York Giants will present a number of challenges defensively for the Eagles on Sunday afternoon when they visit Lincoln Financial Field from both a schematic standpoint and with their personnel. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is very creative with his fronts and pressures, and aggressive cornerback play allows the Giants to turn the heat up whenever they want.

The Giants' front is very good but first I want to explain the various blitz packages the Eagles could see on Sunday. The Giants didn’t blitz the Eagles frequently last year, but they brought the pressure in a big way against quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys in Week 1.

It’s third-and-6 and the Giants put linebacker B.J. Goodson (No. 93) in the A gap to the right of the center. This forces the running back, Ezekiel Elliott, to step up in protection right in front of Prescott, keeping him from helping with any pressure coming off the edge. Landon Collins is the safety lined up to the far left of the screen. He appears to be in press coverage against the tight end. With no defenders directly behind him, it looks like he will be in coverage. He’s not accounted for in the protection before the snap of the ball.

With Elliott stepping up to block the linebacker Goodson, the rest of the Cowboys' offensive line executes a slide protection to the left. The center blocks the nose tackle, the left guard blocks the linebacker in front of him, and the left tackle blocks the defensive end, Olivier Vernon, lined up outside. No one accounts for Collins who gets a free run at the quarterback here in what ends up as a crazy completion for a first down.

The Giants ran this same exact blitz at quarterback Carson Wentz in their first matchup last year, and Collins got home for a sack. Something tells me that Wentz and the Eagles will be ready for this as well as other blitzes from the Giants on Sunday.

Collins is a do-everything player for this defense as a blitzer, a run defender, and a coverage player. He’s also a big part of their pressure packages. The Eagles will have to be cognizant of him when he's near the line of scrimmage before the snap, but it’s not just the safeties you have to worry about in this scheme.

Spagnuolo has shown the willingness to send corners off the boundary (the short side of the field) as well. Eli Apple, a first-round pick a year ago, is a great candidate for this because of his size and speed. An explosive athlete who can eat up ground and get his hand up to knock away passes on his way to the quarterback is always a good item to have in the toolbox. More importantly, Wentz and the Eagles have to be prepared for pressures from all angles on Sunday.

Don’t forget that Spagnuolo comes from the Jim Johnson coaching tree, after spending so many years as an assistant here in Philadelphia. Spagnuolo loves to sprinkle in some zone pressures to keep quarterbacks on their toes like the legendary coordinator did for so many years with the Eagles.

The advantage of most zone pressures is that you may be sending two or three second-level defenders (linebackers or defensive backs), but with linemen dropping out it still only equates to a four- or five-man rush. This means that you can rush the quarterback effectively and try to create a big play up front while not sacrificing a lot on the back end in terms of coverage. One of the most popular ways to do that is with the Fire X blitz.

The Giants ran the Fire X blitz against the Cowboys in Week 1. Dallas picked it up effectively and hit them for a big play. This is what happened on most of the blitzes they ran that night. Still, it’s something to watch out for in this game. The Giants send both inside linebackers here while dropping both of their defensive ends into coverage. The hope is that you get a linebacker at full speed matched up one-on-one against a running back. That doesn’t happen here, for a couple of reasons, and Prescott is able to sit comfortably and complete a pass downfield for a big first down.

One of the last things I’ll show you from this pressure scheme is how the Giants put extra pass rushers out on the field in their nickel subpackages. A few years ago, they set NFL media ablaze with their NASCAR package with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka. Now, the Giants like to use Pierre-Paul, Vernon, Romeo Okwara, and Devon Kennard (who plays a bit of the Kiwanuka role as a strongside linebacker).

In this front, the Giants like to put JPP and Vernon on the same side to try and stress offensive lines. The other thing they will do is run games and twists to try and get one of their pass rushers into the backfield quickly. On the two plays above, Dallas does exactly what the Eagles will need to do on Sunday - get the ball out quickly and on target to create yards after the catch and a potential first down.

The Giants weren’t as aggressive with their pressure schemes on Monday night against the Detroit Lions. They were also without star cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Were they not as aggressive because the Pro Bowl cover man was out of the lineup? Potentially. He has not yet practiced this week. The fact of the matter is that this is a better defense when he’s in the lineup. Apple has every physical trait one could ask for at the cornerback spot, and once he gets a better knack for finding the football downfield he’ll be in really good shape. He’s extremely gifted.

If both Apple and Jenkins are on the field on Sunday, I’d expect to see more pressure from Spagnuolo’s unit. If Jenkins is out, I’d still expect some blitzing, but probably less than what the Giants did in Week 1 and more along the lines of what they showed the Eagles a year ago.

If Jenkins does miss this game, the Giants can still create pressure with just their front four. They’ve invested a lot of resources, both in the draft and in free agency, toward beefing up their front line, and it’s paying dividends. The first player to focus on is one of the jewels of their free agency haul in 2016, defensive end Olivier Vernon.

Vernon was a really talented pass rusher coming out of Miami and continued to progress in the NFL with the Dolphins. He’s now a disruptive force off the edge for Spagnuolo with his first-step quickness, ability to go speed-to-power, and the skill that he’s developed with his hands. He can be moved around the formation as a joker, and can win inside and outside.

They’ll even use Vernon in coverage downfield at times in certain packages. Do I expect him to be matched up on Ertz down after down? Absolutely not, but I thought this play showed the kind of athlete Vernon is off the edge.

And then, of course, there’s Pierre-Paul, who is still such a force off the offense’s right side. His combination of length and athleticism make him a tough matchup for any offensive lineman.

Pierre-Paul is really tough to block when he's lined up outside as a 9-technique because when he hits blockers with a head of steam it’s tough to anchor against him. When he goes to speed-to-power, he’s as tough as almost anyone in the NFL to stop. With Vernon and Pierre-Paul on either side on every down, Lane Johnson and Jason Peters will have to bring their A game on Sunday afternoon.

It’s not just in the passing game, though. The Giants have a pair of run-stuffing tackles inside who are really disruptive.

Damon Harrison was really good for the Giants last year after signing with the team in free agency. He’s a rock against the run, taking on double teams with ease and knocking back blockers at the point of attack. He’s not an explosive rusher up the field but he’s good with his hands and can collapse the pocket with his natural power. He’s a load inside for anyone he lines up against.

I’ve been extremely impressed with rookie second-round pick Dalvin Tomlinson, who looks like the same exact player he was for the University of Alabama. Strong and stout against the run, Tomlinson isn’t a skilled pass rusher but he’s able to control blocks with a comfort and ease that isn’t common for young players. He uses his hands well and his performance against All-Pro guard Zack Martin back in Week 1 was really eye-opening. With both Harrison and Tomlinson in the trenches, the Giants will be tough to run against inside for any team on the schedule.

The other player that has impressed me this year is linebacker B.J. Goodson, a second-year linebacker who was sorely missed on Monday night against Detroit.

Goodson is athletic and physical. The Giants’ lack of real depth at that spot was definitely felt on Monday night. They’re definitely a better defense with him on the field. He's a rangy player with instincts and a competitive nature that makes him a perfect fit for today’s NFL. However, he has not yet practiced this week.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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