We Fly High Again: Steve Spagnuolo and the Giants Defense

– Jim Bearor

Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has returned to where he belongs, the Giants sideline. (Sportingnews.com)

Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has returned to where he belongs, the Giants sideline. (Sportingnews.com)

Steve Spagnuolo, Big Blue’s hero of yore, has returned to the Giants. According to any New York fan you may ask, they could not have made a better hire. Everybody loved Spags then, and everybody loves him now.  When he left, Bill Sheridan screwed everything up, and Perry Fewell’s zone schemes were softer than baby s**t. Quite frankly, since Spagnuolo left the New York Giants, things just haven’t felt right. 

There was a time not so long ago, when the likes of Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were terrorizing quarterbacks under the aggressive, unpredictable, and exhilarating schemes of Spags. Sheridan and Fewell crashed and burned when they were handed the keys to the defense, and that’s half of the reason Giants fans are so excited.  It would be kind of like if Osi Umenyiora came back. No, he hasn’t exactly been a world beater since he’s been gone, but we know how good he can be at his best.

We also know how awful his first and only head coaching gig with the Rams went. He was never able to truly do what he wanted with the Saints defense of 2012, and that team set an NFL record for most yards allowed over a season. He had a very forgettable stint as a defensive assistant coach for the Ravens last year, and now Giants fans are thanking the old gods and the new that he decided to grace them with his presence. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Spagnuolo is welcomed with open arms in New York, he’s been on everyone’s mind since he walked out the door after 2008.

I wish I could say that Bill Sheridan’s time as the team’s defensive coordinator was forgettable. Instead, it left a pretty serious scar on my psyche. The team lost 8 of its last 11 games, and gave up 40+ points on 5 of those occasions. Just thinking about it makes me queasy. But a silver lining: at least he was so atrociously bad that he was ousted after a single (excruciating) year, unlike Kevin Gilbride, the lingerer.

Out went Bill Sheridan, and in came Perry Fewell, Buffalo’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach the year before. The most accurate thing I can say about Fewell’s time with the Giants is that he had two good years and three bad years, and on one of those bad years, he somehow ended up with a Super Bowl championship.  Perry Fewell is a very smart guy, and the players he has coached have a lot of respect for him but he was not the right coach – or the right philosophy – to right the ship on defense.

A loaded defensive line and the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul helped conceal the fact that Fewell’s gameplans were too read-and-react. The creative blitzes weren’t there, but JPP, Tuck, and Umenyiora were, and that was enough at times. Most of the time though, it seemed like the game plans he installed went something like: “You’re gonna wait for someone to get the ball, then you’re gonna try to tackle him!”

His “Tampa 2” zone looked good on paper, but in reality, his defense had gaps in more ways than one.  The talent that Jerry Reese surrounded him with wasn’t quite on par with what Spagnuolo had to work with in 2007, and that often got overlooked as things were going so wrong for Fewell. Any way you slice it, the defense hasn’t had the same edge and tenacity since Spags left. Everything after 2008 has been passive schemes and constant backpedaling.

But now he’s back and everyone’s pumped about it.  Even the most pessimistic of Giants fans can tell what all the noise is about. If everything goes wrong and this really blows up in New York’s face, killing off Coughlin and Spagnuolo in the process (and maybe even Eli if the shrapnel goes the wrong way), it won’t be because the defense wasn’t sending enough guys after the quarterback.

Perry Fewell essentially struck out looking, but we can expect Spagnuolo to swing for the fences and there’s something comforting about that as a Giants fan. At least he’s going to try.

The players he has to work with this time around aren’t at all the same. The 2015 roster has an impressive amount of talent – and I’ll get into that shortly – but veteran leadership isn’t prevalent the way it was when Pierce, Strahan, Umenyiora, and Tuck were around. There are players on this team that might be able to fill these holes, but nobody has really stepped up yet.

Jon Beason is a very smart and talented linebacker, he could be perfect for assuming an Antonio Pierce-like role within this defense if he can actually stay health (history says no). Jason Pierre-Paul is an absolute monster on the defensive line, but can his teammates seriously look up to him as a leader after his fireworks incident this offseason? Is five-year veteran Prince Amukamara ready or capable of a leadership role?

Time will tell how this team takes shape under Spagnuolo, and we won’t know much about this group until the regular season starts and we see his blitz schemes in action.  That being said, it is worth taking a closer look at this roster to try and diagnose – at least generally – which positions will be strengths and which will be weaknesses.

Defensive Line

Jason Pierre-Paul wants to make news on the field again, not just off of it (sportsrants.com)

Jason Pierre-Paul wants to make news on the field again, not just off of it (sportsrants.com)

Jason Pierre-Paul The sad truth is that JPP is the most important player on the defensive line, even though he still hasn’t signed his franchise tender and we have no idea how effective he’s going to be sans finger.  If he is unable to return to form (or return at all, for that matter), the defensive line will go from being a strength to a liability.

Cullen JenkinsJenkins is 34 years old and he took a pay cut over the offseason to remain with the team. He totaled 1 sack and 15 tackles over 11 starts in 2014, and his $2.2 million salary was chopped down to a lean $1 million. He will likely be the second starting defensive tackle alongside Jonathan Hankins, but a drop in production could result in Markus Kuhn or Kendrick Ellis stealing his job.

Jonathan Hankinsthe 23 year-old Hankins had a breakout 2014, and his future looks very bright. He started all 16 games last year and surprised many with his pass rushing, racking up 7 sacks and 51 tackles. When he came out of Ohio State in 2013, he was known as a run-stopper, but now the Giants know they got much more than that with their second round pick. He ended up being ranked as the 69th-best player in the league by Pro Football Focus last year, and he’s likely to improve beyond that in his second year as a starter.

Markus KuhnKuhn will be an interesting player to follow for 2015, seeing as he’s going into a contract year and he has gotten better every year since he got into the league.  For those unfamiliar with his backstory: he was born and raised in Germany and made his NFL debut at age 26 after a single year as a starter at N.C. State. He was billed as a light-footed, hard-working, 6’4” 299 pound run stuffer.  He has lived up to this scouting report, and he is well respected throughout the Giants organization, but he’ll need some on-field production if he’s going to stick around past this year. He weighs 320 pounds now, but he’s also leaner than he’s ever been.  With the decline of Cullen Jenkins, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kuhn emerges as a starting defensive tackle later in the year.

Robert Ayers Ayers had a nice first year with the Giants in 2014 and Spagnuolo will surely find a way to take advantage of his pass rushing talents, but he is a liability against the run, and that’s why he’s in danger of losing his spot as the starting left defensive end.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa Just call him Owa. This year’s third round pick out of UCLA comes from a 3-4 scheme where he was a great run stopping defensive end whose pass rush needs some refining.  Owa is 6’3” and 267 pounds with 6% body fat.  He’s quick, strong, explosive, and very intelligent – regularly earning high honors en route to a Bachelors in Philosophy.  Owa has all the tools and he’s a student of the game. If he remains healthy (his knee has been problematic at times), he should develop into a solid all-around defensive end.

George Selvie Selvie’s Wikipedia page hit the nail on the head by say he’s a first round talent with sixth or seventh round production. That’s all I have to say about George Selvie.

Kendrick EllisA 3rd round pick by the Jets in 2011, Ellis has largely underwhelmed throughout his young career. It’s safe to call him a bust to this point in his young career, but he’s still young enough that he might be able to figure it out.

Kerry WynnWynn is young, disciplined, and has great size.  He’s very good at defending the run, but it’s unlikely he’ll see the field much on passing downs unless he makes strides as a pass rusher.  He lacks explosiveness off the line, but he’s 24 and has room to grow.  He’ll be another one of Spagnuolo’s young projects on the defensive line.

DaMontre Moore Moore, the 22 year-old 3rd round pick from 2013 is big and versatile. He’s one of those hybrid outside linebackers/ defensive lineman, and Spags will likely get creative with him.  If nothing else, Moore is another young athletic pass rusher that could thrive under Spagnuolo.

Linebackers

Devin Kennard looks to build on a stellar rookie season (wsj.com)

Devon Kennard looks to build on a stellar rookie season (wsj.com)

Devon KennardThe Giants struck gold with last year’s fifth round pick, selecting Kennard and securing a Pro Bowl-caliber outside linebacker for the foreseeable future.  Beason and his other teammates speak very highly of him, both on and off the field. Kennard is very quick and is a well-rounded linebacker already, but his approach to the game is the real difference maker. He’s notorious for filling up notebooks and knowing what to do in any given situation.  If he remains healthy – which was a bit of an issue in 2014, when he missed four starts – Kennard will continue to make strides and grow as a leader for this defense in 2015.

Jon Beason Beason is the defensive quarterback for this team, but injuries and age could result in a sort of “pitch count” for him this season.  If Beason is healthy, the rest will take care of itself. He’s not the Beason of old, but his knowledge of the game and leadership are still intact and his value should not be overlooked.

JT ThomasSince coming into the league in 2012, Thomas has been a backup, but he filled in nicely for the Jags last year when Paul Posluszny got hurt. Although it appears that he’ll begin the year as a starter, there isn’t a lot of optimism coming from Giants fans for this signing, and for good reason.  Pro Football Focus numbers are less than impressive, and Grantland called him “the worst free agent signing so far this year”. So don’t worry Giants fans, it’s not just you, everyone feels a little uneasy about Thomas as a starter.

Mark HerzlichHerzlich is like the new Chase Blackburn to me. He’s able to play any of the linebacker positions, and he’s solid against the run while being a subpar pass defender.  He’ll be a solid contributor again, and he’ll probably step in and start a few games if someone gets injured, but we should expect more of the same from Herzlich.

Jameel McClain McClain led the team last year in tackles, but that was mostly due to the injuries around him. He’s a solid all around linebacker, and he’ll probably be the one filling in for Beason when necessary, but his lackluster pass defense and average speed will limit him to a backup role.

Jonathan CasillasThe man has two Super Bowl rings, one with the Saints, and one with the Patriots. He’s average at best though, and his playing time will be limited.

Cornerbacks

Corner Prince Amukamara is playing for a new contract (bleacherreport.com)

Corner Prince Amukamara is playing for a new contract (bleacherreport.com)

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie When healthy, he’s a great number one cornerback. He wasn’t healthy last year though, and if that’s the case again, the lack of depth in this secondary will likely be exposed again.  Rodgers-Cromartie bulked up this offseason to help with all the press coverage he’ll be playing in Spags’ defense. Maybe he’s a little more durable with the added muscle,and the Giants don’t have to worry about starting the likes of Jayron Hosley or Chykie Brown.

Prince AmukamaraAmukamara has a starting cornerback position on lockdown as well. He’s playing out the fifth year option of his rookie deal, and his future with New York is uncertain.  The Giants want to see if he can remain healthy for an entire season before they sign him to another deal, which is something he’s done only once to this point (he has missed 20 games in four years). When he’s on the field though, his ability is undisputable. He’s definitely not a first round bust, but he’s only another injury riddled season away from being considered a disappointment.

Jayron Hosley Hosley is entering his third year, and he has yet to live up to his potential.  He’s been a slot corner over the past couple years, and his aggressive, physical style of play didn’t help him out in Perry Fewell’s zone defense. This year he’s on the depth chart behind Amukamara on the outside and Spagnuolo’s defense is a lot different from Fewell’s, so I’m really not sure what we’ll see from Hosley this year.

Trumaine McBride – McBride is a journeyman, and has had experience filling in at slot corner when needed. That’s exactly what the Giants need him to do. He’s penciled in as the nickel back and he’ll likely go into the season as the third man unless someone really steps up in training camp.  Given the lack of depth in the secondary, this is highly unlikely.’

Mike Harris – Harris is the backup slot corner. He came into the league as a sixth round pick in 2012 and hasn’t made an impact since.  He’s happy to be a New York Giant, I’m sure.

Chykie BrownBrown’s role with the team should become a bit more clear during training camp, but as of now, he’s trying to snag that slot corner spot from McBride – as long as he makes the final roster, that is.  This Spring, there was talk that he might make the switch to safety, but through OTAs and minicamp he has been practicing with the cornerbacks.

Safeties

Giants Safeties = Questionable.

Giants Safeties = Questionable.

Landon Collins Here’s how bad the safety situation is for the New York Giants: Landon Collins has yet to play a snap in the NFL, and he’s a sure thing to start day one.  He fits best at strong safety, as he is a big hitter who can provide help against the run, but according to Dan Graziano, the Giants would like Collins to trim some weight, as to help with his mobility in pass coverage. Collins is going to have to grow up fast, because he’s the only safety on the roster that looks like he can make it in the NFL.

Nat BerheBerhe is the leading candidate for the other safety spot, but he wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or minicamp due to a serious calf injury.  He’s at the top of the depth chart here by default really.

Cooper TaylorTaylor practices with the first team in Berhe’s absence, but it looks like a history of injuries have resulted in him losing some speed, which will likely keep him out of the running for a starting gig.

Mykkele ThompsonThompson was drafted by the Giants in the fifth round this year.  He’s an intuitive player with good instincts, but his size and inexperience could hold him back from seeing the field.


The strength of this defense is the front seven.  There is an abundance of young talent on the defensive line, and Kennard and Beason give fans reason for optimism.

Instead of coaching a defense full of savvy veterans and future hall of famers, Spagnuolo has a lot of unproven talent and a handful of key players who have something to prove (Pierre-Paul, Amukamara, Rodgers-Cromartie).  This is definitely not the same team as 2007 or 2008. This is going to be a bumpy road.

Miscommunications will occur as these young players struggle to pick up this complex defense. A key player or two will likely get injured. Until a couple true leaders separate themselves from the pack, there will be some unrest. This is all part of the process, and I’m sure Steve Spagnuolo knows this.

Spags was a great leader for his players the first time around, but this time he’s going to have to be even more.  Beason and Rodgers-Cromartie are great veterans, but if this defense is going to be successful, it will come down to cultivating the young talent and creating a culture. That is going to take time. We may see some bright spots this year, but – much like Ben McAdoo implementing his new offense – it’s going to take a little while for Spagnuolo’s schemes to take hold. This unit may fly high once again, but all in due time. You know this. Ballin’.

jim bearor– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)

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