Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Giants: defensive philosphy

All the analysts were twittering, protesting and criticizing the fact that the Giants did not take a MLB in the 2nd round, especially when Sean Lee from Penn State (AKA Line Backer University) was available for the taking. Instead, the Giants took Linval Joseph, DT from East Carolina University. Giants did not take a LB on the 3rd round either and waited until round 4 to take ILB Dillard. Again, moans and whines from the experts who wrote columns complaining that the Giants did not know what they were doing by not filling the MLB role until so late in the draft.

I think this move reveals something about the draft philosophy of the Giants, but more so about the philosophy the Giants have in building a defense. As far as the draft itself, the Giants had very high grades on Joseph, ranking him as a first round talent. They rarely will sacrifice value for need and did not have Lee ranked as high as Joseph. The mantra that describes the Giants philosophy is "Never take your depth chart into the draft room". If you have a chance to take a top player, you take him (almost) regardless of need. If Joseph and Pierre-Paul are as good as the Giants think they are, they could anchor the Giants DL for 10 years.

More important though, one of the Giants philosophies in drafting is positional upgrades of talent. In other words, DE is a more important position than, for example G. So if there is a G that has grades roughly equal to a DE within his position, the Giants will rank the DE higher because it is a more critical position. Giants will be even more strict about the value/need philosophy in the early rounds and may be a little more flexible, weighing need a bit more in the later rounds. Based on this position-importance approach, IMHO the Giants have lowered the value of MLBs in their charting of defensive values. Here's why: If the modern day offense is reliant on passing more than running, you build an offense with QBs, a strong OL to protect him and WRs who can be deep threats. In this model of the offense, the RB is actually somewhat diminished in value. It's not that you don't need RBs; obviously you need them. If the offense does not have balance or is one dimensional, it is much easier for defenses to prepare and to stifle them. However, if you have a great OL, even a good RB can be productive enough to balance out the attack. Furthermore, if you have a great RB, he will be undermined by a poor OL. For the running game - the OL is the foundation more than the RB. As a consequence, the defense has to be built to stop these pass-oriented offenses. This means that the DL /pass rush, and CBs are the most important positions on the defense to handle that passing attack. But I think what is less obvious, but is evident in the Giants off season FA moves and drafting philosophy is that LBs are of lesser importance and the S position has actually displaced the LB somewhat and been elevated in importance to the defense. The converse of: "you don't need a great RB to play behind a great OL - a good one will do just as well"; is: "you don't need a great LB to play behind a great DL - a good one will do just as well". If you can keep the LBs clear by having strong DTs and great DEs occupying the OL, the LBs, even average ones, are free to make plays. Moreover, every team in the league uses S to drop down "in the box", i.e. close to the line of scrimmage, to help stop the run. The S has become like an adjunct LB and the LB is eroded in value. On passing downs, when so many offenses use 4 and even 5 WR sets, the S is often forced to play man-to-man pass coverage, further increasing his value relative to the LB. Take a look at how Rex Ryan used his DBs and S on defense, keeping 6 or even 7 in the game often and not being afraid to blitz them from any angle. It is effective - they are faster and more elusive than LBs and the OL has less of an idea of where they might be coming from and who might be blitzing. This further devalues the LBs who used to be the prime blitzers on defense, and places more importance on S. Giants, of course, signed two safeties in the off season and drafted one in the 3rd round (ahead of a LB), strongly signalling how they plan to build their defense.

I think this also signals how they evaluate their DTs - which is not very high. Alford is coming off an injury and has to be considered a question mark. Cofield had a mediocre year partly because it was his first year back after off season knee surgery. Canty was injured, missing about half the season and was invisible when he did play. Rocky Bernard was also invisible. So the pick of Joseph was both a value and a need pick. If last year's under-performers come back strong, particularly Alford and Canty, then the Giants will have a strong DT rotation.

As another result of the above estimation of value of LBs, maybe we can take another look at Antonio Pierce's Giants career and estimate how good a player he really was. My assertion is that Pierce was a slightly-above-average athletic talent who got the most out of his natural ability because: 1) he was highly motivated 2) he was a great film studier and reader of defenses and 3) he had a very high football IQ. When you think back to the impact plays Pierce made, most were cerebral plays and positioning, rather than speed or strength. Everyone noticed that his play declined last year, but maybe that was a result of the declining play of the DL as much as it was of his decline. Pierce played well when the DL in front of him was strong and he could make plays. When the DL slipped, so did Pierce. He was as much a product of the system as he was a big time impact player. The biggest play I remember Pierce making in the 2007 Superbowl run was the great play he made stopping a screen pass in Green Bay in the conference championship game. Green Bay had 3 blockers set up in front of the RB and had a clear field with maybe 1 or 2 DBs down field. This play had TD written all over it. Pierce read the play and attacked from an angle, slipping in between two of the blockers and holding up the RB until the defense could swarm over and help make the stop. It was a great read by Pierce, it took a perfect angle to attack the play and it required great effort for him to hang on to the RB until the play got stopped. But it was not a great athletic play. By contrast, I can remember 3 or 4 great athletic plays that LB Kawika Mitchell (now with Buffalo) made for the Giants that same year, including INTs and fumble recoveries that turned into TDs. I am not saying that Mitchell is great and Pierce stinks. I am just saying that Pierce is more of a system guy and if the Giants have a great system around him and DL in front of him, Goff, Dillard or Wilkinson may do just fine in the middle of that defense.

One more thought, since I brought up Canty earlier in this post. I am worried that the Giants made a mistake signing him. Canty played DT on a 3-4 defense which is a much different technique and requires different athletic skill than a DT in a 4-3 defense. In particular with Dallas, DeMarcus Ware is such a force on their DL that he makes people playing next to him look better. Jay Ratliff replaced Canty in Dallas and had an outstanding season, playing better than Canty had in the middle of that Dallas DL. Ratliff made the pro-bowl and was very strong in the middle. Giants personnel evaluators got reports from their own OL that Canty was very hard to move in the middle. But with Ware on the outside, sometimes lining up right and sometimes left and with the style of the Dallas DL, Canty was often alone in the middle and rarely did the man assigned to block him get any help from his OL-mates. Maybe he was evaluated higher by the Giants than he really should have been. We'll see.

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