EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The game plans change significantly each week. That’s the approach this New York Giants coaching staff under Joe Judge takes, depending on the opponent.
It’s one of the beliefs Judge brought with him from his time with the New England Patriots. It’s very coach Bill Belichickian. The idea is to be like a chameleon: don’t be too rigid with your game plans, especially if what worked the previous week might not be best against the next opponent.
Assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who spent most of his formative coaching years working under Belichick in New England, has similar beliefs as Judge.
Last season, which was Judge’s first as Giants coach with Graham running the defense, the coaches did their best to work around the roster, which limited their defensive schemes and made them shy away from what history says they prefer. New York was primarily a zone defense team that couldn’t completely open the playbook.
But the signing of cornerback Adoree’ Jackson this offseason changes everything.
“In our system, we want to be able to play man [coverage], when it comes to third down, red [zone] area, two-minute [defense],” Graham said. “In this league, you’re going to have to play some version of man at some point.”
Adoree’ energy 🥶 pic.twitter.com/U9PlTThfxQ
— New York Giants (@Giants) March 23, 2021
The Giants didn’t feel comfortable enough last season to play man-to-man coverage often or when it counted most. Only the Carolina Panthers played less man coverage in 2020. The Giants played man on 33.1% of opponents’ dropbacks last year, per ESPN Stats & Information.
In comparison, Graham’s defense in Miami the previous season played man coverage on 60.8% of opponents’ dropbacks. During Judge’s time in New England, the Patriots played the second most man coverage on 62.2% of the passing downs.
Even if the coaches won’t admit it, the Giants’ lack of man coverage last season had everything to do with their cornerback situation opposite Pro Bowler James Bradberry. They started four different players at right cornerback, with the first two (Corey Ballentine and Ryan Lewis) no longer on the roster.
An executive whose team faced the Giants last season said the team’s game plan was simple against New York: attack whoever was playing CB2. Ballentine, Lewis, Isaac Yiadom, Madre Harper, Julian Love; it didn’t matter.
“That was every team’s plan against them,” the executive said.
Jackson, 25, might have been costly (three years, $39 million deal) as a free-agent acquisition, especially given his struggles with the Tennessee Titans last season because of a knee problem. But his impact, if he returns to full health and his past form, could be worth it.
And it should completely alter the Giants’ defense.
“With the addition of Adoree’, it helps the overall defensive scheme because he has speed,” Bradberry said. “Every team in the league, they have a fast guy and the fact you can match Adoree’ on him, it gives the defense versatility. … I’m glad to have him.”
That’s the idea. The longer, more physical Bradberry can match up against the bigger wide receivers. He did so with great success last season and for four seasons with the Panthers when he faced Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and New Orleans’ Michael Thomas twice a year in the NFC South.
Jackson, on paper, is the ideal complement to Bradberry. Jackson can handle the burners with his shiftiness and 4.42 40-yard dash speed. This is what he is here for, and why he plays cornerback in the first place.
“That’s the best part of playing defense,” Jackson said of relishing the one-on-one matchup with a wide receiver. “I was asked in high school what I liked more, going and scoring a touchdown or making a defensive stop, and I feel like getting a defensive stop is way better because you get the life out of the crowd if you’re away, and if you’re at home it just seems like they are way more fired up then when the offense scores. I always took honor and cherished playing defense.”
The secondary has quickly become the Giants’ strength. They were deep at safety with 2020 second-round draft pick Xavier McKinney coming back healthy to a group that had proven veterans such as Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers. Jackson and 2021 third-round pick Aaron Robinson were also added to a cornerbacks corps that had Bradberry and second-year slot man Darnay Holmes returning. Yiadom, Harper and Love now slide into more appropriate roles and will provide the secondary with serious depth.
Not that Graham is going to complain about the options. As he said during minicamp, you can’t have enough good defensive backs. It gives the defensive coordinator the ability to call for man coverage and bring pressure from anywhere on the field, and that benefit will prove massive for the Giants, who are without a dominant edge rusher.
“I mean, Adoree’ brings another element,” Graham said. “Aaron Robinson, Darnay, they bring another element to it. Will we probably be in more man? Possibly. But it’s always good to have that problem, so we are going to try to do what’s best for that game, that game plan.
“You need to play man-to-man coverage in this league, period, point blank. And obviously six wins last year, we didn’t do enough on defense, so the hell with that; we are looking at all options, whether it’s blitz more, blitz less, play less zone, play more man, we need a whole lot of options. Six wins is not going to cut it.”
Neither was last year’s group of cornerbacks. Now Graham has real options — enough that it should allow him to open the playbook and call for man-to-man coverage.