This season, the Giants’ offense usually had the spotlight shining bright on them.
How could it not with the aging Eli Manning analyzed with a fine tooth comb under center, the comeback of star WR Odell Beckham Jr., and rookie RB Saquon Barkley looking to prove he was worth the No. 2 overall pick over the top quarterbacks in his draft class (he’s the top Rookie of the Year candidate, so that answers that question).
But what about the Giants’ defense? They had a lot of intrigue entering the season with a new, aggressive coordinator, a few new pieces, and the goal of returning to the crew that was one of the stingiest in scoring back in 2016. But that wasn’t the case at all.
Instead, James Bettcher’s defense finished in the bottom 10 (24th) for the first time since he became a defensive coordinator three years ago with the Cardinals. The Giants were 23rd in scoring (25.8 points per game), 24th in yards allowed (371.3 per game), and the most surprising stat considering Bettcher’s blitz-heavy scheme, 30th in sacks with 30 total on the season.
But was it surprising the Giants’ defense struggled to find consistency this season? Some don’t believe so, as the roster didn’t help Bettcher’s scheme much.
“Their personnel is not very good,” one NFC executive told ESPN’s Jordan Raanan about the defense.
The Giants’ defense saw many fresh faces this season from veterans like LB Alec Ogletree and safeties Curtis Riley and Michael Thomas to rookies like DT B.J. Hill and LB Lorenzo Carter. With Bettcher’s 3-4 scheme much different than a traditional 4-3 setup, adjustments need to be made to some playing styles, and that learning curve clearly wasn’t made fast enough.
Head coach Pat Shurmur admitted it was a challenge for Bettcher to get his unit on the same page, and working effectively this season.
“Different place. Different players. Every situation is different,” Shurmur said about Bettcher. “No different than working on offense if you have a different style of quarterback. You have to maximize the strengths of the players you’re working with. Same here. Our roster looks a little bit different than it did in Arizona, so he’s trying to do what he can to try to get the most out of our players.”
It also didn’t help that CB Eli Apple and DT Damon “Snacks” Harrison were both traded before the trade deadline. Apple was arguably the Giants’ top corner at the time, and Harrison was the ultimate run stuffer as per usual. So with missing pieces and pieces trying to find their niche in the scheme, the Giants’ defense didn’t see the results they would’ve hoped for.
So what’s the solution? GM Dave Gettleman knows he needs to bring in better personnel, and make sure they work with what Bettcher wants to do.
“We’ve got to continue to improve,” Gettleman said. “It’s not easy to win games when you don’t have playmakers. We need to improve the defense, guys. Just like I looked you right in the eye last year and told you we’ve got to fix this O-line, we’ve got to get better on the defensive side.”
Even through the struggles, though, opponents still had issues trying to work up the best approach to attack Big Blue’s defense.
“His defense was still hard to prepare for,” the NFC executive said. “He’s chaotic. It was a scheme that you do when you don’t have great personnel.”
If that’s the case, imagine what good personnel will do. A complimentary safety to Landon Collins, consistent pass rusher opposite Olivier Vernon, and a linebacker or two is likely where the Giants will look in free agency and the draft. The draft, in particular, will be top heavy with pass rusher, and the Giants could spend their sixth overall selection on one.
At the end of the day, Bettcher wants to see his defense do enough to come away with a victory. But getting the parts he needs to return his unit to one of the best in the league will go a long way in 2019.
“I want to win, and whatever it takes to win by any means necessary to get the job done. That’s first and foremost,” he said. “Then secondly, you want to play defense that contributes to winning. I think there are certainly points in time of the year where we felt that way, and there’s certainly points in the time of the year where that didn’t get done. We certainly have to go look at those things and find a way to be part of the solution and part of the other side of that more often than not.”