Was the real problem in the secondary?
It was clear throughout the 2018 NFL season the defense of the New York Giants was a problem. It was a unit that ranked 26th in yards allowed per drive, 27th in points allowed per drive, and 24th in defensive DVOA. Much of the focus on what the Giants need to upgrade this offseason has been on the defensive side of the ball and much of that focus has fallen on the pass rush.
Almost all of that is due to the lack of sacks the defense created during the regular season. With just 30 total sacks, the Giants tied for 30th in the league. That’s obviously not great. But the team tied with the Giants all the way down there at the bottom of the league? That would be the New England Patriots, a team about to play in the Super Bowl.
Overall, the pass rush units of the Giants and Patriots weren’t dissimilar. While the sacks weren’t there, both teams were able to get to the quarterback and either pressure or hit the passer. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots ranked seventh in total pressures, while the Giants ranked 10th but since the Giants faced fewer pass attempts they had a slightly better pressure rate.
We know that simply putting opposing quarterbacks under pressure makes them worse, so then why were the Patriots able to finish the season ranked 14th in DVOA against the pass while the Giants were 26th with similar pressure rates? For that, we’ll have to back up a bit — literally — and take a look at secondaries that were and weren’t up for the task of taking advantage of the pressure in front of them.
Neither defense was very good when pressure wasn’t created. New England allowed a 70 percent of passes to be completed, 7.74 yards per attempt, with an opposing touchdown rate of 5.4 percent and an interception rate of 2.9 percent. Meanwhile, without pressure, the Giants allowed a 71.8 percent completion rate, 7.82 yards per attempt, a 4.2 percent touchdown rate, and just a 1.6 percent interception rate.
Once pressure was forced, the Patriots did a better job of holding up in coverage and making the offense worse. With pressure, the Patriots allowed 42.9 percent completions, 5.21 yards per attempt, a 3.5 percent touchdown rate, and a 3.0 percent interception rate.
The Giants cut down completions to 49.2 percent, allowed 6.96 yards per attempt, a 4.5 percent touchdown rate, and their interception rate shot up to 5.7 percent.
For the Giants to not even allow a full yard difference under pressure and give up a higher touchdown rate, that’s not on the pass rush. That’s a coverage problem. It’s also not something that should be a surprise when assessing who the Giants had in the secondary. Janoris Jenkins finished 70th among 85 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and success rate, per Football Outsiders. Eli Apple struggled before he was traded. That trade opened up bigger roles for B.W Webb and Grant Haley, who were more productive before their roles got expanded. Curtis Riley was a consistent liability in coverage as the single-high safety.
New England, on the other hand, had arguably the league’s best corner in 2018 — Stephon Gilmore ranked second in yards allowed per pass and first in success rate. No. 2 corner Jason McCourty finished 21st in success rate, and even J.C. Jackson, an undrafted rookie, shined in a bigger role over the second half of the season. That was also with Devin McCourty taking the reps as the deep safety.
All of this context matters, not just to figure out how the Patriots were more successful, but also in assessing which part of the Giants’ defense was truly the problem. Fingers have been pointed at the pass rush, but that unit largely did its job — or good enough of one that it could have been a useful part of a better overall defense. The secondary, though, was littered with problems. It also makes sense given the way the Giants tried to build the secondary last offseason — signing quantity over quality and hoping to find diamonds in the rough.
Right now a popular offseason strategy suggested for the Giants is to release Olivier Vernon and take one of the top pass rushers with the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft, which hints that could be a quick fix for a pass rush that needs to improve. The reality, though, is the pass rush is likely to improve on its own due to regression in sack rate. Defensive metrics are famously unstable from year-to-year, but pressure rate is more indicative of future sack rate than current sack rate is. If the Giants change nothing about the current pass rush, they’re still likely to see a significant boost in sacks for the 2019 season. That doesn’t mean the Giants should avoid upgrading the pass rush but adding another secondary piece to the rotation could have a bigger impact than trying to replace Vernon with another swing at a top tier pass rusher, whether that be through the draft or in free agency.
A big investment in the pass rush also takes away from what could be invested in the secondary — a unit that is not going to be improved if left alone. For as good as Janoris Jenkins was during the 2016 season, it continues to look like that was the outlier performance from his career norm. B.W. Webb was only on a one-year deal and could be brought back, but he played better as the slot corner at the start of the season more than with the outside responsibilities he had during the Apple trade. Bringing him back, even to go back to the slot role also does little to upgrade the secondary, it just keeps it the same.
Having a good pass rush is important and despite the sack totals, the Giants had one that was more than good enough to impact opposing offenses. The Patriots showed a path to play well with that type of production but the players backing it up have to be much better too. It’s an important lesson the Giants will need to evaluate when deciding what needs to be changed about the defensive personnel in 2019.