Steve Spagnuolo will always be a popular figure among New York Giants fans. His masterminded beatdown of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42 ensures the love will keep flowing from the Big Apple for Spags.
That’s probably why he was given a free pass by the Big Blue faithful for last season’s defensive debacle. Returning as defensive coordinator after ill-fated stints with the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints, before stopping off for some damage repair with the Baltimore Ravens, Spagnuolo oversaw the NFL’s flimsiest defense last season.
The Giants ranked last in total yards and passing yards, along with surrendering the 30th most points in the league. But still, Spagnuolo was excused.
A lack of talent was the most common caveat applied to the dismal showings on the gridiron. There were also extenuating circumstances like premier rush end Jason Pierre-Paul deciding to play with fireworks without adult supervision.
But there’s no more excuses for Spagnuolo after general manager Jerry Reese engaged in a trolley dash on the opening day of free agency. The result? Spagnuolo has been given a quartet of defensive talents, including the returning Pierre-Paul, to make his creative aggression philosophy work.
The league tweeted Reese’s lavish outlay and what it bought the Giants:
The sums paid are indeed eye-popping. But let’s put the issue of overpaying (I’m looking at you, Vernon) aside for the moment.
The fact is Reese has handed Spagnuolo the crucial pieces his schemes need, pieces that were missing last season.
Starting with Damon Harrison, Spags now his natural successor to Fred Robbins. It was Robbins who plugged the middle and tied up blockers on that Super Bowl D-line that left Brady a battered and bloodied mess.
As a house-sized 0-technique few centers can handle, Harrison can occupy double- and even triple-teams. It’s something Vernon, Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins will certainly thank the ex-New York Jets linchpin for.
The latter is a budding star, despite missing seven games with injury problems in 2015. But he now has a formidable partner in the middle. Although he packs plenty of beef into a 6’2″, 320-pound frame, Hankins does boast excellent potential as a pass-rusher, evidenced by seven sacks in 2014.
Now Harrison is in the fold, Hankins will have greater license to play in the gaps between blockers, and will surely face more one-on-one matchups.
It’s great news for a coordinator who loves to rely on a four-man rush on early downs.
So is the effect the mountain of mass between Hankins and Harrison will have on last season’s 24th-ranked run defense. Few teams should expect to find much joy running at the heart of Big Blue’s defense in 2016. Having runners consistently spilled to the edges will make force and contain easier for Spagnuolo’s group.
More importantly, forcing opponents into an obvious passing mode will give Spagnuolo more chances to dial up the fiendish zone-style blitzes he loves.
Pierre-Paul and Vernon will be crucial in that plan. Both are lengthy, ultra-athletic rush ends who can attack from a three-point stance or when standing up.
Their flexibility will prove priceless when Spags draws up zone pressures that involve edge defenders bailing into underneath coverage in the hook, curls and flats zones, while linebackers and safeties come on the blitz.
He’ll also have fun moving Vernon and Pierre-Paul around and devising ways to bring them from different angles. Putting them in the A-gaps either side of the center and having them rush or fake pressure, is sure to be one of his favourite ploys.
Fire-zone schemes are all about deception. Spags’ two edge-rushers are the perfect tools for a cloak-and-dagger approach.
You can easily dispute whether Vernon, a player who has recorded 29 sacks in four seasons, really merited Reese backing up the Brinks Truck.
But as Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News pointed out, Reese found his hand forced:
Either way, Spagnuolo and the Giants have what they didn’t have last season: a fearsome, deep and versatile D-line.
The group’s contributions will be key, but the addition of cornerback Janoris Jenkins may well prove to be the most significant.
He’s got shutdown potential on the outside, another element Spags’ D’ was missing in 2015. Having a corner who can lockdown receivers in single coverage is a boost for any coordinator.
Not having to worry about one side of the field will let Spagnuolo adopt box-and-1 shells that help disguise the coverage pre-snap. It’s a major asset for play-callers who lean on zone-based pressure. During his first stint with Big Blue, Spags had Sam Madison do a similar job.
Jenkins’ flair for the big play (10 interceptions, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns in four years) makes him an obvious upgrade on Prince Amukamara, who snatched just a single INT last season.
Combine Jenkins’ opportunistic streak with the increased pressure sure to be generated by a beefed up line, and the Giants are set for a massive improvement on the mere 15 interceptions they got their mitts on last season.
Jenkins and the new recruits are the reward for a surprising splurge from Reese, one unusual for the traditionally free-agency shy Giants.
But it’s not Reese or new head coach Ben McAdoo who have heaped the pressure on themselves. The pressure now falls squarely on the man calling this new-look defense.
Spagnuolo has the focal point of his run defense in double-team magnet Harrison. He has the flexible, “Joker-style” rush ends in Pierre-Paul and Vernon to bring his fire-zone formula to life. Finally, Spagnuolo has the shutdown corner who will let him not fear sending in more blitz calls.
The excuses are gone, the talent level has been fixed. It’s now or never for Spagnuolo to prove 2007 and ’08 were no fluke. He has to mould his new recruits into one of the league’s stingiest defenses.