Except for two outliers seasons (2013 and 1016), the New York Giants have struggled on defense for the past decade. The challenge for the team through four head coaches (Tom Coughlin, Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, Joe Judge) and four defensive coordinators (Perry Fewell, Steve Spagnuolo, James Bettcher, Patrick Graham) has simply to move New York out of the bottom tier of the NFL on defense:
- 2011: 27th
- 2012: 31st
- 2013: 8th
- 2014: 29th
- 2015: 32nd
- 2016: 10th
- 2017: 31st
- 2018: 24th
- 2019: 25th
With the fourth new regime coming in six years and serious personnel issues in the defensive back seven, it seemed unlikely the Giants would be able to improve their defensive team ranking in 2020. There was also viable media and fan concern about new Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham. In his first season as defensive coordinator in Miami in 2019, the Dolphins had finished 31st on defense. Miami Head Coach Brian Flores had also let Graham out of his contract to join Judge in New York, which seemed like a curious move.
To the credit of the entire coaching staff, the New York Giants finished the year 12th in yards allowed an 9th in points allowed. This was a major accomplishment for a team with no dangerous edge rushers or starting-caliber cornerback opposite of James Bradberry. While the two major free agent additions (Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez) were the two best players on the defense, the best overall unit was the defensive line.
The line benefitted from the coaching of Sean Spencer, the highly-regarded defensive line coach who Joe Judge lured away from Penn State. But it’s also important to note that Graham himself was a defensive line coach with the Patriots (2012-2013) and Giants (2016-2017).
Graham had his defense run out of multiple fronts, but the bread-and-butter was still a 3-4 system that remarkably employed only five defensive lineman all season. The sixth man (R.J. McIntosh) spent the whole year inactive. As a whole, the Giants were big, strong, powerful group that was tough to move off of the line of scrimmage. They were generally better against the run (10th in the NFL) than rushing the passer (21 of the team’s 40 sacks).
Ironically, the headliner ended up being the team’s most controversial defensive acquisition in years. Leonard Williams had a career year, accruing over one-fourth of the team’s sacks (11.5) and regularly being a disruptive presences as indicated by his team-high quarterback hits (30) and tackles for loss (14). He was also tied for fifth in combined tackles with 57.
The other two year-long starters were second-year defensive end Dexter Lawrence and third-year nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. While Williams received 74 percent of all defensive snaps, Lawrence and Tomlinson each saw 60 percent of all defensive snaps. These two finished with almost 100 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, and 14 tackles for losses. Williams, Lawrence, and Tomlinson represented almost 1,000 pounds of beef up front, making life easier for the linebackers.
It’s also important to note the yeoman’s work of the only two reserves who saw action all year: B.J. Hill (34 percent of all defensive snaps) and Austin Johnson (21 percent of all defensive snaps). Both have started in this league, yet they accepted their back-up roles without complaint.
Looking past 2020, the offseason challenge for the Giants will be the retention of free agents Williams and Tomlinson.
In his sixth NFL season, Leonard Williams had his best season as a pro in 2020. Williams played in all 16 games with 12 starts (74 percent of defensive snaps) and finished the year with 57 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery. The 6’5”, 302-pound Williams was the sixth player taken overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. The Giants acquired Williams by trade from the in late October 2019. Williams is a stout, strong, physical run defender. While he lacks classic quick-twitch outside pass-rush skills, Williams can pressure the passer due to his combination of power and overall athleticism. He has the ability to line up inside or outside to create match-up problems.
In his second season with the Giants in 2020, Dexter Lawrence played in all 16 games with 15 starts (60 percent of defensive snaps) and finished the year with 53 tackles, six tackles for a loss, four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and two pass defenses. The Giants drafted Lawrence in the 1st round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team. Built like a prototypical run-stuffing nose tackle with excellent size and strength, the Giants play him more at defensive end. His size and power often force other teams to double-team him. While Lawrence can generate a power rush, he lacks dynamic pass rush moves to consistently reach the quarterback.
For the second year in a row, Dalvin Tomlinson served as the team’s primary nose tackle. He started all 16 games, playing 60 percent of all defensive snaps, and was credited with 49 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and four pass defenses. The Giants drafted Tomlinson in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Tomlinson has started all 64 games since he was drafted and has played both 3- and 1-technique roles with the Giants. Tomlinson is a big, strong, physical defender who flashes the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield.
In his third NFL season, B.J. Hill continued to see his playing time decline. He played in all 16 games with no starts, playing 34 percent of all defensive snaps (down from 59 percent in 2018 and 44 percent in 2019). Hill was credited with 32 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, three quarterback hits, and one pass defense. The Giants drafted Hill in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Hill has a nice combination of size and athleticism. He is a better run defender than pass rusher.
The Giants signed Austin Johnson as an unrestricted free agent from the Tennessee Titans in March 2020. He played in all 16 games, with no starts (21 percent of all defensive snaps), and was credited with 18 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one quarterback hit, one pass defense, and one forced fumble. The 6’4”, 314-pound Johnson was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Titans. In four seasons in Tennessee, Johnson played in 58 regular-season games with 13 starts, compiling 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and five pass defenses. Johnson is a big, strong run defender who never lived up to expectations in Tennessee.
In his third year with the Giants in 2020, R.J. McIntosh spent the entire season on the inactive list. The Giants selected McIntosh in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. After missing most of his rookie season with unpublicized medical condition, McIntosh played in 12 games as a reserve in 2019, playing 10 percent of all defensive snaps, and finishing the year with 13 tackles and two sacks. McIntosh combines good size and overall athleticism.
The Giants signed David Moa to the Practice Squad in early October 2020. The 6’3”, 296-pound Moa was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Minnesota Vikings after the 2020 NFL Draft. The Vikings waived him in early September and he then spent a week on the Practice Squad on the Atlanta Falcons.