The Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan spent much of the offseason talking about bringing an aggressive, multiple approach to the defense. While that hasn’t necessarily worked out so far, the team will be facing a defense this week in the Giants that’s actually embraced that identity.
But the Giants roster had an easier learning curve than the Cowboys defenders. In Dallas, Nolan tried to transition the team from the most vanilla 4-3 scheme in the league to a complex hybrid style with no proper offseason to install it all. In New York, however, new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham took over for James Bettcher, a disciple of Todd Bowles whose own scheme was already an aggressive, hybrid 3-4 defense. So for Graham to introduce these new concepts, it was a much more shallow gap to bridge than for Nolan.
To that end, though, Graham has truly embraced the multiple nature of his defensive scheme. When asked about his scheme back in August, Graham had this to say:
“I always answer with ‘yes,’” Graham quipped. “So you say 4-3, 3-4, 2-4, 3-3-5, whatever you want to say, I’ll say yes. I’m not trying to make a joke of it. We are going to do what’s best with what we have in terms of the people, the personnel we have and what we think is best for the game.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise given Graham’s background. He spent the first seven years of his NFL coaching career with the Patriots under Bill Belichick’s hybrid defensive system. He then spent two years with the Giants as the defensive line coach for Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme, and a year as the linebackers coach and run game coordinator for Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy’s final year on the job. Graham spent last season as the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, reuniting him with fellow Patriots alum Brian Flores, where they ran the Belichick defense again.
But what exactly is the Belichick defense? It’s hard to quantify because it’s so flexible. One week, you’ll see five guys in three-point stances on the line of scrimmage, and the next week you’ll see just one, and everything in between. The Patriots use a million sub packages - for example, last year they had 20 different defenders that played for at least 20% of all defensive snaps - which allows them to roll out a myriad of different fronts.
So far, Graham has followed the same path, with 19 different players on the field for at least 20% of defensive snaps through the first four games. Injuries have complicated things, though. Graham, like Flores and Belichick, tend to use a lot of Big Nickel packages - meaning three safeties on the field - but injuries have landed Xavier McKinney on the injured reserve, while both Jabrill Peppers and Adrian Colbert have missed games this season and are both questionable for Sunday’s matchup. It’s forced Graham to go deep into his depth chart, starting two former cornerbacks (Logan Ryan and Isaac Yiadom) in last week’s loss to the Rams.
The secondary as a whole has been the Giants’ biggest weakness thus far. Prized free agent signing James Bradberry has been one of the league’s best cover corners so far, allowing a mere 54.2% completion rate. But Bradberry is the lone shining star in the secondary. Rookie Darnay Holmes and second-year cornerback Corey Ballentine have been bullied by opposing quarterbacks; Holmes is allowing a 66.7% completion rate while Ballentine has given up completions on 83.3% of his targets. Yiadom, who’s split time between corner and safety, has allowed a 63.6% rate.
This secondary’s struggles in coverage have been largely covered up in the raw statistics by facing two offenses - the Rams and Mitch Trubisky-led Bears - that rarely attack downfield. As a result, New York ranks eighth in passing yards allowed, but they’ve surrendered 572 passing yards to Ben Roethlisberger and 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens; as such, they’re 24th in the NFL in pass defense DVOA.
Schematically speaking, Graham’s defense features a lot of tight man coverage with rotating safeties over top. Rub routes and bunch formations tend to beat this type of coverage fairly well, especially against such a young and inexperienced group of defensive backs.
The larger issue is the defensive front. Graham has gotten a lot of use out of the trio of Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, and Dexter Lawrence on the defensive line, while MIKE linebacker Blake Martinez (who leads the team in tackles) has been a fixture on the defense. He cycles between Lorenzo Carter, Kyler Fackrell, Oshane Ximines, Devante Downs, and Markus Golden at other linebacker and edge spots; the intent is to send wave after wave of different edge rushers to keep them fresh and keep the offensive line on its toes.
But this is where Dallas matches up well against this defense. The two best ways to counteract a defense like this is to run the offense so quick that they can’t make the substitutions they need and to operate out of the same personnel groupings to limit the different sub packages at Graham’s disposal. That’s already offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s MO, as Dallas ranks tops in the league in pace by a wide margin and also leads the league in 11 personnel usage, utilizing it on 79% of all their offensive plays.
The Cowboys also have a pretty powerful passing attack, and their wide receiver corps is more than capable of beating this thin secondary. If they continue their standard operating procedure of running plays quickly out of 11 personnel, this defense won’t be able to substitute the way they want to, and it will create some really problematic matchup issues for them. The only thing that can stop this Dallas offense, as has been the case all year, is if they get careless with the ball. But if they can solve that problem, it’ll be another big day for the Cowboys offense.