EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur wasn't exaggerating when he mentioned this was a "different" kind of season for defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
Bettcher is a coach accustomed to leading top-10 defenses, which he did in each of his three seasons as a coordinator in Arizona. He is used to playing uber-aggressively and attacking opposing quarterbacks with blitzes from every direction. His Cardinals defenses were 10th, second and first, respectively, in blitz percentage each of the previous three seasons.
Things were certainly "different" in his first year with the Giants, beginning with Bettcher failing to command a top-10 defense for the first time in his career. It wasn't what the Giants or Bettcher were expecting when he was hired last offseason. The Giants finished 24th in total defense (371.4 yards per game) and 22nd in weighted DVOA (42 percent).
Hamstrung by a lack of lack of talent and inexperience, this was an unfamiliar Bettcher defense. The Giants blitzed only 26.3 percent of the defensive snaps, which was 22nd in the NFL. That was significantly less than when Bettcher blitzed 33-45 percent of the time in his three years with the Cardinals.
"Different place. Different players. Every situation is different," Shurmur said. "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."
In the end, the Giants finished tied for the second-fewest sacks (30) in the NFL in part because of their lack of established pass-rushers. Yet somehow, perhaps buoyed by the organization's constant desire to tiptoe around quarterback Eli Manning's poor first-half performance, the Giants' defense curiously seems to be taking the brunt of the blame (both publicly and internally) for a 5-11 season. The latest impression of giving up late scoring drives against the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys in the final two weeks of the season also played its part.
The final numbers showed the Giants scored the most points in the NFC East, but their defense also gave up the most.
"Well, that's why you're 5-11,” general manager Dave Gettleman said at his end-of-season news conference.
The main reason?
"We've got to continue to improve. It's not easy to win games when you don't have playmakers. We need to improve the defense, guys," Gettleman said. "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."
Well, who is to blame for that? Certainly not the defensive coordinator who was asked to make meatballs from Spam.
Gettleman traded defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul last offseason and traded Damon Harrison and Eli Apple midseason. The Giants were forced into an early rebuild after the offense stumbled out of the gate. Their 18.8 points per game during a 1-7 start had them 26th in the league entering their bye. They scored 20 or fewer points in six of their first seven losses.
By then, the season was lost. The rest was cosmetic dressing.
Gettleman wasn't helped by the sins of the previous regime, and his offseason acquisitions of middle linebacker Alec Ogletree, outside linebackers Kareem Martin and Connor Barwin, and safety Mike Thomas didn't exactly light the world on fire. Vernon led the team with 7.0 sacks despite playing only 11 games. Landon Collins led them with 96 tackles even after missing the final four weeks.
"Their personnel is not very good," said one NFC executive who watched the Giants play this season.
He wasn't ready to point the finger at the coordinator of a defense that finished 23rd, giving up 25.8 points per game.
"His defense was still hard to prepare for. He's chaotic," the executive added in a complimentary manner. "It was a scheme that you do when you don't have great personnel."
Gettleman's comments were especially curious considering the Giants' defense played hard throughout. They didn't always not play well, especially down the stretch, but everyone can agree they are in need of a massive personnel overhaul this offseason. Pass-rushers, an upgrade at linebacker, a free safety and a starting cornerback are all glaring needs.
The defense's lack of depth was known coming into the season. It's why the Giants' offense was supposed to be the unit that carried them.
Three of the four top-paid players on the roster are on offense. Gettleman used the No. 2 overall pick on running back Saquon Barkley. His top free-agent acquisition was left tackle Nate Solder, who signed the largest contract in NFL history at the time for an offensive lineman, and his biggest move since taking the job was signing star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a long-term deal that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history. Four of the Giants' past five first-round picks were also offense, offense, offense. This team is invested in its offense.
Yet the defense that itself scored three touchdowns in the second half of the season was the primary culprit for 5-11? It's a tough narrative to accept for what another NFL executive described as a group of "mismatched parts and not many playmakers."
It seems a strange approach to deflect blame from an offense that took time to get accustomed to Shurmur's new scheme and get its offensive line in order. The second half of the season was better, but it was already too late.
It left Bettcher scratching and clawing with rookies (three undrafted) playing significant roles down the stretch. That's not a recipe for success. It made for a tough first season for an up-and-down defense that played hard and hung tough most weeks before their talent deficiency was eventually exposed by quality teams and quarterbacks.
"Number one, I want to win -- whether you're top 20 [defense], top 10, to me, that's secondary. I want to win," Bettcher said. "Just like our players that we have in our building, just like Coach Shurmur, just like our ownership, just like our fans, I'm a competitor. I want to win, and whatever it takes to win by any means necessary to get the job done. That's first and foremost. 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."
In an attempt to evaluate his first year as Giants defensive coordinator, it's impossible to begin without mentioning the talent deficit and workarounds necessary to even be as successful as they were. And it's foolish to blame the season on his unit.
Give Bettcher and his defense some players, and then the jury can return with a verdict.