EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It has been almost three months since the New York Giants convened for the start of their offseason workout program. That was the players’ first crack at seeing what the defense and its new scheme under James Bettcher would look like this season.
After the past three seasons with Steve Spagnuolo running the defense, everyone knew there would be change. It began with a 3-4 scheme, but aside from that, the specifics were shrouded in uncertainty.
Slowly the details have come into focus as the Giants close out their final two days of mandatory minicamp this week. Expect blitzing. Lots of blitzing.
The Cardinals under Bettcher blitzed 37 percent of the time last season. That was tied for fifth in the NFL. It was down from 41 and 47 percent the previous two years when they led the league.
This has been noticeable at Giants practices. Linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks are attacking the quarterbacks with regularity.
“An aggressive style. [Bettcher’s defenses] try and pressure the QB and bring five guys. Disrupt the QB and not let him sit in the pocket,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “They are always tough to prepare for because they are multiple.”
The Giants likely will need to bring more than four rushers. Olivier Vernon is the only player on their roster who has ever recorded double-digit sacks at the NFL level. Bettcher plans to use him in the same role that Chandler Jones played in the Cardinals defense. Jones led the NFL with 17 sacks last season after recording 11 the previous year.
After Vernon, nobody else on the Giants has ever topped four sacks in a single season. With this in mind, Bettcher’s scheme may come in handy.
The starting middle linebackers this spring have been Alec Ogletree and B.J. Goodson. Both have some potential as blitzers.
Bettcher has immediately put Ogletree, a veteran acquired in an offseason trade with the Los Angeles Rams, in a leadership position. This was something general manager Dave Gettleman noted was needed when the move was made.
Ogletree is wearing the headset on the field during practices that allows him to communicate with Bettcher.
“It’s been said I’ve been the quarterback of the defense, I guess,” Ogletree said. “But at my position, it comes with some sense of leadership, where you’ve got to get guys lined up and stuff. But for me, I try to lead by example, and doing the right thing before I say something. Just so you can see it instead of just listening to what I’m saying. If I’m speaking the right thing, I’ve got to be doing the right thing.”
Not much went right for the Giants last season, when they finished with the 31st-ranked defense. Cornerbacks Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins were part of the problems at times. They have been the starting cornerback tandem again this spring. The Giants hoping for better seasons from both Jenkins and Apple.
At safety they have Landon Collins, who has been slowed this spring by arm surgery, and a free safety to be determined. Andrew Adams, Darian Thompson, Curtis Riley, Michael Thomas and even Orion Stewart have received some first-team reps throughout the spring.
Collins could be among Bettcher’s most popular pass-rushers. He recorded 4.0 sacks during an All-Pro year in 2016. This defense has him excited about the possibilities.
“If I were to describe it, I would say like what I came from in college, honestly,” Collins said. "When [Bettcher] came in and he started coaching, it was like I’m back to kind of my grounds and stuff like that. Still quarters [coverage], still stuff like that, but back to my grounds from what I had learned in college. It’s kind of second nature.”
Collins played collegiately at Alabama under Nick Saban, who famously plays a pattern-matching coverage scheme on the back end that is a hybrid zone/man approach where defensive backs play man-to-man until the receivers cross and are passed off.
Bettcher’s defense uses similar concepts. If he has similar success to Saban, the Giants' defense should be just fine with its new look.