Considering their reputation and level of play in 2008, the New York Giants’ defense was very disappointing last season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took the head-coaching job in St. Louis and his innovative and timely play calling was missed. Also, there were conflicts between new coordinator Bill Sheridan and the Giants’ defensive players. Now both the run and pass defenses need an upgrade.
The Giants’ pass rush was middle of the road last year. That is unacceptable considering the talent they have at the defensive end position and the overall resources they dedicated to their defensive front last offseason. Did this dip in production stem from coaching or the players? Surely it was a little of both, but with Perry Fewell taking over the defense, expect a step up from the perimeter rushers. Fewell stresses fundamentals and is considered a players’ coach. One worry up front is the defensive tackles’ run defense, which clearly was not up to par.
There is no getting around the problems in personnel last season in the pass defense, which also hindered Sheridan’s play-calling options. The loss of talented safety Kenny Phillips was crushing. Safety is a huge need going forward, even if he is expected to return at full strength. Michael Johnson, Aaron Rouse and C.C. Brown were simply overmatched in coverage. The Giants were very weak up the middle with their pass defense, and because it lacked qualified coverage safeties, New York forced players to line up out of position. It was a desperate -- and unsuccessful -- ploy. If Philips returns to form and the Giants add one starting-caliber safety, this secondary can be quite good. They are strong at cornerback and have found a real keeper in Terrell Thomas to go along with Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, who too often was forced to play safety instead of his natural corner position.
There are issues at linebacker though. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce was released, which is a move I agree with. Never the most physically gifted player, it appears as though what Pierce did have from an athletic standpoint began to fail him. Much more range and playmaking ability is needed in the middle against both run and pass, especially considering the tight ends and pass-catching running backs in the NFC East.
The Michael Boley experiment on the outside did not yield enough overall, but he was particularly poor against the run. Boley is more of a run-and-hit player and running at him directly exposes his weaknesses. Perhaps his best role would be as a sub package linebacker; they need to create competition for his starting weakside spot on early downs.
While the Giants have several mediocre options for both the Mike and Will linebacker spots, I don’t see a lot of upside with that crew outside of Boley. On the strong side, Danny Clark isn’t flashy, but he is tough and effective. He is an unrestricted free agent and hopefully the Giants lock him up, but his backup, Clint Sintim, does has more ability, speed and potential. However, neither of these two project well to the middle or weak side.
Having a new coordinator could yield immediate results, but Fewell’s scheme is based a great deal on speed and range. With that in mind, New York needs to find one linebacker with elite playmaking abilities, maybe Rolando McClain in the draft or Karlos Dansby in free agency.
I see safety as the No. 1 personnel need here, followed immediately by a difference-maker at linebacker. A nose tackle-type would be third, as the foursome of Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty, Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins were all underwhelming, but there is ability among this defensive tackle rotation. Robbins can push the pocket, but more was needed from him stopping the run and his stamina is questionable. He is an unrestricted free agent and could be replaced. A second linebacker to battle for a starting spot would be ideal.
This sounds like a long list, but the Giants are set on the offensive side of the ball, so expect their resources to be dedicated to fixing this once-proud defense.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.