EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants sit right now in what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called an “embarrassing pit.” Fifty-one points allowed in one afternoon to the Los Angeles Rams will do that to a team. It's a slap in the face of a once-proud defensive unit.
There may be nothing more confounding in this debacle that has become the Giants season than the sudden collapse of their defense. They were expected to be a top unit after allowing the second-fewest points in the NFL last season, and brought most of their key pieces back. Instead, they have been a discombobulated mess under Spagnuolo, as equally inept as the offense (16.1 ppg) and special teams.
Among the complaints that have surfaced in recent weeks is Spagnuolo having complicated the Giants’ defense to the point of players not knowing their assignments during games. In particular, they have been criticized for having gotten away from what works best with their personnel -- press-man on the outside -- and running more deceptive zones instead.
It has created mass confusion and far too many miscommunications.
“This year it has become a little more difficult with the defense, and why this year you’ve seen more miscommunication problems out there,” second-year cornerback Eli Apple said recently.
The Giants have allowed 31 pass plays of 20-plus yards, tied for fourth-most in the league. Opposing receivers seem to be running uncontested down the field with regularly.
Players aren’t especially happy with how they have performed or the circumstances they've been asked to perform under.
“We kind of have been all over the place, trying stuff instead of just being us,” safety Landon Collins said.
The Giants’ answer for this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers and beyond is to simplify things. Expect them to call fewer coverages and concentrate on what they’ve done best over the past year and a half.
It’s an all-too-common refrain for this team.
“We talked about doing simple better. We hit that before,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “We made it an increased emphasis this week. ... Asked the coaches to come up with a sound plan this week. Sound plan -- doing simple better to teach and demand.”
Unfortunately we’ve seen this before with the Giants' defense and Spagnuolo in particular. This was the approach after they finished 32nd in total defense in 2015. The Giants players wanted Spagnuolo to streamline his often-complicated defense. The coaching staff seemed to agree that was the best route.
It appeared to work. Spagnuolo commanded the league’s 10th-ranked defense last season. But the simplification is a never-ending, somewhat cyclical process.
“We’re always, I mean, we’re always doing that. Look, things don’t go good, we can find all kinds of excuses,” he said. “We’re always doing that. We’ll continue to do it. We’re just going to try and find the things that work for us, knowing that we have different people in there. Last year was a -- we all know how blessed we were last year, to stay as healthy as we were, because you can start adding pieces, you know. This year is a little bit different. So, we’ll go forward accordingly.”
It seems like a step back considering where the Giants were this summer. They were expecting to make a leap with a group that had most of its key contributors in at least their second year in Spagnuolo’s system. He would tell players every once in a while this summer that they were in graduate school.
Perhaps they weren’t ready. The Giants' defense apparently hadn’t yet earned its undergraduate degree with one solid season.
It was a concern that Spagnuolo had at least entertained prior to the season.
“Yeah, I mean every once in a while I say to the guys, ‘Look, we are in graduate school now. We are there, so we are going to put in something a little bit more complex,’” Spagnuolo said this summer. “And that was the graduate thing last year. We built on it and I think it helped the guys to do it that way rather than to throw it all on them.”
Giving them the whole playbook has seemingly backfired in the first half of the season. Consider it a gross miscalculation, one of many this season for the Giants. It came to a head Sunday against the Rams when they allowed five pass plays of 30 or more yards and receivers were running uncontested all over the field.
It may be too late to save the season at this point. The mistakes made by the defense and their coordinator are indelible. The Giants (1-7) haven't played to their ability or expectations.
But they’re going to try to salvage some respect in the second half of the season. And they’re going to do it by, quite simply, dumbing down the defense.
Maybe they should have done it earlier.