EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Earning NFL Coach of the Year honors, head coach Brian Daboll shouldered much of the praise for the New York Giants’ dramatic turnaround in 2022. Largely lost in the shuffle was the Giants’ defensive improvement in several areas last season.
After leading the Ravens to three top-10 total defense seasons in his four years in Baltimore, new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s impact was as advertised in his first season in New York. Known for his ultra-aggressive, attacking approach and his extravagant blitzes, Martindale’s unit finished with the 13th most sacks in the league and, according to profootballnetwork.com, top-10 in pressures and knockdowns. Those were significant improvements despite largely lacking premiere talent.
But to take the next step in 2023, the Giants’ focus on defense is not of the exotic nature that is the norm when it comes to Martindale. Rather, it’s quite simple: stop the run.
Bobby Okereke, New York’s top free-agent acquisition at linebacker, was candid when asked about whether the ground game has been a point of emphasis for the defense throughout the early portion of training camp.
“One-hundred percent,” he said.
While New York succeeded in disrupting quarterbacks, it struggled mightily on the ground, allowing 5.2 yards per attempt, tied for the second-highest mark in the NFL. Daboll was similarly straightforward in acknowledging his team’s struggles in this area.
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“It’s something we worked on last year, something we need to improve, something we’ll work on this year,” Martindale said.
With external and internal reinforcements now in the fold, the Giants appear to be in position to improve against the run in 2023. The addition of Okereke, who racked up 151 tackles for the Colts last season, should put an end to the revolving door at linebacker. Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari look primed to take a step forward after injury-riddled seasons as they enter their second and third year respectively. And after a breakout season earned him a massive contract extension and a second-team All-Pro nod, Dexter Lawrence continues to ascend as he enters his fifth season in New York.
Perhaps overshadowed by the Giants’ recent influx of young talent on the defensive line is the return of Leonard Williams, a three-year mainstay and a consistently stout run defender who missed five games last year. He should provide a boost in 2023.
“He’s got incredible size. Incredible length. He’s a savvy player, and he’s extremely talented,” offensive lineman Ben Bredeson said of Williams. “He provides a matchup issue for other teams… He’s a guy that you can’t make a mistake on because he knows how to expose it.”
Moreover, New York made some under-the-radar depth signings, bringing in A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, who should help bolster its defensive line and allow for guys like Williams and Lawrence to take a breather at times.
Nuñez-Roches, in particular, has made an early impression on his teammates after flashing as a run-defender across his limited opportunities while playing with a loaded group during his previous five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“So far he’s been playing the run really well,” Williams said of the 30-year-old, who signed a three-year deal with New York on the opening day of free agency. “I think he’s gonna be a great addition on the d-line.”
In terms of actually diagnosing their issues against the ground game, the Giants believe they have little to worry about after looking back on last year’s struggles. They say it’s a simple fix that will come with added comfort and continuity with their scheme and roster.
“Understanding one another,” Nuñez-Roches said of the key to improving at stopping the run. “Just understanding where your neighbor is at … Just being disciplined. Not picking too soon. Just staying there and trusting that your guy will flow to the ball and you don’t have to do anybody else’s job.”
While Daboll noted that working on stopping the run is a priority and that his defense has been working on things like run fits and run blitzes, it is certainly an area that is difficult to get a read on through the initial, less-physical days of training camp. But according to the players, the early returns have been strong.
“There was some things we did [on Monday], routine plays that wasn’t leaving the box,” Nuñez-Roches said of the run defense thus far. “To see those pieces fall together and to see it actually working, I was like, ‘OK, we got something special. Let’s continue to build on that.’”