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Will the Giants’ pass rush be better in 2024?



Will the Giants’ pass rush be better in 2024?

During the Wink Martindale era, the hoped-for invigoration of the New York Giants’ pass rush didn’t really happen. Per Pro Football Reference, the 2023 Giants only finished 18th in pressure percentage, 23rd in quarterback knockdown percentage, and 30th in sack percentage. Things were better in 2022, but still, the Giants only finished with the 13th-worst Pro Football Focus team pass rush grade (68.7) vs. a seventh-worst 66.1 in 2023.

On the inside defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence was a revelation, becoming perhaps the best interior lineman in the NFL with the retirement of Aaron Donald. On the outside, though, Kayvon Thibodeaux was hot and cold as a pass rusher while Azeez Ojulari, once hoped to be a fixture in the pass rush, was either injured or ineffective. Here are the stats for the four Giants’ four edge defenders who averaged at least two pass rush snaps per game:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Thibodeaux had a good year sacking the QB; his 13 sacks tied for 12th in the NFL. His overall pressure total of 43 was only good for 47th in the league. Ojulari had a similar rate of pass rush production when he was in the game, which was about half as often as Thibodeaux. Boogie Basham, who played sparingly, produced even more sparingly, with zero pressures in his 89 pass rush snaps. Jihad Ward, now gone, produced at a similar rate as Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux’s very average 62.9 PFF pass rush grade was nonetheless the best on the Giants.

It made sense, then, that general manager Joe Schoen traded to get Brian Burns from the Carolina Panthers. Burns is probably not a top five NFL edge defender, even though the Giants are paying him like one. He is very good, though, and simply by virtue of him lining up on the side opposite of Thibodeaux and drawing attention from defenses, Thibodeaux may see more one-on-one matchups and be positioned to have a better third year than his first two have been.

There are other reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic about the Giants’ pass rush improving this year, though. Let’s look at a few:

Andre Patterson will be working with edge defenders

The separation of the edge and IDL rooms during the Martindale era didn’t make any sense, regardless of who the specific coaches were, because the two groups need to work together on the field. When one of those coaches is Andre Patterson, though, it’s crazy not to get the most benefit from his knowledge. Patterson came to the Giants with a sterling reputation for developing defensive linemen. Upon joining the Giants in 2022, Patterson helped Dexter Lawrence improve his technique and made the strategic decision to play him mostly as a nose tackle directly opposite the center. Lawrence was already good, but under Patterson he has been almost off the charts:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Patterson will work with new outside linebackers coach Charlie Bullen. If you aren’t familiar with Bullen, think back to the 2020 Giants-Cardinals game when Arizona, with Bullen in the same role, sacked Giants quarterbacks 8 times in a 26-7 win. We don’t know what Burns’ and especially Thibodeaux’s ceilings are, but it’s not unreasonable to anticipate some improvement with the coaching they will get this season.

Really the Giants need a reliable rotation at that position so that Burns and Thibodeaux don’t wear down. Azeez Ojulari has basically been written off by many Giants fans because of his frequent injuries. The promise of Ojulari’s 8.0-sack rookie season was not duplicated after that. It’s not that simple, though. Ojulari had eight sacks and 42 total pressures in 435 pass rush snaps as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus. In year two, those numbers dropped to 5.5 sacks and 20 total pressures…but in only 155 pass rush snaps, only a bit more than one-third the snaps he had as a rookie. Ojulari was pretty productive as a sophomore before his injury. He is saddled with the “injury-prone” label because he entered the league with red flags stemming from a high school ACL tear, but his NFL injuries have had nothing to do with that. For all the criticism he has taken, the chart above shows that he had more than half as many total pressures as Thibodeaux did in about half the pass rush snaps in 2023.

Can Ojulari be something more under Patterson and Bullen? If so the Giants’ pass rush from the outside may become a strength. That still leaves the Giants one player short – next to Lawrence on the IDL rather than on the edge – but that is a question for another day.

In Hard Knocks Offseason Episode 1, Shane Bowen asked whether Boogie Basham might be one of the four “penetrators” on the line he was seeking. Basham was a promising second round pick but has done little in the NFL. As a bigger (275-pound) strength-based rusher he may be miscast as an outside speed-rushing edge, as he was used exclusively by Martindale. Physically, Basham resembles the Titans’ Denico Autry, an undrafted free agent who slowly developed into one of the NFL’s better pass rushers over time. Autry played over the tackle quite a bit and even in the B-gap for Bowen. Will Bowen try the same thing with Basham? Or, will Basham struggle to even make the 53-0man roster?

The edge defenders may operate in more true pass sets

One of the more interesting metrics that PFF has developed is “true pass sets” as a filter for evaluating pass rushers as well as offensive linemen. The idea is that to identify the true abilities of players at these positions, you have to separate “traditional” plays from plays in which special things are done to create an advantage on one or the other side of the football.

In simplest terms, a true pass set on offense is a play in which the quarterback just drops back to pass without any chicanery like screens, play-action, RPOs, rollouts, that put rushers at a disadvantage. On the defensive side, if the defense is dropping eight or more players into coverage or rushing more than five that also creates bias in evaluating an individual player, depending on the player’s role on that play. A quarterback can neutralize a good pass rusher by getting the ball out quickly or can help a below-average pass rusher by holding the ball too long. PFF tries to eliminate those plays, most of which help the offense, to get a “pure” assessment of a pass rusher’s ability.

PFF gives separate pass rush grades for all pass rush snaps and just for true pass set snaps. This allows us to see which players are most hurt or helped by the non-vanilla passing or pass rushing plays. Here are the edge defenders whose true pass set pass rush grade most exceeds their overall pass rush grade:

Based on data from Pro Football Focus

In the left column we see that the average edge defender is slightly better (2.5 points) in PFF pass grade in true pass sets (TPS) than on other plays. No edge defender who played the majority of pass rush snaps in 2023 was hurt more by plays that weren’t true pass sets than Kayvon Thibodeaux, whose TPS pass rush grade was 10.2 points higher than his overall pass rush grade. No. 13 on the list is Brian Burns, whose TPS pass rush grade was 4.6 points higher than his overall grade.

In the right column we see that on average edge defenders rush in true pass sets just about half the time. Thibodeaux saw true pass sets the third least often of any pass rusher in the league, and Burns fifth least. That put them at a disadvantage in rushing the QB compared to the average player. The offense has a lot to say about whether a rusher sees a true pass set, since they are the ones who call screens, rollouts, etc., but the defense does have a say with the type of defense they call on any play.

And that brings us to Shane Bowen vs. Wink Martindale. Here are the full and true pass set pass rush stats for the three leading edge pass rushers on the Giants and Tennessee Titans last season:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

I’ve sorted the list above by number of pass rush snaps by each player in true pass sets (highlighted in light blue). This alone completely sorts the two teams, i.e., all three Titans edge defenders had more pass rush snaps in true pass sets than all three Giants edge defenders. If you look at the snaps for all pass rush plays you can see that Thibodeaux rushed more often than any Titans player, but about 50 times fewer in true pass sets than any of them.

Again, the offense has something to say about that, but given the amount of blitzing by linebackers and defensive backs that Martindale called and the tendency this creates for the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, the lower number of true pass set rushes may not be a surprise. Bowen favors stunts as his preferred means of getting pressure.

One other piece of evidence in support of the idea of Thibodeaux’s pass rush being limited by Martindale’s defensive philosophy: During Martindale’s four years as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, his leading pass rushing edge defender each year was as follows:

  • 2018: Za’Darius Smith, 79.3 overall pass rush grade, 89.2 TPS pass rush grade
  • 2019: Matthew Judon, 78.3 overall, 88.2 TPS
  • 2020: Yannick Ngakoue, 76.2 overall, 83.5 TPS
  • 2021: Justin Houston, 77.4 overall, 86.2 TPS

Those players admittedly had a higher pass rush grade than Thibodeaux, but all were veterans of at least three years when Martindale became DC. Each one of them had a TPS pass rush grade 7-10 points higher than their overall grade.

Will Giants edge defenders spend less time in coverage?

Another issue for the Giants might be the frequency with which edge defenders like Thibodeaux were dropped into pass coverage rather than rushing the passer. Here are the coverage stats for the Giants and Titans; I’ve also included the Carolina Panthers here so we can see how Brian Burns was deployed:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

This chart includes every edge defender who dropped into coverage at least 20 times during the season. Harold Landry of the Titans actually played in coverage more (89 snaps) than any of the others, though Thibodeaux was close behind at 84. There were only six other edge defenders in the NFL who played in coverage more than Landry.

We’ll have to see, then, whether Bowen envisions using Thibodeaux and/or Burns the way he used Landry. On the one hand, it seems a shame not to exploit Burns’ and Thibodeaux’s pass rushing talent to get to the quarterback as much as possible. On the other hand, both were pretty good in coverage last season, with NFL passer ratings against only in the 90s, and Burns actually had a very good 77.7 PFF coverage grade. However, with Bobby Okereke and Isaiah Simmons both being strong in pass coverage, Bowen may decide to keep his edge defenders moving forward rather than dropping back.

The title of this article is posed as a question, not a prediction. It’s hard to imagine anything but good coming from the addition of Brian Burns and the expansion of Patterson’s duties to include the edge defenders. The real wild card is Bowen himself and how the players adapt to his philosophy, which is very different from Martindale’s. Add in the uncertainty regarding who if anyone on the roster can provide interior pass rush next to Dexter Lawrence. Perhaps the best thing is that Bowen’s defense appears to be simpler to learn and execute than Martindale’s, with less thinking and more reacting, and that may be the best way to exploit the athleticism that the Giants have up front.

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