The running joke with Patrick Graham is that his Yale-educated mind always mixes up common sayings.
The Giants defensive coordinator recently said “talk me off the bridge” instead of ledge. He has used “jump the gun” out of context. He is confused by the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. But here’s one he should make certain to never forget again: Sometimes, less is more.
For the second straight season, the Giants defense is experiencing a midseason breakthrough responsible for reviving once-dead playoff hopes. The Panthers, Raiders and Chiefs are averaging 20.5, 23.3 and 26.2 points per game, respectively, but managed just 39 total points as three favorites who wound up 1-2 against a newly pared-down version of Graham’s system.
“I think Pat has done a great job of calling the things we do well in critical situations — like third down and red [zone] — as opposed to trying to have the perfect defense for what they might run,” safety Logan Ryan said. “Kind of going back to what we do well and let them beat us in that — and putting guys in position to make plays.”
One year ago, after the Giants started 1-7, Graham cut down on blitzing and scrapped his man-to-man coverage plan in favor of a heavier dose of zone. The thought when the Giants signed Adoree’ Jackson to fill a gaping hole at the No. 2 cornerback opposite James Bradberry was that man-to-man coverage was making a comeback, especially as Graham teased going deeper into the scheme than in 2020.
“If you leave it to me, I might go a little crazy. I’m sitting there on vacation on the Vineyard this summer, yeah, I start thinking about stuff,” Graham said in August. “The playbook will grow as we grow as a unit. The thing for us is establishing a foundation of our core principles and from there, based on the opponent, it can grow.”
The irony is it seems the Giants’ improvements after this season’s 1-5 start have come in conjunction with a less-is-more approach. Settling back into more zone coverage despite Jackson’s addition is one of the tweaks.
The biggest difference, however, is happening pre-snap. Watching the amount of hand-gesture communication and alignment shifting through the first six games suggested that messages lost in translation were leading to busted coverages and allowing receivers to run free, especially as the Cowboys and Rams rang up 75 offensive points in back-to-back games. Graham never eased up, continuing his hard-coaching style.
“That’s the only way that you should want to be coached,” Jackson said.
Suddenly, the amount of pre-snap thinking was limited and reactions looked more instinctual. No wonder Graham actually “hates playbooks.”
“I think the thing that happens naturally with defenses is the communication becomes better over time, you get more and more comfortable working with one another,” Graham said. “I obviously have to speed up my process in terms of figuring out where to put guys in the right spot.”
Yes, learning what-not-to-do in the first month of the season is a risky proposition. Opponents during the three-game defensive turnaround are converting 28.2 percent of third downs, have scored three touchdowns on 13 red-zone trips and have six total points in the final two minutes of halves — all of which represent significant progress over where those marks stood after six games.
“By that aspect and us coming together and understanding what we wanted to do and what we needed to do to get the job done,” Jackson said, “it started working for us.”
The fickle nature of the NFL is such that Graham received (and declined) a head coach interview request from the Jets last offseason. Then, after the Giants defense’s poor start, Graham surprisingly was omitted last week from the list of 11 minority candidates the NFL advisory committee vetted and recommended receive strong consideration for future head coach vacancies, according to NFL.com. Now, after a mini-surge, Graham again is a hot candidate in league circles, according to CBS Sports.
“Pat is as good as any coach in the league of listening to his players and listening to his coaches and not being afraid to take advice from the players,” Ryan said. “He does a great job of adjusting throughout the year and saying, ‘Although we thought this was going to be what we practiced all week, actually I think we need to run this.’ It might not be what you pictured in the offseason.”
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