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20 Questions: Bigger emphasis on special teams?


With the calendar flipped to July, asks 20 important questions heading into the team's 2020 training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.

For the next 20 days, a member of the crew will answer one question about the roster, coaching staff, schedule, and much more.

No. 8: Will there be more of an emphasis on special teams given Joe Judge's background?

Dan Salomone: There are three tenets of being a physical football team. The first two – stopping the run and running the ball – are agreed upon by every head coach. The third can be debated. Some say rush the passer; Joe Judge says it is covering kicks. That is the Nick Saban and the Bill Belichick in him. That is the longtime special teams coach, the three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time college football national champion in him.

"Those are three things you need to do to be a physical team, and you can't win in this league without being a physical team," Judge said during this offseason. "You look at the teams every year whose seasons extend longer than other teams. They do certain things in common. That always kind of goes back to the same traits."

Judge's first task as head coach was putting together a staff which, after a methodical search, included six members who were with the Giants last year. Of those, two coach special teams. Thomas McGaughey returns for his third season as special teams coordinator, and he's assisted by his predecessor, Tom Quinn, who was the Giants' special teams coordinator from 2007-17.

"The experience is important, but the success is more important," Judge said. "They've been doing it at a high success rate for a long time. The fact that they had a relationship working together already, I had a relationship with both guys from going against them and have known them within the profession for some time now. T-Mac and Tom do a tremendous job. I love the way they relate to the players, I love the way they coach their guys. You know when you go against their units that they're going to be sound and they're going to play hard, and that's critical. I have a lot of respect for both of them."

In 2019, the Giants' kickoff coverage team led the NFL by allowing an average return of just 18.1 yards while the punt coverage team finished tied for fifth (5.7 avg.). Conversely, the Giants' return squads were fourth and 10th, respectively, on punts (9.8) and kickoffs (23.5).

In other words, Judge liked what he saw.

The unit should only be stronger with the addition of Judge's expertise and the host of players the Giants signed or drafted this offseason. Most notable is Nate Ebner, the lone player to participate in the Olympics (rugby) and win the NFL championship in the same year. Ebner played in New England from 2012-19, the same eight years Judge was either a Patriots special teams assistant or coordinator. Ebner had more than 10 special teams tackles in six of his eight seasons, and the Patriots won all three Super Bowls in which he played (Ebner was sidelined for New England's loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII after tearing his ACL while running for 14 yards and a first down on a fake punt vs. Miami on Nov. 26, 2017).

The Giants also signed Pro Bowl long snapper and former Bronco Casey Kreiter to take over for two-timer Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl veteran Zak DeOssie, who remains a free agent. Meanwhile, the team selected four linebackers on the final day of the draft, so you know they will have to learn their stripes on special teams.

"No one really looks at those intricacies as much as they do offense or defense, but they're out there and they're happening every game," Ebner said. "In the kicking game, just as well. Those finer points can be the difference-maker, especially in a phase of the game that's a one-play series. You don't get four downs. You don't have a bunch of opportunities. You get one chance. Sometimes, those opportunities can be game-changing opportunities.

"Those details matter, and I think having played as long as I have, I, hopefully, can kind of build on what I've experienced. That's why I love the kicking game. It's a one-play series that's balls to the wall for the entire time. It's not like you get an incomplete pass and you're back in the deep part of the field, and not covering grass and it's a run play or something like that. Every single play in the kicking game is absolutely full speed and a dog fight. Every single one of them. It's fun."

It also wins games.

John Schmeelk: Since we haven't seen this defense in a practice setting, I can only go based on the limited info that has been mentioned by the players and coaches in their off-season interviews. Head coach Joe Judge indicated it would look similar to what Patrick Graham did in Miami. If so, here are some characteristics Giants fans should expect to see:

Plenty of man-to-man

Only Matt Patricia's Detroit Lions played more Cover 1 than the Dolphins last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Detroit spent 516 of their 1144 snaps playing man-to-man with a single-high safety, while the Dolphins used that scheme on 491 of their 1116 defensive snaps. The Patriots and Giants were tied for the fourth-most plays in Cover 1. Coaches from the Bill Belichick tree like to play man-to-man and there's no reason to think the Giants won't do the same in 2020.

High blitz frequency

The Dolphins blitzed on 35.1% of their defensive snaps last year, which was the seventh-highest frequency in the NFL, according to PFF. The Giants blitzed about 30% of the time last year, which was just above the league average. Without a proven pass rusher, Miami used many players standing up at the line of scrimmage to confuse quarterbacks. There were many third-and-longs characterized by several players standing near the line of scrimmage to disguise who was blitzing and who was dropping into coverage.

3-4 base defense

I think Graham will use a 3-4 as his base scheme, but he and Judge have indicated the team's basic fronts can change week to week to counter their opponents.

An amoeba defense

Belichick's defenses have always liked to shift their schemes from week to week or series to series, depending on the opponent's offensive scheme. Judge and Graham have been forthright that they plan on having their defense look very different each week. Shifting schemes like this can make it difficult on opposing offenses to prepare for the Giants' defense.

View photos of every roster addition made by the Giants this offseason.

Lance Medow: Joe Judge was asked this question when he spoke with the media in May and his response: "I think, schematically, the easiest way to describe it right now, to the outside world is: It's going to be similarly based on what Jason has done in Dallas over the last 10 or so years. There's going to be some similarities catering to that, but it's got to cater to our players on our roster." It's important to note, Jason Garrett last called plays for the Cowboys in 2012. Since then, Bill Callahan (2013-14), Scott Linehan (2015-18) and Kellen Moore (2019) assumed that role, although Garrett still played an integral role in formulating the game plan on a weekly basis. So the core principles Garrett implemented in 2007, when he took over as Cowboys offensive coordinator, always had a presence.

The Giants will have a balanced offense under Garrett. If you look at his tenure in Dallas, the Cowboys didn't take the ball out of the hands of Tony Romo or Dak Prescott, and I don't see that approach changing with a young signal caller coming off an impressive rookie season in Daniel Jones. Garrett's offense is vertical and aggressive, and one way to take on that persona is to allow your quarterback to make plays. Last season, Prescott (career-high 596 pass attempts) and wide receiver Randall Cobb (1) combined for the Cowboys' 597 throws to 449 rushes. In 2018, the Cowboys had 527 pass attempts to 439 rushes, and in 2017, they threw the ball 493 times against 480 runs. Prescott's pass attempts went up in each of his four seasons while the team's run totals remained in the same ballpark. Keep in mind, Prescott had a new offensive coordinator (Kellen Moore) in 2019 and his attempts still increased. Moore had already been on staff as the quarterbacks coach in 2018, so familiarity was a factor. Therefore, this doesn't necessarily mean Garrett will pull back the reins just because Daniel Jones is learning a new offense and working with a new coordinator.

According to Pro Football Focus, Prescott was the NFL's fourth-best quarterback in 2019 when it came to deep passes (thrown 20+ yards), completing 46% for a 110.2 passer rating and 15.2 yards per attempt. While the deep ball was a staple of the Cowboys' offense, let's not overlook the fact that executing these plays still come down to the individual quarterback, skill position players and offensive linemen.

Although the Giants' personnel isn't a duplication of what Garrett worked with in Dallas, there are still similarities. Much like Ezekiel Elliott, New York has a game-changing running back in Saquon Barkley and whereas Prescott has a bit more experience than Jones, they're both mobile and have the ability to extend plays. The Cowboys have stressed featuring the tight end, specifically Jason Witten, but even Blake Jarwin received opportunities. The Giants can showcase Evan Engram and Kaden Smith, so I would expect both to be utilized in a similar manner. Last season, the latter two combined for 94 receptions on 124 targets, accounting for 24% of the Giants' completions and 21% of the targets. All of these factors are why you can expect aggressive attempts downfield, the presence of a run game fueled by a workhorse, and tight ends to make plays in the middle of the field.

Dan Salomone: "Earn it." Those two words jumped out to me during Joe Judge's introductory press conference in January, and everything has branched off that philosophy. By now, you've heard all about his ties to Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, so it's no surprise where that influence came from. There's no magic scheme or new gimmick that will get the Giants back on track. Judge isn't reinventing the wheel; he is stressing the fundamentals on a daily basis – in the classroom, on the practice field, and then in games. That was the biggest lesson he learned from his wildly successful mentors.

"You don't build the Empire State Building by washing the windows," Judge said. "You build it with the foundation and work it on up."

Tactically, Judge is building a team that can morph week to week. He wants to have the flexibility to adjust the game plan and maximize the Giants' strengths versus the opponent's weaknesses. One week, he will run the ball 50 times; in another, he will pass it 50 times. Of course, you need the right personnel to do it. What the Giants did in the draft and free agency clearly reflects the value he places on versatility.

This has been an off-season like no other for a first-year head coach. Judge has said from the beginning of the virtual program that the advantage goes to the most prepared team going forward. While trying to leave no stone unturned, he knew the biggest challenge to working remotely would be the team-building element. For that, he set up trivia challenges for everyone to get to know each other and their surroundings.

"We kind of took some lessons from really watching my kids do virtual school and some guys from around the country on what they were doing at different colleges and different pro programs," Judge said in a remote interview with the Voice of the Giants Bob Papa as the team wrapped up its off-season program. "I was watching my kids use the Kahoot! app, and we found out a couple of colleges were using the same thing. Really, it started through player development and went across the offense and defense, as well, in terms of having some daily competitions and weekly competitions. We subdivided the teams into different groups and made it competitive, played for some prizes. We were able to ask questions about things related to getting to know your teammate or getting to know the area, organizational history or maybe something directly tied into offense or defense.

"It was fun. It changes it up a little bit. It gets guys interacting. When you first start the meetings, everyone will come in with a muted screen the first couple of weeks. It was very quiet. Then over time, they got more comfortable. Really, the best part of the day was you'd click on a few minutes before the meetings start and you'd hear the players cutting up on each other, kind of calling out who needs a haircut, who's been doing what. That was really the best time, hearing the guys interacting like they would in the locker room. We wanted to let that grow as organically as we could throughout the Spring."

John Schmeelk: Saquon Barkley is the easy answer. He is the most physically gifted played on the roster and may take it to the house any time he touches the ball. He could lead the NFL in 20-yard rushes and yards from scrimmage. Barkley is also an accomplished route runner, and can do more than just turn screens and dump-offs into big plays. I expect to see him on downfield passing routes - whether they are wheel, circle or option routes to get him isolated on slower defensive players. I expect Barkley, who must avoid the injuries that plagued him in his sophomore campaign, to be the focal point of a run-heavy offense in 2020.

I also want to give an honorable mention to Golden Tate. He was extremely productive after returning from last year's four-game suspension. It doesn't look like the veteran has lost much of his athleticism, even though he will turn 32 in August. Tate can still create separation and win on every level of the defense. He is still one of the best receivers in the NFL running after the catch. I think he will lead the team in receptions and become Daniel Jones' go-to receiver.

View photos of all skill position players on the Giants' 90-man roster.

Lance Medow: Following the draft, the team signed two wide receivers from Ohio State - Austin Mack (6-2) and Binjimen Victor (6-4), who bring length and size to the room. The Giants already have a great deal of versatility with their top three wideouts - Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton - but if there's one facet missing, it's size. That's why I think Mack and Victor could surprise many and compete for roster spots.

Both rookie receivers are coming off career years at OSU, mainly because their playing time increased after having to patiently wait for opportunities. Mack has a knack for working the sidelines and came through with some nifty grabs last season as he posted career highs in receptions (27), receiving yards (361) and touchdowns (3), but Victor's even a bit more intriguing because he can assume the role of a skyscraper for Daniel Jones. Victor hauled in 17 touchdowns over the last three seasons, primarily serving as a red zone target. The Buckeyes constantly turned to him when they were in scoring position and more often than not, he won jump balls against various corners.

It's easy to classify Victor as a typical tall, red zone receiver, but don't overlook his subtle speed and stride. On several occasions, the Buckeyes found ways to get Victor into open space and his ability to collect yardage after the catch and elude defenders can go unnoticed. Last October against Michigan State, he turned a short pass up the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. The Buckeyes also targeted him deep downfield. I think Victor could serve as the perfect complement to the main receiving corps and provide more options for Jones.

View photos of every undrafted free agent signed by the Giants.