When the Cardinals shut out the Giants, 23-0, on Christmas Eve in Arizona, what stood out wasn’t just the Giants’ offensive futility but the Cardinals’ rabid pursuit of the ball.
Wayne Gallman impressively got up after every hit he took from that Cardinal defense, gaining 62 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches, but that said more for the rookie running back’s toughness than anything.
“Every single yard we gained in Arizona,” Gallman told the Daily News late last season, “we earned.”
James Bettcher, 39, the young coordinator of that ferocious Cardinals unit, now will coach the Giants’ defense under new head coach Pat Shurmur. And with Landon Collins and Damon Harrison leading the way, the idea is that in 2018 it will be the Giants’ turn to punish their foes — likely with blitz-heavy schemes that are Bettcher’s calling-card.
His defense typically works out of a 3-4 base with three down linemen and four linebackers, a hallmark of the ’80s Super Bowl champion Giants of Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks and Leonard Marshall, and a significant departure from the 4-3 alignment the team has utilized the past two decades to produce two more titles.
Bettcher becomes the second Cardinals defensive coordinator in four years to leave for a promotion in New York. He succeeded Todd Bowles in Arizona when Bowles became head coach of the Jets in 2016.
The Giants under new GM Dave Gettleman have envisioned throughout this hiring process a return to the franchise’s reliable identity, with stingy defense defining most of their best all-time teams. They did not succeed in luring Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to be their next head coach (he chose the Detroit Lions), but they got a revered mind in Bettcher, perhaps the hottest defensive coach on the rise outside of Patricia.
Bettcher’s hiring is equally as meaningful, though, in its dismissal of Spagnuolo, the two-time Giants’ defensive coordinator with a Super Bowl ring from the 2007 season who took over as interim head coach the final four games of 2017 after Ben McAdoo was fired.
Spagnuolo and Shurmur are close. They worked together as assistants on Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles staff from 1999-2006. Shurmur owed Spagnuolo one, since in 2009 when Spagnuolo got the St. Louis Rams head coaching job, he hired Shurmur as offensive coordinator for two years, which helped Shurmur land his first head coaching job in Cleveland in 2011. And the Giants even interviewed Spagnuolo for the head coaching vacancy.
And yet there is no question: The fact Spagnuolo is not being retained is an indication that John Mara was telling the truth when he said he wanted to make as full and clean a break as possible from their 3-13 dysfunctional 2017 season — “wholesale changes” is what he called it.
So that meant not only firing McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese on Dec. 4 but saying goodbye to Spagnuolo, whose defense not only struggled on the field but had three players suspended, all defensive backs — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple.
Spagnuolo’s Giants defense carried the team to an 11-5 record and the organization’s only playoff berth in the last six seasons in 2016, McAdoo’s rookie season as head coach, with the NFL’s second-best scoring defense (17.8 points allowed per game). Collins and Harrison both made first-team All-Pro.
But both 2015 and 2017 were catastrophes, and this past season, the Giants’ defense ranked 31st of 32 teams in yards allowed per game (373.2), 27th in average points allowed (24.2), and saw players quit on plays in multiple games.
Gettleman and Shurmur primarily and ultimately will be responsible for resolving the character and effort issues from last season’s roster. And Gettleman’s purge, which started with his early postseason release of right tackle Bobby Hart, has only just begun.
Bettcher, who hails from Lakeville, Ind., bounced around as a college assistant before breaking into the NFL in 2012 with Chuck Pagano’s Colts. He is exciting from a football standpoint because of his creative and aggressive approach. Per Pro Football Focus, his Cardinals defenses led the NFL in blitz rate in 2015 (47%), tied for first in 2016 (41%) and tied for fifth in 2017 (37%).
The Cardinals didn’t always rank among top teams in points allowed in Bettcher’s three years as coordinator: eighth in 2015 (19.6), 14th in 2016 (22.6) and 19th last season (22.6). But they were stingy surrendering yards, fifth in 2015 (321.7), second in 2016 (305.2) and sixth last year (310.9). That includes a priority of Gettleman’s: stopping the run. The Cards were sixth in the NFL in rush defense last year (89.6 yards allowed per game), compared to the Giants’ 27th overall ranking and 120.8 allowed per game.
The Cardinals pursued Jason Pierre-Paul in 2016 before he re-signed with the Giants, so Bettcher obviously believes JPP fits well in his system. The 3-4 defense may mean adjustments for players such as defensive end Olivier Vernon, who could end up in more of a standup linebacker/end role, but Bettcher has experience coaching veterans to make the switch — like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the Colts’ outside linebackers coach in 2012, before Arians stole him away to Arizona.
The Giants need upgrades at linebacker. They hope B.J. Goodson returns healthy. From Bettcher’s Cardinals defense, linebacker Karlos Dansby, end Frostee Rucker and corner Tramon Williams are free agents. And top pending free agent linebackers include Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny, Detroit’s Tahir Whitehead, (born in Jersey City), and Philly’s Nigel Bradham.
But the first step was hiring someone to coach them, and Bettcher could have the Giants defense buzzing again.