When James Bettcher became the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, he assumed that job after two seasons as the team’s linebackers coach. He knew all of the players, they knew him, and there wasn’t much of an overhaul in terms of system or philosophy.
And for three seasons, that continuity paid off. The Cardinals never were worse than sixth in the NFL in yards allowed (they finished second in 2016), were regularly among the NFL’s leaders in sacks (with a league-high 48 in 2016) and allowed 21.5 points per game.
The expectation by many was that when Bettcher came to the Giants this season, he would bring all of that with him. But the Giants hired only the coordinator, not the players. And certainly not the institutional knowledge and experience he had in the desert.
So instead, Bettcher’s first season with the Giants has been a statistical letdown. The Giants are 22nd in yards allowed, 23rd in points allowed and next-to-last in sacks.
“Different place, different players,” coach Pat Shurmur said of his defensive coordinator. “Every situation is different. It’s no different than working on offense. You have a different style of quarterback, you do things that help maximize the strengths of the player you are working with. Same here. Our roster looks a little bit different than what it did in Arizona, so he’s trying to do what he can to get the most out of our players.”
More importantly, he’s trying to build a base. In Arizona, one already was in place. With the Giants, he’s had to construct it.
“The thing that’s redeeming is that our guys compete, and I think anybody that plays against our players on defense, they’ll say our guys compete and they play hard and they play with a purpose,” Bettcher said. “I think that’s the foundation, the building blocks. Then the other things come after that. Winning comes after that. That’s the truth. Making plays comes after that.”
Bettcher believes that the essential elements of his defense are in place.
“I think being tough and playing hard are the cores of playing good defense in this league,” he said. “Then after that is execution in the moment, is those things that come with playing more snaps. Ball gets thrown to you, catch it. Ball on the ground, find a way to get it. Finishing tackles. Knocking guys back. Those 2-yard gains that need to be zero, or the 1-yard gains that need to be minus-2. Those are the things that come after.”
Bettcher will have an offseason to shape the next level of his defense. And the front office will try to give him the personnel to do it.
When Bettcher arrived, he brought two players with him from the Cardinals — linebacker Kareem Martin and defensive lineman Josh Mauro — to help illustrate the kind of mentality he sought. The Giants already began changing their personality during this season when they traded Damon Harrison and Eli Apple, two starters who didn’t seem to fit in with Bettcher’s style.
More will come and go. That’s when Bettcher’s schemes should start to be more effective.
“Part of why I was intrigued by James and why I wanted to bring him here was I competed against him and his style of defense and I found him difficult to score against,” Shurmur said. “I think he’s brought that to our defense.”
Not quite enough. At least not this season, and not late in games. In their 15 games, the Giants have allowed a total of 222 points in the first through third quarters and 154 points in the fourth quarters. That’s the most in the NFL.
As Bettcher starts looking ahead to his second season with the Giants — assuming he does return — he said he isn’t interested in where his group will rank in 2019.
“Whether you’re top 20, top 10, to me, that’s secondary,” Bettcher said. “I want to win . . . You want to play defense that contributes to winning. I think there are certainly points in the year where we felt that way, and there’s certainly points in the year where that didn’t get done. We have to go look at those things and find a way to be part of the solution more often than not.”
Notes & quotes: The same five Giants who missed practice on Wednesday did not participate on Thursday: WR Odell Beckham, Jr. (quadriceps), WR Russell Shepard (ankle), TE Rhett Ellison (concussion), LB Alec Ogletree (concussion) and DL Mario Edwards (calf). LB B.J. Goodson (foot) was limited . . . C Spencer Pulley (quadriceps) and WR Sterling Shepard (hip) were limited on Wednesday but full participants on Thursday.