The Giants were so shorthanded at inside linebacker when they finished up last week’s game against Washington that safety Jabrill Peppers had to fill in on the fly at the position. Before each play late in the game, David Mayo, who was essentially the last linebacker standing, would give Peppers a quick tutorial on where to line up and what his keys were before each snap. They they’d play the down.
How did he do?
“Great,” Mayo said. “Are you kidding? Yeah. He’s fast, physical. He can almost play any position on the field. He’s that athletic. He brings a lot of tools and he plays with the right energy. He’s got everything.”
This week against the Vikings, what started out as a battlefield adjustment might wind up being the Giants’ gameplan. They’re still lacking players at that position. Alec Ogletree (hamstring) and Tae Davis (concussion) are out and Ryan Connelly is done for the year with a torn ACL, which leaves Nate Stupar and rookie Josiah Tauaefa as the only options beside Mayo. The Giants could have three safeties on the field at the same time and have Peppers play starter-like reps at linebacker even if he doesn’t technically start there.
For Peppers, also the Giants’ main punt returner on Sunday, this game could be a throwback to his days as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Michigan when he was all over the field.
“Any way I can have an impact on the game, I’m going to try to do my due diligence to make sure I impact the game,” Peppers said this week. “I’m not going to press the issue, I’m going to wait for my pitch to hit, and protect the ball [on punt returns], and do what I’ve got to do to help this team.”
Linebacker is not new for Peppers. In fact, among the current crop of candidates on the Giants’ roster, he has the most impressive resume. In 2016 he was named the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year. He made the switch to full-time safety when he came to the NFL because he lacks ideal size to play linebacker down after down, game after game, but he still has that little bit of linebacker inside him. Maybe even a lotta bit.
Now the Giants will try to harness it.
“We all know he is highly versatile,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said of Peppers. “I think he is going to be a really outstanding safety in the National Football League, the more he plays the position. We just have to manage when those moments are when he can go fill some of those other roles. Whether it’s matching up on tight ends or backs, blitzing, doing some of that stuff. It’s just having a good balance, and he is certainly willing to do anything he is asked to do.”
Bettcher did not commit to calling Peppers his linebacker this week. But when asked about inside linebacker, Mayo was the only player he mentioned by name.
“After that,” he said, “some of the plan will reveal itself on Sunday of who will be in what role and who will play where.”
The Giants have a pretty good history of using three safeties successfully. In 2011 they had Antrel Rolle, Deon Grant and Stevie Brown as part of a troika of defensive backs that helped lead the team to a Super Bowl.
“They can’t really account for who’s who, what position I’m playing or Mike [Thomas] is playing,” Peppers said of the alignment. “I think it helps pre-snap and post-snap, the disguises, it makes the read a little muddy for the quarterback.”
Fellow safety Antoine Bethea agreed.
“When you’re able to have guys and can put guys in different positions, it makes your defense that much better,” he said. “You can do more things, disguise it. Quarterbacks don’t know where guys are going to go, so it helps the defense.”
Bettcher said he likes the athleticism that scheme brings.
"There are certain moments in the game where you want speed on the field,” he said. “You want guys that can tackle in space, that can cover. Also, whether it’s a pressure scheme or something, those are guys that they are coming at the ball pretty fast, making offensive linemen or guys that are in protection make decisions… At the end of the day, you are trying to find roles for guys that deserve to be on the field.”
Not every NFL safety has the ability to move to linebacker the way Peppers can.
“He is a special player,” safety Michael Thomas said. “He has all the physical tools. He’s a big guy. He has tremendous speed, elite speed, a track background. He can match up with the bigger bodies and he can run with the smaller guys. Great assets.”
And ones that come in handy for a team that is fairly depleted at inside linebacker.
“That’s for sure,” Bethea said. “I think we’ll be good with that.”