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Giants’ Wink Martindale pleased with pressure even though blitzes aren’t producing many sacks

NJ.com 12/3/2022 Bob Brookover, nj.com
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been pleased by the Giants' pass rush even though the team is tied for 26th in sacks. © Andrew Mills/nj.com/TNS Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been pleased by the Giants' pass rush even though the team is tied for 26th in sacks.

We knew the blitz was coming this season as soon as the Giants hired Don “Wink” Martindale to be their defensive coordinator.

It was only natural to think the sacks would follow.

It has not happened that way.

As promised when he was hired by head coach Brian Daboll, Martindale has pushed the pedal to the metal, calling more blitzes than any defensive coordinator in the NFL this season. The Giants have blitzed 42.3 percent of the time, according to profootballreference.com. No surprise there. In his four seasons as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, the Ravens led the NFL in blitz percentage three times.

New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale with New York Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) before the start of the NFL football game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on 10/15/22. © Chris Faytok/nj.com/TNS New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale with New York Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) before the start of the NFL football game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on 10/15/22.

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The surprise is that the Giants only have 20 sacks this season, which is tied for 26th in the NFL. They have gone without a sack in each of their last two games, both of which ended in losses to the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who should be on his way to his first Pro Bowl, leads the team with five sacks. Nobody else on the roster has more than two.

Martindale insists he’s fine with what his blitz packages have produced in his first 11 games with the Giants.

“I give (Dallas quarterback) Dak (Prescott) all the respect in the world,” Martindale said. “He stood in there and took some hits. To me, sacks are a lot like turnovers, they’ll come in bunches when they do. When you look at the quarterback hits, then look at the completion percentage of the quarterbacks in this league and I think we’re third overall in both hits and quarterback completions against us. Low rate, saying a good rate for us.”

His point is that sacks aren’t everything and in many respects it’s a valid one.

The Giants, according to Pro Football Focus, pressured Prescott 20 times on Thanksgiving. That was the most by any team in his six starts this season. And it is true that the Giants’ defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a 59.66 completion percentage this season, which is the third best in the league and the best in the NFC.

Martindale was slightly off, however, on the Giants’ quarterback hits statistic. They are actually second in the NFL in that department and not third. The Giants are 10th in pressure percentage and opponent passer rating.

Those are all outstanding numbers and actually in line with what the Ravens did during Martindale’s four seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Things went awry for the Ravens last season as they were besieged by injuries, which is probably why Martindale now resides in North Jersey. Oddly, it was his only year with Baltimore that the Ravens did not lead the league in blitz percentage (they were eighth) and the team finished 22nd in sacks and 24th in pressure percentage.

In 2020, the Ravens were first in blitz percentage, 14th in sacks and fourth in pressure percentage. In 2019, they were first in blitz percentage, 21st in sacks and 15th in pressure percentage. In Martindale’s first year as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, the Ravens were first in blitz percentage, 11th in sacks and third in pressure percentage.

Drew Wilkins, the Giants’ outside linebackers coach who spent a decade working with Martindale in Baltimore, has a good feel for what the defensive coordinator is all about.

“The only number Wink cares about is playing winning defense,” Wilkins said. “Any of those stats really don’t move the needle for him. We’re trying to play winning defense and really what you look at that wins games and what directly correlates to playing winning defense, a lot more of that is going to come down to how quick are you forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball and how low is the quarterback’s completion percentage. What’s their conversion rate on third down? Those things are affected by a lot, but obviously if we can get to the quarterback and pressure him, that helps all those numbers and those numbers directly correlate to wins and winning defense maybe more than a sack would.”

It’s a philosophy that has trickled down to the players.

Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, the fifth overall pick in the draft, only has one sack in nine games this season, but he continues to draw praise from Martindale and all the defensive coaches. Martindale said he thought Thibodeaux played his best game against the Cowboys. According to PFF, he had nine pressures and hit Prescott five times in the Giants’ Thanksgiving Day loss. His 87.2 PFF grade was his highest of the season.

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“If I could rack up 100 sacks in this next six games I would buy them,” Thibodeaux said. “But sadly that’s not how the game is played. Teams are scheming us. They’re getting the ball out (quick). Obviously we lost the last two games so there are adjustments that we’ve got to make up front ... but just as far as us scheme-wise, I feel like we’ve been making a lot of plays.”

The blitzes will keep coming. Martindale made that clear this week as he prepared to play against Taylor Heinicke, a quarterback who is 5-1 as the Commanders’ starter this season.

“If you want to rush three and watch Heinicke sit back there and pick people apart like he does when you’re rushing just three guys, that’ll be a boring game to watch,” Martindale said.

That will never be the game that Martindale calls on defense. He wants bodies going fast forward toward the quarterback. He wants chaos in the backfield. He promises pressure even if it does not lead to sacks.

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Bob Brookover can be reached at rbrookover@njadvancemedia.com.

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