Wink Martindale brings heat for NY Giants, but should he tone it down?

Wink Martindale brings heat for NY Giants, but should he tone it down?

Is it worth blitzing for the sake of blitzing? Is it a viable strategy in the NFL?

Some defensive coordinators are known for a blitz-happy approach. The New York Giants’ Wink Martindale is certainly one of them, as he blitzed more often than any other coordinator last season.

The question is if this is Martindale’s NFL philosophy or if it was predicated on the weaknesses of the Giants’ roster. Do coordinators blitz regardless of their personnel? More importantly, should Martindale continue to blitz at a very high rate?

2022 blitz stats

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Giants blitzed 44.7% of the time in 2022, the highest rate in the NFL. The next-highest blitz rate belonged to Miami at 37.8%. The blitz seemingly helped them generate pressure, as Pro Football Reference lists them with the sixth-highest total pressure rate in the league at 24.3% and tied for the fifth-highest quarterback knockdown rate at 11.6%.

Still, here were opponents’ passing numbers against the Giants’ blitz along with the ranks among all 32 NFL defenses.

  • 60.2% completion percentage (15th)
  • 7.3 yards per attempt (14th)
  • 94.5 quarterback rating (18th)
  • 4.07% touchdown rate (5th)

Considering that their overall ranks in these respective categories were seventh, 13th, 18th, and eighth, it appears that the Giants yielded similar raw defensive numbers with and without the blitz.

Compensation or first-line?

The question is if the Giants blitzed so often to mask their personnel deficiencies or if it’s Martindale’s preferred strategy. He was known as a blitz-heavy defensive coordinator before coming to the Giants, but again, was he merely compensating for hidden weaknesses in the Ravens’ defense, too?

With Baltimore from 2018-21, Martindale blitzed at rates of 38.5% (third-most in the NFL), 50.8% (most), 45.2% (most), and 32.4% (sixth-most). He lives up to his reputation as a big blitzer.

However, here are the cumulative pressure rates and ranks for the edge rushers and interior defensive linemen in Martindale’s defenses from 2018-22.

  • 2018: 9.91% (5th)
  • 2019: 8.83% (19th)
  • 2020: 8.03% (21st)
  • 2021: 7.89% (27th)
  • 2022: 8.18% (26th)

In other words, besides in Martindale’s first season with Baltimore, the Ravens’ front four did not generate pressure at a high rate. The Giants followed up the same way in 2022. Perhaps Martindale’s reliance on the blitz is at least in part based on the inability of his front four to generate pressure. However, the Ravens’ 2018 numbers would tend to belie that possibility.

2023 four-man rush outlook

There are two reasons for the Giants to hope that their four-man rush will generate more pressure in 2023: Kayvon Thibodeaux’s second season and the possibility of better health from Azeez Ojulari. Although Thibodeaux’s 9.8% pressure rate ranked 48th out of 67 edge rushers with at least 290 pass rushes last season, his pass rush win rate of 13.8% from Weeks 12 through 18 ranked 26th.

The rookie learning curve for edge rushers in the NFL is often steep. Still, Thibodeaux was The Athletic’s Diante Lee’s preferred pick for a breakout sophomore season among the three edge rushers drafted in the top-five last season.

Meanwhile, Ojulari was quite efficient as an edge rusher last season, albeit on limit snaps. On 140 pass rushes, Ojulari recorded a 13.6% pressure rate, which ranked 24th out of 123 edge rushers with at least that number of rushes. He combined that with a 4.3% sack rate that ranked second. In other words, not only did Ojulari generate a lot of pressure, but he also did an excellent job converting his pressures into sacks.

This edge pairing has the potential to be lethal, but things must break the Giants’ way. Still, there are good reasons to believe that each one can take big strides in 2023. Pairing them with Dexter Lawrence, whose 12.3% pressure rate ranked fourth among interior defensive linemen, and Leonard Williams (9.3%, 18th) could form one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing quartets.

2023 blitz strategy

If the four-man rush does take a big step forward, will Martindale continue to blitz? The answer is likely yes if his first year in Baltimore is any indication.

More than that, though, Martindale likes to drop edge defenders into coverage. Oshane Ximines’ 24.8% coverage rate ranked fifth among 66 edge rushers with at least 20 coverage snaps, Thibodeaux’s 13.7% mark was 29th, and Jihad Ward’s 13.4% was tied for 30th. Even Tomon Fox, who played 169 pass snaps, dropped into coverage 18.3% of the time, which tied for 17th.

When the edge defenders drop into coverage, that allows other blitzers to come and try to confuse the quarterback. That can be a strategy in and of itself within the 3-4 defense. Besides the pressure itself, making the quarterback take an extra half-second to process can help the blitzers get home.

Having the ability to get home with four can still give Martindale many more options in personnel usage. However, he is unlikely to ever truly lower his blitz rate. If he can continue to generate pressure and disrupt the opponent’s passing game that way, it will suit the Giants just fine.

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