By: Michael Gagliardi
As another year of New York Giants football inches ever closer, fans are eager to finally see some evidence of improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the interior D-Line is looking very intimidating, but the secondary is young, and the linebacking corps has been an absolute disaster since the departure of Antonio Pierce in 2009. Since then, the Giants, once respected for their tradition of great linebackers, have been a perennial dumpster fire at the position for years, failing repeatedly in free agency with washed-up, injured veterans like Jon Beason, Keith Bulluck, and Keith Rivers (to name just a few). This, combined with a failure to fully address the linebacker position in the draft, has left fans with an 11-year desire to see some sign of improvement, or even just a little hope.
Perhaps this hope can be found in Ryan Connelly, 2019’s 5th round pick, who is now in the late stages of his recovery from a torn ACL suffered in week 4 of last season against the Redskins. Connelly was drafted without media fanfare, and there was essentially no hype surrounding him all throughout training camp, save for a couple of articles saying he could be a good backup. Almost a year later, Connelly comes into this season as one of, if not the most interesting player on the Giants roster, because of his high level of production last season. In only 3 and ¾ games, Connelly put up a stat line of 20 tackles (2 TFL), 1.0 sack, and 2 INT, which for a rookie 5th round pick, is very promising. Stats aside, Connelly looked like a true pro running the defense, and his athletic ability and intangibles make him an intriguing player to watch for Giants fans going forward, but the small sample size of him that we got to see is concerning to many fans. This leaves many Giants fans wondering: could this have been a 4 game fluke? Let’s dive a little deeper into how he performed last year to see if any of these questions can be answered.
Week 1: Dallas Cowboys (2 Tackles, 1 TFL, 26 DEF Snaps)
Connelly came into this game as a rotational and special teams player behind Alec Ogletree and Tae Davis, who started at ILB. Of course, the Giants lost this game 35-17, essentially due to the secondary being completely taken apart. All that aside, both Ogletree and Davis played fine versus the pass but were both underwhelming versus the run.
Connelly’s 26 snaps were the third-lowest on the defense for the game, but he still made an impact. He made a lot of plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet, creating piles when necessary in the run game and being solid in coverage. To me, the aspect of Connelly’s game that makes him stand out the most is the speed of his reads and reactions. As a linebacker, it’s drilled into your head from day 1 to read your guard, take a step based on the read, snap your eyes to the backfield, and then fly to your responsibility. Connelly is extremely fundamentally sound in this area where so many NFL players aren’t, which makes me very hopeful for his future in this league.
His two tackles in this game were plays that I have not seen a Giants linebacker consistently make in a long time. His first NFL tackle came from the Sam linebacker position, lined up along the strong side A gap. The Cowboys pull the left guard and center to the strong side, leaving the tight end and left tackle to block the play-side ILB and DE respectively. The ball is snapped, Connelly gets the stretch/pull read from his guard, and flies to meet Ezekiel Elliot in the hole. TE Jason Witten crashes down to block him, and whiffs because of a beautifully executed inside swim move by Connelly. Then, without losing speed, he avoids being caught in the wash and makes the tackle on Zeke for a one-yard gain. This was a great, underappreciated linebacker play.
On the play where he recorded his second tackle, Connelly is lined up as the Will linebacker, in the weak side A gap. The Cowboys run a simple stretch play to the strong side, with guard Xavier Su-A-Filo assigned to make a long reach block to hit Connelly. As the back-side LB on this play, it is easy to mistake the long reach block for a down block, which would cause you to take a step forward instead of laterally, and by the time you realize your mistake, the guard gets his paws on you and you’re done for. Connelly recognizes the reach block from Su-A-Filo right away, and shows an impressive burst of speed as he blows right by him, splits 2 other Cowboy linemen, and makes a diving ankle sweep tackle for a loss of 3 yards. The Giants LBs, throughout last season, constantly got themselves caught on blocks unnecessarily, which often negated good run-stuffing by the interior D line. That’s what made Connelly’s two tackles this game all the more satisfying to watch as a Giants fan; not only did he burn future Hall of Famer, Jason Witten, on his first tackle, but on both plays, he showed a lot of tools and fundamentals which Giants LBs have been lacking for years.
Week 2: Buffalo Bills (6 Tackles, 1 QB Pressure, 59 DEF Snaps)
After coming off the bench in week 1, Connelly was thrust into the starting role for the next week against the Bills, mostly due to the less-than-stellar run defense of Tae Davis. Connelly saw his snaps almost double for this game, and he was able to triple his production. His 6 tackles put him tied for 3rd on the team, behind Antoine Bethea (10) and Janoris Jenkins (8). Even in his first NFL start, Connelly showed veteran-level production. That being said, his performance against the Bills was a bit of a mixed bag.
First of all, the Bills were running a lot of misdirection in their pass-blocking scheme, which is relatively common nowadays at the NFL level. In college, this type of misdirection is used but is significantly less common. Connelly seemed caught off guard on a lot of these plays and found himself out of position in the pass game. The Bills never exploited this, however, as Connelly finished the game with 0 completions allowed. In all fairness though, Bills QB Josh Allen was not really looking for receivers over the middle too often because Giants CBs DeAndre Baker and Janoris Jenkins couldn’t cover a 2-inch canvas with a 4-inch brush for the entire game.
Against the run, Connelly had a lot of plays that were very reminiscent of his tackles against Dallas, where he’d make a quick read, shoot the gap, and tackle the ball carrier for a short gain, including a tackle from the front side of a stretch play, where he made Bills center Mitch Morse look absolutely silly with another beautiful swim move. On the other side of things, Connelly also had 5 plays (by my count) where he fell victim to cut blocks and crackback blocks; one which led to a touchdown. This is where Connelly has to improve if he wants to make it in this league. As previously discussed, he is very good at avoiding straight man on man blocks. However, I don’t know if it is just the fact that the speed of the NFL game is different, or he just needs to keep his head on a swivel, or if it’s coaching, but teams have been able to consistently get him off his feet by using blocks like these to catch him off guard.
One of Connely’s plays that I’d like to focus on from this game is run stuff on the goal line. It is first and goal and Frank Gore is lined up in the backfield behind a 3 TE formation. Connelly is the Sam, lined up in the strong side B gap (to Josh Allen’s left side). His guard gives him a down block read, diving at the legs of Dexter Lawrence, while the left tackle Dion Dawkins chips off a double team to try and get to Connelly. Instead of waiting around to be blocked, like his counterpart Alec Ogletree tends to do, Connelly pursues downhill across the formation, leaving Dawkins in the dust. He meets Gore in the hole and stops him for only a one-yard gain, about 1.5 yards away from the goal line. Gore must not have been too happy about this though, as on the very next play, he found himself man on man in the B gap with Connelly and proceeded to bulldoze over him into the end zone, giving the rookie a quintessential “welcome to the NFL” moment. Connelly seemed a little dazed getting up; probably thinking to himself something along the lines of: So THAT'S what a Hall of Fame RB looks like.
In his first start in the league, Connelly by no means had a bad game, but he left a lot on the table to improve heading into Tampa Bay the next week.
Week 3: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7 Tackles, 1 INT, 69 DEF Snaps)
This game will go down in history as the start of the Daniel Jones era in New York and winning it was one of the most exciting moments that Giants fans have been able to savor in a long while. Who can forget the spectacular catch and run by Evan Engram to give Danny Dimes his first NFL touchdown, or DJ capping off the final comeback drive on his own two feet, or Matt Gay’s game-winning kick sailing wide right? What if I told you that this will also go down as the game where the Giants found their new defensive signal-caller? Just before halftime, Ogletree went down with an injury, leaving Connelly with the green radio dot on his helmet, and the responsibility to run the show on defense.
Until that point in the game, Connelly had been looking improved in the pass game: not being fooled by misdirection, and locking down running backs and tight ends. He was still being knocked off his feet a couple of times on the same type of blocks as in the Bills game, but I certainly wouldn’t say he was playing badly against the run. Overall, he was playing a similar game to the previous week. However, usually, when a rookie in his second NFL start gets handed the radio helmet, things take a turn for the worst. The guy can get overwhelmed and start making mistakes, the defense may not be lined up right, the coordinator may dumb the calls down; a lot of bad can come out of a situation like this. However, Connelly put on the radio helmet and thrived when he was running the show. Not only did Connelly start to play better, but the whole defense stiffened up as well: forcing three punts and a field goal on the Bucs’ first 4 drives coming out of the half (after the Bucs scored on every single drive in the first half).
Connelly made a lot of similar run stops in this game to those he made in the previous two weeks: beating O-linemen to the point of attack with fast reads, and delivering solid hits for short gains. One aspect of his pass defense that I especially noticed while watching film of the Bucs game is how well he covers running backs in man coverage. Routes out of the backfield can be very unpredictable, especially for a linebacker who is slower than the man he’s covering, and the Giants have gotten burned way too much these past few years by horrible pass coverage by their LBs. I have yet to see Connelly leave an RB open, let alone give up a reception to one, which is a promising sign indeed.
“But wait,” you‘re no doubt yelling at your screen in desperation, “what about Connelly’s interception? Wasn’t it a huge play and turned the tide of the game?” Yes, it was a massive play in the context of the game and was in fact the first interception by a Giant all year (sad I know). But with that being said, it wasn’t anything too special. The Giants came out on 3rd and 6 in a nickel cover 3 look, where Tae Davis and Grant Haley had the flat zones, and Jabril Peppers dropped down from his safety spot to cover the right side hook/curl zone, with Connelly covering the left one. The Bucs ran a great 3rd down concept where they flooded Peppers’s zone while sneaking Mike Evans on a 5-yard drag underneath, hoping to get an easy 1st down. The concept worked exactly as designed: Connelly floated over to help Peppers with the extra guy in his zone, leaving Evans open underneath. Fortunately for the Giants, Famous Jameis Winston delivered a perfect pass right into the hands of Connelly (5 feet over Evans’s head). Was Evans wide open for a first down? Yes. Did Connelly just take advantage of a terrible throw by being in the right place at the right time? Yes. Do I care? Nope. In the NFL, you need to make the easy plays look easy, so props to Connelly for that.
Week 4: Washington Redskins (5 Tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1.0 Sack, 33 DEF Snaps)
After his performance in week 3, Connelly locked up the starting Sam LB spot, and in many people’s minds, supplanted Alec Ogletree as the team’s number one LB. Neither Ogletree or Tae Davis (who got hurt late in the game against the Bucs) dressed for week 4, leaving an inexperienced ILB duo of Connelly (his 3rd career start) and David Mayo (his 5th career start). Going into this week, Giants fans had started to catch wind of Connelly’s impressive play thus far, and there was some buzz starting to form around him. Keep in mind, this kid had gone from being a 5th round pick, not expected to see the field much his rookie year, to being the number one ILB on the New York Giants, tasked with being the defensive field general for an entire divisional matchup, all in just 4 weeks. I know I, among many, was extremely intrigued to see how he’d respond.
To put it bluntly, this was the best I’ve seen a Giants defense play in years. Yes, it was against the Redskins. Yes, Dwayne Haskins was the QB for more than half the game. Yes, the Redskins were rolling out a starting O-line featuring Ereck Flowers. You can name different excuses for this great defensive performance all day, but in the end, these Washington offensive stats don’t lie: 176 total yards, 8 1st downs, 4 Giveaways, 2/11 3rd down conversion rate, 3 points scored. No matter who they were playing against, the Giants held a professional football team to these terrible offensive stats. I don’t know about you, but that’s grounds for celebration in my book, especially since the Giants defense averaged 377 yards allowed per game on the season, and only allowed under 250 yards on one other occasion: in the pouring rain against the Cardinals. In addition, the Giants played the same Redskins team again in week 16 (without Connelly) and gave up 552 yards, their highest total of the season.
Obviously, Connelly’s day (and season) was shortened at the beginning of the 4th quarter by a torn ACL, and it's a shame because he was going OFF. I could highlight all of his tackles in this game, but I’ll just focus on one play, which I feel all Giants fans should be very excited about because it was against a running back screen, something that Giants have struggled mightily against in recent history.
Usually, on 1st and 10, screen is not in the front of the defense’s mind, so the Giants came out in a standard nickel cover 2 look, with Grant Haley taking the left hook/curl zone, Connelly taking the middle, and Mayo taking the right hook/curl. All 4 Giants linemen completely bit on the screen, and Haley got pulled out of the play by the receivers’ vertical bluff routes, which left a caravan of 3 Redskins linemen (2 and a half if you count the fact that Ereck Flowers was one of them) to block only Connelly and Mayo. Connelly seemed to be the only Giant on the field not fooled by the screen, and after taking a couple of steps into his drop, sold out towards where the ball would go, which left Redskins rookie guard Wes Martin in a tough spot. Generally, when a slower lineman is 1-on-1 in the open field against a quicker LB, he tends to cut block him, rather than try to move with the more agile man in space. This is exactly what Martin did, and Connelly read it to a T, stopping on a dime and shifting his weight back, avoiding Martin completely. He was then able to get his weight moving forward again and gain enough composure to tackle running back Chris Thompson in the open field for a gain of 3. This was an absolutely textbook linebacker play, which saved a lot of yardage. For reference, after Connelly went out, the Redskins ran this same screen again from a similar spot on the field, against the same defense, and gained 38 yards.
Connelly had another pick this game, and it was on a very similar play as the week before. The Giants came out in Cover 1, where Connelly ended up with over-the-middle zone responsibility. This time, as opposed to the Bucs game, it was Jenkins’s good coverage that caused the ball to pop up in the air rather than a bad throw, and Connelly was in the right place at the right time. Again, not too much to say about this play, as Connelly didn’t even have anyone in his zone, but there is something to be said about his pursuit to the ball and overall awareness at the linebacker position.
He also had a sack in this game, which came off of an A gap blitz. He found himself 1-on-1 with a guard, who he knew he couldn’t get past using power, so he showed patience, keeping the guard at arm’s length until QB Case Keenum was flushed out of the pocket. When he found his chance, he slipped by his man and made the play on Keenum. Once again, he showed great poise in a situation where many young players would try to make the fancy play and beat the bigger man, likely leading to them being caught on the block.
In the 3 and ¾ games of his rookie season, Ryan Connelly was thrust into a starting role, given immense responsibility, and seemed to thrive and improve in certain ways each and every game. He shows great football IQ in his reads, and consistently beats O-linemen to the point of attack (showing a great swim move as well). Not only did he seem comfortable being a field general, but the entire defense also seemed to elevate its play when he took over. That being said, he was not perfect by any means. He had some trouble adjusting to NFL blocking schemes at times, and I’ve seen him get knocked off his feet way too much, especially on crack backblocks. If he wants to make it in the NFL, and prove all those who are excited about him right, then he must improve in these two areas. However, given the current pandemic, it remains to be seen how well he will be able to finish his recovery and get back on the field. It works in his favor that he got hurt so early in the season, but the comeback from ACL surgery is no walk in the park, even with modern medicine.
One last note I would like to add: the one knock I’ve heard about Connelly’s play last year, is that his coverage abilities are lacking. This is very strange to me because it does not check out when you look at the numbers. In 2019, Connelly allowed 4.8 yards per catch with a 57.8% completion rate, which along with his 2 picks, makes the QB rating against him a mere 22.6. For comparison, Ogletree last year let up 8.5 yards per catch with an 83.7% completion rate and 1 INT, for a whopping QB rating (against) of 107.0. It’s clear that Connelly will be an upgrade over Ogletree in the pass game, and I assert that he will be an upgrade against the run too.
Despite all these highlights, numbers, and consistency, the hype around Connelly still seems to be largely from knowledgeable Giants fans and Giants media. Nowhere else have I seen even a mention of Connelly’s name, so I predict that he will be the league’s breakout player in 2020. Based on what we saw of him this past year, I firmly believe that Ryan Connelly will be a centerpiece in the New York Giants defense for a long time, but he has a considerable amount to work on before this can be said for sure. To answer the number 1 question in Giants fans’ minds: do we finally have some hope? Absolutely.
(All stats from pro-football-reference.com)
(All highlights that were discussed can be seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4ntWmQjG4s)