The 2019 New York Giants' defense will look a lot like the 2015-2017 Arizona Cardinals' defense.
Second-year Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher oversaw the Cardinals' defense for three years, which included two seasons of top-10 finishes in yards and points against. When the unit was at its best in 2015, a year that saw the Cardinals make the NFC Championship Game, it was known for being an attacking group that blitzed from all angles and stopped the run.
Although Bettcher did not see the same success in his first year as Giants' defensive coordinator, he has brought over a healthy amount of ex-Cardinals he coached in Arizona. After signing Kareem Martin and Josh Mauro last year, the Giants added three more Redbirds this spring: linebacker Markus Golden, safety Antoine Bethea and defensive lineman Olsen Pierre. Although Mauro has moved on, Martin is still around, giving the Giants' defense a distinct Arizona feel.
Although cold, blustery East Rutherford has next to nothing in common with the warm, sunset-in-the-desert Glendale vibes, the newest Giants will try to bring some of their own heat to a defense in desperate need of playmakers and an identity.
"I remember this defense like the back of my hand because I played in it three years," Golden said. "You've got guys like Kareem [Martin] that know the defense and have played in it. So, it's been great. Everybody is just helping each other out."
Golden, in particular, is the biggest key to reviving the team's dormant pass rush. The Cardinals tallied a league-high 48 sacks back in 2016, a year when Golden led the team with 12.5 of them. No Giant has reached 12.5 sacks since Jason Pierre-Paul in 2014. Although Golden has missed significant time since then with an ACL tear, coming back to a familiar defense will certainly help him feel more comfortable.
Pierre will try to lighten some of Golden's load by contributing in a rotational role. He's got three run-stuffing pluggers ahead of him on the depth chart, but Pierre's 5.5 career sacks over two seasons are tied with B.J. Hill for the most of anyone on the Giants' D-line. His pass-rush pedigree will get him some time on passing downs.
The addition of Bethea could prove to be the most valuable. Though he's old for an NFL defensive back, entering his age-35 season, Bethea has a wealth of experience. He's made three Pro Bowls and played in two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLI as a rookie in 2006.
Bethea isn't really slowing down, either. Last year, he accumulated 100 tackles and three sacks at age 34, and had a five-interception season under Bettcher in 2017. He was a captain on the Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers, and could even don the "C" this year for Big Blue.
"With us bringing in Bethea, that brings a whole lot of leadership in the room," returning Giants safety Michael Thomas said. "I'm going into Year 8, but I'm still learning from him. I have a long way to catch him going into Year 14. He's a general out there. He's vocal. When he speaks, everybody listens."
With ex-Cardinals at all three levels of the defense, Martin believes that the Giants' chemistry will improve.
"I think it's very helpful because now you have pretty much somebody at every level who's played in this defense," Martin said. "The fact that they can lean on [Pierre] or Markus [Golden] or [Bethea] and ask a question, 'Hey, when you guys played this defense in the past, could you do it this way?' I think that's really big and is going to pay off for us."
Although Bettcher has re-assembled several key pieces from the glory days of the mid 2010s Cardinals defense, everyone is also a few years older, and the Giants don't have the same playoff expectations that those Cardinals teams did. However, at least one Giant can already see the difference from last year's team to this year's squad.
"We'll definitely be able to take the next step," Thomas said. "It's not like last year where he's teaching a group a whole new defense. We're going into our second season with Bettcher, so we can pick up where we left off."