Markus Golden has gone from team MVP to mysteriously MIA.
The most productive player on the Giants defense in 2019 has seen his playing time drastically reduced by the first-year coaching staff, meaning a strange road that began during free agency has spilled into the first three games.
Despite becoming the first Giants linebacker since Lawrence Taylor in 1990 and the first Giant at any position since 2014 to reach 10 sacks in a season, the high-motor Golden is playing just 29.1 percent of the snaps — fewer than fellow edge rushers Lorenzo Carter (85.4), Kyler Fackrell (50) and Oshane Ximines (43.2).
By comparison, Golden played 80 percent of the snaps and had three sacks in the first three games last season. What worked in Golden’s favor then — experience in coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme from time together with the Cardinals — is working against him now because Fackrell is the one familiar to new coordinator Patrick Graham from their Packers days.
But the Rams are not about to sleep on Golden’s potential to wreak havoc Sunday after years of seeing him as an NFC West rival.
“He is a guy who has made a lot of plays and we know what kind of juice he has coming off the edge,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He is physical and has some versatility where he can reduce down inside on some different things that they do.”
Asked to explain Golden’s decreased role, Giants outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema declined specifics.
“The four guys, as they rotate through, will be a little bit based on what an opponent brings to us and trying to put our best players on the field,” Bielema said.
Logical explanations include:
- Carter’s development into McVay’s description of an “excellent player,” which has dominated time on one side of the field. Carter has one sack, three quarterback hurries and a pass batted down.
- Graham’s usage of unconventional formations where safeties Jabrill Peppers or Logan Ryan sneak into the box as linebackers and reserve safety Nate Ebner subs in to drops into coverage.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: The pass rush has been surprisingly productive with eight sacks, on pace for a team-high since 2014.
- Golden’s delayed return to the Giants might have slowed down his learning of the system, though Ryan signed after camp ended and is playing 82 percent of the snaps.
While the Giants did not conduct on-field OTAs during the COVID-19 pandemic, players learned the defense and built trust with the coaches through virtual meetings in the spring. Golden was training on his own in Arizona at that time and did not sign the one-year, $4.1 million contract tendered by the Giants on May 5 until Aug. 4.
Golden’s decision to wait to sign until after the July 22 deadline (at which point he was prohibited from signing elsewhere) was smart business sense. Same as the Giants’ decision not to offer the big multiyear contract Golden thought he earned with his play last season — a gamble that paid off when no other teams broke the bank either.
And yet it feels like an awkward reunion as Golden reported to training camp a week after most of his teammates due to personal reasons and spent the entire summer on the second-team defense. It seems unlikely he will have the opportunity to again trigger a $1 million performance bonus for reaching 10 sacks.
“This is a game where they say if you put the work in, the hard work pays off. The game will pay you back in different ways,” Golden said last month. “Of course, it was frustrating. But after a while you go back to that ‘business is business’ mindset. You just need to work hard and use everything as motivation.”
In that case, Golden should have plenty of motivation when his number is called next.
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