The Giants bring back Chase Blackburn, Ohio schoolteacher, to fix their linebacker problem

Chase Blackburn. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Chase Blackburn, who played linebacker in the Giants’ 37-20 win yesterday over the Green Bay Packers.

In late November, eleven games into the N.F.L. season, Chase Blackburn was still in his Ohio hometown, waiting for any team to call him on the phone. He had spent the previous six seasons with the Giants as a competent but limited player.

His visible effort and enthusiasm, which made him a favorite among coaches, teammates and fans, had helped earn him the title of special teams captain in 2010. But he had been released during training camp of this year to make room for four rookie linebackers.

During the season, he had several tryouts with different teams but received no offers. As the season approached its final quarter, Blackburn was keeping himself busy in other ways: By helping his wife care for their two young kids, and by accepting a job as a middle-school math teacher at his old school.

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The decision to carry four rookie linebackers was the underside of the Giants’ personnel strategy on defense, in which resources like first-round draft picks and free-agent dollars are allocated to the defensive line and the secondary. The linebacker position becomes something as an afterthought, whereby the Giants essentially throw a bunch of young prospects into the mix and go with whichever ones work out. None of them were spectacular talents or high draft picks. But together, they represented a higher collective upside than Blackburn. Surely one of the four would emerge as a better long-term solution, the Giants’ thinking went.

But training-camp decisions based on long-term upside have a way of looking silly when short-term competence is in short supply. Such was the situation the Giants faced late in the season, when Michael Boley, the Giants’ best linebacker in pass coverage, was injured, thus forcing the team to start two rookies at the position.

The inexperience showed, frighteningly. In the Giants’ tenth game, the Philadelphia Eagles exploited gaping holes in the intermediate-middle zone of the defense, picking up demoralizing first downs one after another. The next game, against New Orleans, saw superstar quarterback Drew Brees zero in on the vulnerabilities over the middle and lead his team to a staggering 577 yards of total offense.

The Giants had lost three games in a row, to move to 6-5. The season was slipping away. So the Giants called up Blackburn and offered him his old job back. The linebacker-development project, along with Blackburn’s teaching gig, would have to be put on hold.

Since then, the Giants defense has transformed itself from a major weakness to a major strength. Yes, there are lots of reasons for the Giants’ defensive resurgence: the return to health of Boley and Osi Umenyiora, along with the improved play of Justin Tuck, defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Chris Canty and cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross. But Blackburn’s return to New Jersey from Ohio is high on the list.

Blackburn’s first game back was the Giants’ 38-35 loss to the Packers during the regular season, which dropped the team to a 6-6 record. Banking on his familiarity with their defensive scheme, the Giants threw Blackburn into the fire immediately, putting him on the field for 40 percent of the defensive snaps.

He had a new number, 93—his old 57 having been taken by Jacquain Williams, one of those rookie linebackers who made the team ahead of him. But he made an impact immediately by intercepting a pass by Aaron Rodgers, who appeared not to see Blackburn lurking in the middle of the field. It was an appropriate moment for a player who had been hidden in plain sight all along.

Since then, Blackburn’s role has increased to the point where he played 70 percent of the snaps yesterday. If allowing passes in the intermediate-middle zone had been a problem for the Giants all season, it certainly wasn’t yesterday. Blackburn did a good job covering Green Bay’s tight ends and running backs, who collectively managed a total of only 86 receiving yards. In fact, the coverage was so good that Rodgers was often forced to scramble out of the pocket, a desperate last resort that wound up being the Packers’ most consistent source of offense.

So no news was good news for Blackburn on the pass-coverage front, and it was shaping up as a quiet game for him until midway through the fourth quarter. Then, with the Giants up 23-13 and Green Bay furiously trying to move the ball down the field, Kenny Phillips forced a fumble on Green Bay’s Ryan Grant.

Blackburn, who had actually missed a tackle on Grant a few beats earlier and fallen to the ground, rose to his feet and saw the ball rolling toward his shoetops. He scooped it up and sprinted 40 yards to the Packers’ 4-yard line, setting up a touchdown on the next play that put the game away.

As he had been several weeks before, Blackburn was the right man in the right place at the right time.