Scary thought for playoff teams: Giants winning with defense

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Sunday, December 18, 2016

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's not supposed to work. Every bit of NFL front-office history has taught us that you can't go out and fix your problems with one big free-agent offseason. Build through the draft, that's the way to go. Free agency is for augmentation, not foundation building.

So no, the New York Giants couldn't have seen this coming. Even after doling out top-dollar deals for three defensive free agents and a generous one-year deal for one of their own, veteran defensive endJason Pierre-Paul, the Giants themselves couldn't have known it would turn out like this.

"You hope so," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said Sunday afternoon, after he and the Giants' defense had delivered a second straight stifling victory over an NFC division leader, this time a 17-6 win over the Detroit Lions. "You always hope it's going to work, when you bring in new guys, but you never know for sure."

The Giants didn't know for sure in March, or even in September. But they know now. They know they can win games with defense -- even in a down year for QBEli Manning, one in which the offensive game plan increasingly seems to be, "Just protect the ball as best you can until Odell Beckham Jr. makes a play."

You can spend a good chunk of the NFL season trying to figure out who you are. But by this point, if you want to do big things, you have to know who you are. The Giants know.

"Our mindset is to stop the opponent, to not let them score," said Landon Collins, the second-year safety who's emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after a rough rookie season. "You obviously want to be one of the top defenses in the league, but our mindset is, 'Get a stop on third down. Get a stop. Get our offense back on the field in good field position.'"

You can point to the performances of free-agent signings Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkinsas the reason this defense has jumped from league-worst to good-enough-to-beat-anybody in just one year. And there's some validity there. All three of those guys have played brilliantly, so far justifying the Giants' decisions to spend whatever it took to get them.

But it's more than that, as it must be. The Giants' defensive turnaround has to do with Collins being in the right position, and having a season under his belt so his head's not swimming the way it was last season. It has to do with the mindset of someone like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the veteran cornerback who lost his job to rookie Eli Apple but stepped in when Jenkins left Sunday's game due to injury. It has to do with young, untested defensive linemen like Romeo Okwara and Owa Odighizuwa playing better since Pierre-Paul got hurt.

"When your number is called, you can either go down or go up," Collins said. "And a lot of us have been moving up."

This kind of thing feeds on itself, and you can see it in a Giants defense that held Dallas to seven points a week ago and Detroit to six Sunday. Manning entered Week 15 ranked 26th in Total QBR and 23rd in yards per attempt, and the Giants still sit at 10-4, one victory away from qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They left MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon with the knowledge that, if Dallas slips up Sunday night against the Buccaneers, they could still win the NFC East.

But the reason for the Giants' success is that they haven't been distracted by big-picture stuff. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, himself a coaching reclamation project after presiding over defenses that set records for futility in New Orleans and previously with the Giants, has found a way to keep his charges focused on and dedicated to their individual jobs from play to play and week to week.

"We've got a lot of guys at their positions being asked to win one-on-one battles, and we're winning them," Casillas said. "[WR]Golden Tate had a day today, and that happens sometimes, but the good thing was it was only him. We basically bottled up everybody else."

Tate had 122 yards from scrimmage. No other Lion had more than 52. QBMatthew Stafford, the king of the fourth-quarter comeback this season, threw for a pedestrian 273 yards on 24-for-39 passingwith an interception. The run-challenged Lions managed 56 rushing yards on 19 carries. Down four points in the fourth quarter, a team that has come back to win in eight of its nine victories this season instead saw its deficit grow thanks to big-play Beckham, who one-handed the game-sealing touchdown.

"We just have a relentless mentality," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "Nobody wants to be the guy who goes out and lets down the team. That's the way we're going right now, and that's special."

The Giants' defense, long an Achilles' heel, has a special feel to it. Playing without Pierre-Paul the past two weeks and now facing the possibility of playing without Jenkins, who injured his back and has onlythree days to recover before the Thursday night game in Philadelphia, they seem convinced they can deliver.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Giants were supposed to have an explosive offense and hope the defense could just rise from the back of the pack to the middle. Instead, they're in December and the defense is carrying the offense. They'll take it. It's an NFL era in which championships can once again be won with defense, as the 2015 Broncos proved. And while this year's Giants have a long way to go before they can compare themselves to that group, they're in a position now where they don't wonder whether they can stop anybody when it matters. They know they can.

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