The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants are just past the midpoint of their season. They sit at the top of the NFC East with a 6-3 record and have a three-game lead over Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington.
But head coach Tom Coughlin is not happy, specifically with his run defense, which he called “soft” after its dismal performance against Pittsburgh last week. In the last six games, the Giants have yielded rushing totals of 191, 84, 80, 248, 19 and 158 yards. The numbers speak volumes. The defensive line and linebackers are getting pushed off the ball and are missing tackles.
The relentless QB pressure that Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre Paul and Osi Umenyiora were supposed to provide has been sporadic at best. If it weren’t for takeaways (17 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries), the Giants would be in trouble.
Here are midseason grades for several key players on defense, as well as defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
With only three sacks in nine games, to say Justin Tuck’s season has been a major disappointment would be an understatement. Granted, he gets double-teamed at times, but most offensive lines have been focused on stopping fellow defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
As the captain, this is Tuck’s defense, and there is no question he is the emotional leader. However, as a perennial Pro Bowl player, his on-field performance needs to get back to the elite level that everyone expects.
His numbers are solid: 6.5 sacks, 25 solo tackles, 38 total tackles, one fumble recovery and one interception returned for a touchdown. But they do not accurately reflect the havoc that he creates with batted down passes, pressures and double- and triple-teams.
He is a beast in every sense of the word. His ability to take on several blockers at a time opens up opportunities for his teammates to get to the quarterback, so he doesn’t have to necessarily get the sack himself.
Up to this point, he has been the Giants’ best defensive player.
Like Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora has been a major disappointment with only four sacks and 23 tackles. He is the Giants' pass-rushing specialist and is not on the field as much as JPP. But the hope was that between him, Tuck and JPP, getting to the QB would be a regular affair. It just hasn’t happened.
Things seem to be clicking a little bit better the last few games, and there is still a long way to go. But Umenyiora needs to pick it up.
Besides the three-headed monster of Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, the rest of the defensive line consists of tackles Linval Joseph, Rocky Bernard, Markus Kuhn and a few others.
Joseph, who surprisingly has four sacks, has been stellar on the pass rush, but he is right in the middle of the inconsistency that is plaguing this unit. They are 23rd in the league at stopping the run, giving up 118 yards per game.
Chris Canty’s return after missing the first six games provides much needed help, as he is supposed to be the Giants' No. 1 tackle. But he has to play his way into game shape, as not even he could not stop the 150+-yard performance by Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh’s third-string running back.
This unit really needs to turn things around.
Michael Boley has been decent all year. He leads the team in tackles with 54 and has three interceptions. However, his tackle totals aren’t even in the top 50 in the league. That is extremely low for a linebacker and helps to explain the Giants' continued struggles to stop the run.
The good thing is he’s good in pass coverage as proven by his three interceptions.
He looks like a monster on the Giants' stat board, but he's below average compared to the rest of the league, which is reality.
Mathias Kiwanuka is difficult to figure out. He is a tremendous athlete, but for some reason he seems lost at times. His numbers tell the story, as he has only 16 tackles and one sack.
He is used as a pass-rusher a lot of the time, which can explain his low numbers, but something just does not fit.
He is a perfect example of the defense’s duel struggle to get to the passer and stop the run.
Discarded by the Giants early last year and then picked up off the scrap heap toward the end of the season, he shined upon his return, seemingly reborn. He was solid throughout their run to the championship and had a huge interception in the Super Bowl. He is continuing that solid play this season.
He may be the Giants' most unheralded hero on defense. He is one of their best pure tacklers and plays the pass well. When he got hurt a few weeks ago, the defense suffered. If he does not come back healthy, it will create a huge hole the Giants will need to fill.
Antrell Rolle is getting back to playing like the All-Pro safety the Giants signed a few years ago. He is second on the team in tackles with 49.
However, this is not a good sign, because when your secondary leads the team in tackles, that usually means your defensive line and linebackers are not playing well against the run.
It is indicative however, of Rolle's tackling ability. He is still one of the best safeties in the business.
Prince Amukamara is slowly beginning to live up to his status as a first-round draft choice, with the key word being slowly. His coverage ability shows flashes of brilliance.
However, he still makes some head-shaking mistakes and at times seems lost.
He still has a lot to learn if he wants to make the Giants forget about the tremendous loss of CB Terrell Thomas.
Corey Webster has been the Giants' most consistent cornerback for the past few years, and right now he is their best. He is solid and reliable. He does get burned from time to time, but that is because he is continually lined up against the best wide receivers in the league.
With all of the injuries to the Giants' secondary, Webster is helping to ease that pain with his play. His three interceptions and 34 tackles are a testament to that.
With all of the injuries to the secondary, Tom Coughlin’s orders have been, “Next man up!” And Stevie Brown has certainly done that, coming seemingly out of nowhere to prove he belongs. With five interceptions and a bunch of caused fumbles, he has an incredible nose for the ball.
He is at the center of what has become the defense’s staple: takeaways. He is also third on the team in tackles with 44. Brown is one of the biggest bright spots on this team, never mind the defense.
The cornerstone of Perry Fewell’s defense was supposed to be the pass rush. The defensive line was built for that, and so was the secondary, which featured solid defensive backs with good coverage skills who were supposed to create time for the pass-rushers to get to the quarterback.
However, that plan has seemingly changed. The staple of this team is now takeaways. It has not only been its staple, it is its saving grace. The Giants are second in the league with 26 (17 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries), second only to the Bears.
With the pass rush expected to pick up steam, the major problem is the inconsistency of the run defense. It is not a good thing when your boss calls you “soft.”
Coach Fewell has some work to do.
On the negative side, the pass rush has been sporadic and the run defense very inconsistent. As for the positives, pass coverage has been solid and the ability to take the ball away has been terrific.
The pass rush has gotten a bit better, so the hope is it will continue to improve. Assuming it does, if the Giants can find a way to stop the run consistently, they can make another major run at a title.