New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell commanded a historically terrible unit last season, surrendering 6,134 total yards through 16 games. That mark surpassed the previous franchise record of 6,022 yards, which was set just one season prior, also under Fewell's guidance.
There is reason to believe, however, that 2013 will be different.
With training camp a couple short weeks away and the regular season set to kick off in just under two months, the Giants are putting themselves in position to bounce back from a forgettable season in which their defense ranked second-to-last in yards allowed. To project the Giants' future defensive success, though, we must first understand the areas in which they have previously struggled.
It begins with stopping the run...
Opposing offenses found it particularly easy to run the ball against the Giants' defensive front in 2012. New York gave up an average of 4.6 yards per carry (28th in the NFL) and 129.1 yards per game (25th in the NFL). Of the 2,066 rushing yards surrendered by the Giants in 2012, many came on early downs.
This deficiency, which provoked head coach Tom Coughlin to deem his defense "soft" following a 24-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, was due to a rash of injuries along the interior defensive line. From the earliest days of training camp, New York's defensive tackles were dropping like flies.
Veteran leader Chris Canty was forced to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, shattering his goal to be in playing shape by Week 1. Shaun Rogers, a 350-pound former Pro Bowler, was lost for the season due to a blood clot in his leg. Highly-touted second-round talent Marvin Austin was one of many who dealt with back issues during camp, spurring a theory that the beds in the University at Albany (SUNY) dormitories were to blame.
When seventh-round selection Markus Kuhn landed on the Injured Reserve (IR) list with a torn ACL suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10, third-year pro Linval Joseph was forced to shoulder much of the load on his own. Although a plague of injuries like this are unpredictable, it can be combated by fielding superior depth.
This offseason, the Giants released the oft-injured Canty and picked up former Philadelphia Eagles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. They drafted Ohio State product Jonathan Hankins, a big body with an even bigger future. Frank Okam, a 27-year-old gap-plugger, will round out the preseason cast while Austin, Rogers and Kuhn attempt to make a healthy return to action.
The Giants clearly pinpointed the interior defensive line as the defense's biggest weakness, and they took the proper measures to rectify the glaring inadequacy.
Then you can get after the passer…
In recent seasons, New York's sack masters have brought home the bacon for the Giants defense. From 2007-2011, the Giants averaged 44.2 sacks per season, which allowed defensive ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul to reach superstar status.
That wasn't the case in 2012. The Giants recorded just 33 sacks last season (22nd in the NFL), as the once-vaunted New York pass rush struggled to find an identity. Pierre-Paul, who broke onto the scene with 16.5 sacks in 2011, put opposing passers in the dirt a measly 6.5 times last season. Still, despite nagging back pains, Pierre-Paul was the team's leading sacker.
Tuck played at a fraction of the level he showcased during his All-Pro campaign in 2008, claiming just four quarterback sacks—the same amount as Joseph, who is predominantly a run-stuffer. He, too, fell victim to multiple injuries during the 2012 season. The same can't be said for Umenyiora, who played in all 16 games but managed just six sacks while being exposed for his one-dimensionality.
So why did the Giants pass rush suffer such a down year? Because New York rarely put its opponent in the most vulnerable position: third-and-long.
Since teams had so much success running the ball on first and second down against the Giants' defensive front, third downs were usually of manageable distance. With each gashing run conceded, the probability of procuring a sack dwindled. It didn't take long for teams to catch on; side-stepping New York's speedy pass-rushers became simplistic.
The Giants are restocked and reloaded for 2013, though. Mathias Kiwanuka has been a makeshift linebacker in recent years, but he is expected to transition back to full-time defensive end this season. Damontre Moore, a third-round selection in this year's draft, will look to get involved too. While Pierre-Paul recovers from the back surgery he underwent in early June, youngsters Adawale Ojomo, Adrian Tracy and Justin Trattou will make their case for insertion into the rotation.
If the Giants can accomplish step one, which is to stop the run, then they will have more opportunities to pin their ears back and come after the quarterback.
Which will boost the secondary…
A little pressure on the quarterback can work wonders for a defensive backfield. Not that the 2012 Giants' secondary can attest to that; New York's non-existent pass rush gave way to 4,068 yards through the air last year (28th in the NFL). The Giants were tied with the New Orleans Saints for the highest yards per attempt allowed in 2012 (8.1).
A lot of those yards came on deep passes in which the secondary was completely burned. New York's 29 pass plays allowed of 30 yards or more were tops in the league. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green practically called out his first quarter, 56-yard touchdown days in advance, when he claimed he saw "holes" in the Giants' defensive backfield ready for exploitation.
Although he miraculously started all 16 games, veteran cornerback Corey Webster limped his way through a ridicule-filled season. His counterpart, Prince Amukamara, failed to solidify his presence in the lineup, missing five starts due to injury. With rookie Jayron Hosley the next man up, New York's lack of depth at cornerback proved to be costly in 2012.
Safety Antrel Rolle had a few stellar showings last season, but he wasn't as effective without his usual partner in crime, fellow University of Miami product Kenny Phillips, who was sidelined for the majority of the season with a knee injury.His backup, Stevie Brown, displayed a true nose for the ball with eight interceptions, 11 passes defended and two fumble recoveries, but he wasn't the revered centerfielder Phillips was.
Will the Giants field a top 10 defense in 2013?
Much like every unit mentioned in this article, production in the secondary is contingent upon overall health. After just a few key injuries, things can quickly start to unravel. As I mentioned earlier, however, the way to get around that is through exceptional depth.
The 2013 starters in the Giants' secondary will closely resemble last year's starting cast, but there are two players attempting to make a comeback that everyone should keep an eye on: Aaron Ross and Terrell Thomas. Ross is returning from a brief stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Thomas is recovering from a third ACL injury. Both have been productive in the past and could prove to be valuable reserves in the upcoming season.
If the Giants can stop the run, get after the quarterback and reinstate both Ross and Thomas—that's three big "if"s—you have every reason to be confident that the 2013 Giants will return to true form defensively.