5 Unsung Heroes for the New York Giants at Season's Quarter Mark
In what seems like a blink of the eye, the New York Giants are 2-2 after the first quarter of the season, a mark that some critics had their doubts about after a rough showing in the preseason.
Ah, but that’s why the preseason should be used to evaluate players and not the direction a team is headed, as far too often, a team can go undefeated in the preseason only to struggle when the regular season rolls around and vice versa.
Thankfully for the Giants and their fans, the arrow is pointing up. So let’s take a look at five unsung heroes and their respective performances that are most responsible for things looking so bright in the land of the Giants.
DE Robert Ayers
When the Giants were unable to re-sign veteran defensive end Justin Tuck, they turned to a player who last season was on one of the two participating Super Bowl teams.
That would be defensive end Robert Ayers, whose Denver Broncos team came up on the short end of the stick of the MetLife Stadium-hosted Super Bowl.
Ayers was initially thought to be the replacement for Tuck; however, thus far that has not yet happened. Instead, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has been taking advantage of Ayers' versatility.
In addition to lining up at defensive end, he has taken a fair number of snaps inside at defensive tackle while the coaches have stuck with Mathias Kiwanuka, now one of the longest-tenured members of the team, as the starter.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ayers has consistently graded out on the positive side of the ledger and is currently the second-best 4-3 defensive end among those who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps and tied for the sixth-best grade against the run.
Ayers also leads the Giants in sacks with 2.0—this despite having the fifth-lowest snap-count total (123) among the Giants defensive linemen.
His eight stops for zero or negative yardage is tied for third on the team (with linebacker Jameel McClain).
Numbers aside, though, Ayers’ presence has often helped teammates cash in on plays that need to be made.
When working from the defensive tackle spot, he has been consistent in pushing the pocket, which of course leads to either a hurried throw or the quarterback breaking the pocket.
Ayers is tied for second (with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul) for the most quarterback hurries on the team (seven) and has quietly been playing lights-out football, particularly against the run, in this defense.
LT Will Beatty
After a horrendous 2013 season that ended in a severely broken leg, left tackle Will Beatty is healthy and is starting to look more like his 2012 form.
Beatty is also the highest-graded offensive lineman in pass blocking (6.0) and the second-highest graded run-blocking offensive lineman (3.0) behind right tackle Justin Pugh.
"I think that as we go into the season, Will develops much more confidence in his own ability based on coming back from a serious injury, and I think you see the improvement and the fundamentals, the athleticism as it grows on a weekly basis so hopefully that will continue," head coach Tom Coughlin said.
Beatty smiled when asked by reporters what it is he’s doing better. “If I tell y’all, it will give it away for my next opponent,” he said.
Still, him becoming fully healthy and getting back to his technique from 2012 has been a big factor in him getting back on track.
“Last year was more of an anomaly. Last year is gone,” he told reporters on Monday. “I know I still have a lot of work to do. Coach is still on me. (His performance) is showing a lot of good things, but it’s not there; I’m never satisfied."
TE Larry Donnell
Tight end Larry Donnell smiled when I asked him the question.
“(Former tight ends) Coach (Mike) Pope always used to say, 'You're not worth (spit) if you’re not getting hit.'”
Donnell, as the NFL is fast learning, has exploded onto the scene in a way not seen from a New York Giants player since receiver Victor Cruz, who was also in his second season at the time, burst onto the national NFL landscape.
How good has Donnell been? He is the Giants’ leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns scored (25 for 236 yards, four touchdowns).
He is also the top-rated tight end—based on those who have taken 75 percent of their team’s snaps on offense, per Pro Football Focus. His 8.7 overall grade tops Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett’s 7.1 and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s 3.6.
Want more reasons to like Donnell besides what’s outlined in this comprehensive breakdown of his skill set?
He’s made 100 percent of his catchable receptions, joining Bennett as the only other tight end in the NFL with at least 25 catchable balls and zero drops.
Although he has received limited snaps in a pass-blocking role—he has blocked on just 15 of his 130 passing plays so far this year—he hasn’t allowed a quarterback hit or pressure, meaning his pass-blocking efficiency is perfect.
So what about Donnell's response to that quote at the start of this slide, which was an answer to my question about how things would change if the opponent started jamming him more at the line of scrimmage?
“I'm not too worried about that,” he said, the grin widening on his face. “Because if they pay attention to me, then that opens things up for Vic and the other receivers.”
P Steve Weatherford
Most people who make their living by being on their feet would probably take a breather if they were dealing with four torn ligaments in their ankle.
Punter Steve Weatherford, however, isn’t like most people.
The outgoing Giants punter has stubbornly refused to let a significant ankle injury, suffered in Week 1, keep him from doing what he loves.
He is currently tied for second in the NFL with nine punts placed inside of the 20 (with Colton Schmidt of the Buffalo Bills).
Weatherford is also tied for second (with nine others) with two punts placed out of bounds.
While a punter is only as good as his coverage team, that Weatherford has been able to overcome a significant physical issue tells you everything you need to know about what's beating inside the man's chest.
DT Johnathan Hankins
Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is probably the most underrated member of the Giants on the defensive side of the ball.
Hankins, who took over for Linval Joseph, has been a force against the run. Per Pro Football Focus, he has seven stops for zero or negative yards in 71 run defense snaps.
As a pass-rusher, Hankins is starting to round into his own. He has recorded 1.5 sacks and has batted down one pass so far.
Hankins probably won’t generate gaudy numbers in the role he is asked to play, but that doesn’t mean he is not contributing toward clogging up the running lanes.
Thanks to his contributions, the Giants currently have the 10th-best run defense in the NFL, allowing opponents 101.2 yards per game.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.