New New York Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has a lot of pressure on his shoulders to restore the glory to a defense whose luster became rusty last season.
Early in the 2009 season the New York Giants were looking like the surest team going in the NFL.
The team was serving up decisive wins through its first five games, outscoring its opponents 151-71 including 44-7 and 24-0 games. The team was a powerhouse.
The only problem was the teams the Giants dominated were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins—teams that finished last or second to last in their respective divisions. And what was the combined record of these teams? 17-38.
The one team left off that list was the Dallas Cowboys, who played the Giants well until the last minute of a 33-31 win for New York.
When the team got to the truly testing part of the schedule Big Blue showed their true colors. Down the stretch the G-men finished 3-8 surrendering a myriad of points along the way. The team was only able to keep its opponents under 30 points in five of the remaining eight games.
The biggest problem is that it wasn't only one area of the defense that struggled.
The defensive line wasn't getting the same pressure that made the defense a top-five threat in the league. The linebacker play, although dealing with injuries, was all-around bad and, along with the secondary, even allowed Jason Witten to go for 156 yards receiving against them in the week 13 rematch. And the secondary, also dealing with several injuries, couldn't slow down any passing attack other than the Redskins'.
A lot of the blame has been placed on then defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan whose defensive game planning couldn't get the same pressure in the backfield that the celebrated Steve Spagnuolo could.
This year Perry Fewell was brought in from the Buffalo Bills, a team that Fewell lead to a misleading 3-4 record to finish out the 2009 season. Here are the key players at each level of the defense who will be looked on to help the new coordinator revive this formerly feared force.
Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora & Mathias Kiwanuka:
When the Giants won the Super Bowl three seasons ago there was no question what the strongest part of their team was—the defensive front four. The Giants led the league with 53 sacks during the regular season and could have had more if they didn't hold back in the team's season finale against the New England Patriots. But it paid off because in the Super Bowl the Giants handed Tom Brady a beating like he'd never experienced before. The only plays Brady was upright on were when the New York offense was on the field.
Of course, the Giants had the pleasure of having the future Hall-of-Fame defensive end Michael Strahan and the exotic blitz packages of Spagnuolo whom learned from the late, great Jim Johnson, but they certainly still have the talent.
Justin Tuck has remained an imposing force when healthy. He was one of the most feared of the Giants fifth-ranked defense in 2008, leading the battered team with 12 sacks.
And while much has been made of Umenyiora's declining play and ineffectiveness in run defense, the truth is he still has a lot left heading into his eighth season (seventh playing). The strange thing from last season is that Umenyiora was never fully ridiculed until the aftermath of the loss to the Denver Broncos where he struggled going up against one of the best tackles in the NFL, Ryan Clady. However, there's no room for excuses, and the 2009 team leader in sacks needs to continue to pressure the quarterback like he has proven he can do since 2005.
The third player, but most likely the starter opposite of Tuck, is fifth-year man Mathias Kiwanuka. Kiwi has had an interesting career thus far moving to outside linebacker in 2007 to address the lack of depth at the position and the overcrowded defensive line. This didn't last long as he was lost in mid-November with a fractured fibula and returned to his more natural defensive end position in the following season.
Kiwanuka has definitely shown impressive flashes of his talent, especially in 2008 when he filled in for the injured Umenyiora and recorded eight sacks, but he won't need to have a Pro-Bowl year for New York to be successful this season—though, that would be nice.
The best thing the Giants can do with these three talents is get all of them on the field early and often. It worked for the Super Bowl winning squad, and it will work again. Luckily nobody needs to tell Fewell this as he has already been designing such schemes according to early reports.
With a lot of depth at the defensive tackle position and the welcomed addition of rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants appear to have all the right tools at the defensive line. Now they just need to remain healthy and the feared pass rush will return.
Keith Bulluck, Michael Boley, Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff:
Initially it was thought Bulluck, Boley and Sintim to be the three starting linebackers, but it now appears that Sintim might start on the bench in favor of Jonathan Goff at the middle linebacker position moving Bulluck outside. Therefore it is difficult to say who is more of a determining in the immediate future.
Both Sintim and Goff had unimpressive seasons in 2009 with 20 and 25 combined tackles respectively. Though, this was mainly due to limited playing time behind the likes of Chase Blackburn and the now departed Antonio Pierce and Danny Clark.
Neither player has wowed anyone in the three preseason games accounting for a combined eight tackles and one assisted tackle. It does appear, however, that the Giants are favoring Goff's extra year of experience with recent reports suggesting that Bulluck has been practicing with the first-team defense at outside linebacker in place of Sintim while only practicing with the second team when at middle linebacker. The final preseason game will be especially important for Goff and Sintim to prove they deserve the starting position.
The two sure things at linebacker are first-year Giant Bulluck and second-year Giant Michael Boley.
Boley has shown that he can be a top-tier linebacker in this league with his 2007 campaign. Just take a look at these numbers:
Linebacker No. 1: 103 combined tackles, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble.
Linebacker No. 2: 109 combined tackles, one sack, two interceptions and four forced fumbles.
Linebacker No. 3: 88 combined tackles, no sacks, five interceptions and one forced fumble.
Those are the 2007 numbers for Antonio Pierce, Boley and Bulluck respectively. All around, Boley was the best linebacker of the three. And while battling through injuries all of last season, Boley led the Giants with 84 combined tackles in 11 games. Imagine what he can do for Big Blue in a full season.
Then there is Bulluck. Anyone who has watched football for the last decade knows how much respect Bulluck has earned on the field. After his breakout campaign in 2002 where the former Syracuse linebacker recorded 125 tackles, Bulluck remained a constant threat in the Tennessee Titans' front seven for the following seven seasons all the while not missing a single game until late last season when he was shut down after suffering an ACL injury in a week 14 game against the Miami Dolphins.
Now he brings his playmaking skills and versatility to a much-needed Giants linebacking group. Regardless of whether he plays in the middle or in his normal outside position, the 33-year-old will be a dangerous threat in New York for several years.
Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross:
The Giants secondary is easily one of the weakest areas on the entire team. If Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson had to thank any one team for his improvement in 2009 it would have to be the Giants.
In 2009 Jackson tore up the Giants for 256 receiving yards and a 60-yard and 54-yard touchdown on nine catches. And he didn't stop there as he added a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the two teams' second match-up.
While New York didn't regularly allow these kind of performances, the team didn't regularly stop them either. With the consistent improvement of Corey Webster (a cornerback that Giants fans once watched get burned again and again by the talented but never speedy Joe Jurevicius) and solid 2009 performance of Terrell Thomas, Big Blue is set at the starting cornerback positions. Now Phillips, Rolle and Ross have to establish a rapport with these two in order to ensure a successful pass defense in 2010.
The player with the most to prove on the Giants defense is Aaron Ross. A first-round pick in 2007, Ross has yet to impress NFL followers.
New York didn't think too much of Ross' struggles covering the speedy Yamon Figurs, who torched him for 123 yards and two touchdowns on six catches in a college game between the Longhorns and Kansas State, but Ross hasn't shown the Giants any reason not to worry. When he has been healthy in his first two seasons Ross has employed some questionable decision-making and poor coverage.
Ross is already slated to miss the remainder of the preseason dealing with plantar fasciitis, and it's not certain yet whether he will be ready for week one. Though, it does seem unlikely. This certainly doesn't help his case, as this could be a very important year in deciding his future.
Antrel Rolle has also had his struggles in the past, primarily when playing the cornerback position that led to him losing his starting job, but has played well since making the move to the free safety position in 2008.
In his two years since the move his former team the Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl in the first year the second round of the playoffs last season. While it wasn't all because of Rolle, his improvement correlates with an improved defense, even though Kurt Warner shined in the leadership role for the team.
Now this former Miami Hurricane finds himself in a rebuilding Giants defense, and expectations are high. Fans are hoping that they see the latter, more consistent Rolle, and if they do the Giants will have someone at the safety position they have been missing since 2007 in Gibril Wilson.
The final player in the secondary, and arguably the most decisive one, is fellow alum of the "U" Kenny Phillips. This third-year safety's tenure in New York has also been disappointing, but for a different reason; that reason being Giants fans haven't really gotten to see him due mainly due to an injury that forced him to miss most of the 2009 season.
Phillips definitely has the most upside of the group and perhaps the entire secondary. He has shown he can be a game-changing safety at Miami diving in front of passes and making last minute interceptions. The Giants are hoping he can do this on the professional level, and there isn't any indication thus far that he can't.
The Giants appear to still have an unmatched talent in the front four of the defense despite a disappointing 2009 season. A lot of the players that lead a Super Bowl winning team are still there. Now, they just have to play like it.
The questions arise in the next two levels of the defense. The linebackers weren't a problem until Pierce missed time and eventually was forced to retire with neck issues. Now it's up to proven veterans Keith Bulluck and Michael Boley to lead a group of otherwise young, inexperienced players.
The secondary is right there with the linebackers and may look even worse heading into the season, but if the safties and nickel back, along with second-year corner Bruce Johnson, can stay healthy this shouldn't be a worry for too much longer.
For Giants fans, anything can be an improvement over Bill Sheridan's haphazard efforts of 2009. But new coordinatoor Perry Fewell isn't looking for a slight improvement. He's looking for his defense to carry the Giants back to the top of the NFC East and the conference all together.