Giants vs. Panthers: Storylines in the NYG Secondary for Preseason Week 1
The first week of the preseason is now officially underway, which means real football is finally back! More importantly, New York Giants football is back.
The first week of the preseason is often the most compelling, because it is the time when teams get to finish battles started in training camp, find new leaders and answer roster questions. This season, the roster questions for the New York Giants center around the defensive secondary.
The Giants were hoping to enter the season with a premier cornerback trio in Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara, and Terrell Thomas, and one of the league's best young safety tandems with Kenny Philips and Antrel Rolle. With the injury to Prince Amukamara and the plethora of questions surrounding the team's linebackers, the play of the young corps of defensive backs and their use in Perry Fewell's system becomes one of the most important questions for the New York Giants.
The Giants are opening the preseason against the Carolina Panthers and No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, a good first test for the secondary after the shortened offseason. Here are some of the major stories to watch for in the secondary this weekend.
Antrel Rolle's Leadership
Antrel Rolle made a splash with the New York Giants last season in more ways than one. After making headlines as one of the biggest free-agent signings of the year, Rolle made his mark in New York by mouthing off to the media about a variety of things. Rolle backed up his mouth with solid play on the field, but was less of a leader and more of a noisemaker.
This offseason, amidst the salary cap turmoil Rolle has already started to show some team leadership. He agreed without a fuss to restructure his contract from receiving $5 million in 2011 to $1.5 million. With the departure of Deon Grant, Rolle is the most veteran member of the secondary alongside Corey Webster. As arguably the most talented defensive back on the team, it falls to Rolle to assume a position of leadership for his younger teammates, especially Kenny Philips.
The Pro-Bowl safety took a step towards that by taking a pay cut for the team. Now the next step will be to see if he uses his outspoken nature towards the betterment of the entire football team. I believe this will be Antrel Rolle's season to rise as New York Giants team leader.
That all begins Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.
Kenny Phillips' Continued Breakout
Kenny Phillips came to the New York Giants in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft, out of the University of Miami. Much of his first season was spent as a backup to Michael Johnson, though throughout the season he displayed remarkable improvement and potential, eventually earning the starting job.
Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with patellofemoral arthritis in his left knee before the 2009 season, and the condition worsened through the first two games of that year. He eventually ended up on injured reserve for the remainder of 2009, and was unable to play again until the start of 2010.
2010 showed a remarkable improvement from Philips, where he had the chance to learn from Deon Grant and play in Perry Fewell's three-safety set.
This year, Phillips will see an increased role in the system, with fewer three-safety sets being run. Since his play has dramatically improved with each season, one can only imagine what Phillips will be capable of in his biggest role yet.
Look for the Giants to take it easy with him during the preseason to avoid injury, but he'll make the most of his snaps in Game 1 against DeAngelo Williams and the Panthers offense.
Aaron Ross Must Step Up
Aaron Ross has had a roller coaster ride since joining the New York Giants in 2007. He was part of the rookie class that helped the Giants dethrone the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, and was predicted to be the Giants' cornerback of the future.
Since the Super Bowl run, however, Ross has had some problems with his play. He gets burned by receivers for big plays as often as he prevents them.
With Prince Amukamara's injury, Ross was already slated for more playing time than he would have otherwise gotten, and now that Perry Fewell wants to employ Terrell Thomas as an occasional third safety, there will be downs where Ross goes from nickelback to the No. 2 corner.
He is going to have to step his play up to the level beyond even his best season as a pro if the Giants want to consider him an asset rather than a liability.
Prince Amukamara's Injury
Prince Amukamara flew into the hearts and minds of New York Giants fans when he fell to the No. 19 slot in the 2011 NFL draft. Projected as a potential top-10 pick and the second-best corner in the draft class, the Giants did not hesitate to draft Prince Amukamara when he fell that far.
Unfortunately, two days after being the last first-round pick to sign a contract, Prince Amukamara broke his foot. He is now slated for surgery and will be out of commission for eight weeks. Thankfully, he won't miss the year, but this still throws a wrench into the Giants' plans.
Obviously, Amukamara will not participate in the preseason, but the impact of that fact reaches far. His absence forces Aaron Ross into a larger role when Terrell Thomas is called up for safety sets, and it will deeply affect his regular-season play.
Prince only was able to get two days of training camp, and now he will not have any preseason time to compensate. The cornerback position is not one that can be just learned overnight; it is a complex position to learn.
The storyline to watch here does not involve the game against the Carolina Panthers, but rather his lack of play in it.
Will his injury erase his entire rookie season, or will Prince Amukamara be able to step in and contribute anyway? Only time will tell.
Terrell Thomas' New Role
Terrell Thomas is a fast rising star for the New York Giants. Amazingly, he led the team in tackles during the 2010 season playing the cornerback position, as well as posting career highs in pass defense categories. His 21 passes defended were good for third in the league behind Brandon Carr and Brent Grimes.
With the departure of free-agent Deon Grant, Thomas' role on the team is going to expand. Just as Matthias Kiwanuka is going to play a mix of defensive end and linebacker, Thomas will play a mix of safety and cornerback.
The hard-hitting Thomas will be seeing more snaps in Perry Fewell's system, and he will likely find himself stopping the run, the pass and blitzing the quarterback.
Starting with Saturday's game against the Carolina Panthers, Thomas will find himself becoming one of the most important and versatile cogs in the New York Giant defense. It will be interesting to see how Fewell uses him in the preseason to prepare him for his new responsibilities.
Already leading the team in passes defended and tackles, expect him to add a few sacks and forced fumbles to those stats this year.
"T2," as he is affectionately known by many fans, will be the New York Giants' defensive player to watch in 2011.