Secondary has become primary for Giants' defense

Antrel Rolle (26) celebrates with teammates Will Hill

Antrel Rolle (26) celebrates with teammates Will Hill (25) and Terrell Thomas (24) after intercepting a pass during the first half of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. (Oct. 27, 2013) (Credit: AP)

It was just a little more than a year ago that Terrell Thomas said the Giants' defensive backfield was sick of being treated like second-class citizens. And not only by opponents. They felt they were taking too much of the blame when things went wrong, not getting enough credit when things went right and falling into the shadows of the high-powered, high-priced defensive linemen who grabbed the attention and the headlines.

"We're tired of being the underdog of the defense," Thomas declared in training camp 2011. "We get no credit [for big plays]. I think we're tired of that."

Fast-forward about 16 months and the Giants' defense again is being regaled for its dominance. In the last three games, it has allowed one offensive touchdown, and that came on a 5-yard drive by the Raiders after a Giants turnover. It has done a good job of stopping the run all season and finally has managed to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the last few games.

But there does seem to be a significant change in the way the Giants are accomplishing those feats. Their strength no longer starts up front, on the line of scrimmage, and funnels backward. This year's defense has been an inversion of that traditional Giants formula.

The secondary no longer is second-class. In fact, it has become the strength of the unit. Just as Thomas predicted.

"I think it's finally happening," Thomas said this past week. "I think our secondary, even through all the losses when we didn't have a pass rush, managed well . . . As far as limiting big plays and taking out big-play wide receivers, I think we've done a good job of doing that."

They have. The Giants rank 11th in the NFL in pass defense but have not given up many huge chunks of yardage. There have been only 25 passes of 20 or more yards against the Giants this season, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Only two passes have gone for 40 or more yards. That's tied for second with the Seahawks -- whose secondary gets proper credit -- and one behind the Browns.

What those other two teams have in common is 31 sacks each by their defense. The Giants have mustered only 14. Thomas and Antrel Rolle have combined for three of the team's eight sacks in the last two games, and when Mathias Kiwanuka brought down Terrelle Pryor with a strip-sack to seal the win last week, it was a coverage sack.

"I think it's definitely balancing out," cornerback Prince Amukamara said of the distribution of strengths on the defense from front to back. "That wasn't always the case. Pass rush used to be the primary objective of the defense and the rest of the units just tried to keep up.

"You had Osi [Umenyiora], you had [Chris] Canty," Amukamara said of pass rushers from the recent past. "I heard [Barry] Cofield was just amazing. And then you have [Justin] Tuck and JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul]. I mean, gosh, all those guys are so talented. They really made it easy on them on the back end."

Now it seems to be the other way around.

Said Thomas, "Obviously, our D-line struggled at first and they got things rolling, so now we're all on the same accord and the pass rush is mixing in with the coverage very well."

Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said he doesn't look at the defense as having a new pecking order -- would a father rank his children in significance? -- but admitted that there is a case to be made that the secondary has taken the lead in directing the defense.

"It probably could be perceived that way," he said.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the transformation is that it happened without the players the Giants were counting on. They lost safety Stevie Brown, who led the team in interceptions last year, to an ACL injury in the preseason. Veteran cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster have barely played because of injuries (Ross is on injured reserve; Webster will miss his sixth game in the last eight with groin and ankle issues). Thomas, who was supposed to be gravy if he could make it back from a third ACL injury, has become a significant contributor, particularly in the last two games. Rolle has earned a game ball in each of the last three wins and was the scaffolding that held the Giants together emotionally through their 0-6 start.

Then there is Trumaine McBride, the quiet cornerback who has become a trusted starter after not even playing football last season. He impressed the coaches in training camp, earned a spot on the roster and, when Ross was injured against the Chiefs in Week 4, stepped into his important role. Fewell said last week that McBride no longer is a fill-in but a bona fide starter. "It's his job to lose," Fewell said.

That reality still hasn't hit McBride.

"I feel like I have a lot to prove still," he said. "I actually have that title now [as a starter], but I don't feel like I've earned it yet."

For the rest of the secondary, it's just the opposite. They've earned the right to be considered the backbone of the defense this season. Now it's just a matter of everyone else catching up to that inverted way of thinking and calling it like that.

"If the identity [of the defense] changes and we're playing to our strengths, then that's key," Thomas said. "That's what football is all about, adjusting on the run."

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