It is the central theme to the 2021 Giants, and that won’t change until there is a definitive answer to the question of whether Daniel Jones is up to the moment.
Yet as much as Jones’ development as the team’s quarterback almost certainly will be a deciding factor in whether the optimism surrounding the Giants is legitimate or a pipe dream, it is what happens on the other side of the ball that will also figure heavily into whether they build on their success in the second half of las season. Or whether they continue to wallow in mediocrity and get no closer to winning a Super Bowl for the first time in more than a decade.
The defense offered demonstrable improvement last season over the dreadful unit that defensive coordinator Patrick Graham inherited. There were flashes of big-time playmaking ability – as evidenced by hanging with the Rams until the very end and conquering the Seahawks on the road to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. But they floundered in back-to-back-back losses to the Cardinals, Browns and Ravens down the stretch, and their win over Dallas in the regular-season finale was too little too late to eke out a title in a weak NFC East won by 7-9 Washington.
Best way to describe last year’s defense: good, not great.
"I think the most important thing is to build on what we did last year that was good and eliminate what we did last year that was not so good," said defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who had a breakout season in 2020 with a career-high 11 ½ sacks and signed a three-year, $63 million contract in March. "We’re doing a good job of watching film from last year and critiquing what we didn’t do so well and sharpen our toolbox on what we did do well. I think that’s big."
A handful of key free agent acquisitions – including linebacker Blake Martinez, safety Logan Ryan, and cornerback James Bradberry – helped solidify last year’s defense, which allowed 349.2 yards (12th overall) and 22.3 points per game (ninth overall). Those numbers were solid, no doubt, and certainly better than before. But this year’s team must be closer to elite to compete for a playoff spot.
Playing better defense can only help Jones, who stands to benefit not only by an upgrade in his receivers with Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, but can reap the benefits of improved field position. Only a more reliable defense can assure that second part.
The players trust in Graham, who has a knack for putting his players in the best position possible and matching wits with opposing offensive coordinators. And it will be the second-year coordinator who hopes to continue making the right calls moving forward.
"We all love playing under Pat Graham and we love how smart he is and what he brings to the game," Williams said. "He knows what type of guys he has, and he puts his players in the best ability to play the best that they can. It makes the players’ confidence rise, and the more confident you are, the better you play."
Year 2 of the Graham defense should mean a significant step forward, especially with returning players now grasping the concepts more easily and with the addition of cornerback Adoree Jackson.
"With the second year of any scheme, you definitely get more familiarized with it and you can play much faster," safety Jabrill Peppers said. "You understand [other players’] jobs that much more to play to your leverage and to know when you can take chances and when you can’t."
Peppers won’t take anything for granted, however.
"You can’t look too far ahead, and you can’t look in the past," he said. "We’re out here getting better, getting in condition, going through our football motions and training so we can be at our top level when the season comes."
That top level has to be higher than last year, and if Jones does take that next step, then maybe the Giants can live up to the expectations second-year coach Joe Judge has placed on them.
But if there is no progress, then there is no chance.