For so many of their 95 seasons, the Giants have been known for great defenses and legendary players who have delivered greatness to the franchise.
Lawrence Taylor. Harry Carson. Sam Huff. Michael Strahan. Andy Robustelli. Jim Katcavage. Emlen Tunnell. Carl Banks. George Martin. Justin Tuck.
And so many more over nearly a century of football.
It has been their calling card, through championship seasons and even in darker times. The 1970s were some of their worst years, but Martin and Carson and Brian Kelly and Brad Van Pelt and Spider Lockhart gave them something to hang their hats on.
We don’t know if any of the players from this year’s defense will fit into the pantheon of greats or whether they will be forgotten. But after the Giants’ miserable performance against the Cowboys in last week’s 35-17 loss at AT&T Stadium — a game that wasn’t as close as the final score — we do know that there must be dramatic improvement for this group not to be linked with some of the franchise’s more contemptible defenses.
It is just one game and it is a young defense being rebuilt after nearly all of its established veterans were exiled by general manager Dave Gettleman. Players do improve over time, and final judgments cannot be rendered until there is a more reliable sample size. But that shouldn’t entirely diminish the level of alarm after what happened last week, when Dak Prescott stood in the pocket and was virtually untouched the entire game, torching the defense for 405 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The secondary was overmatched, partly because of its own mistakes but also because of a nonexistent pass rush against a superior offensive line. What was even more disconcerting: The Giants blitzed Prescott repeatedly, sending extra rushers a dozen times to help the front four.
And still nothing.
The Giants are fortunate that not every team has the wall of blockers the Cowboys feature after stocking their offensive line with high draft picks the last several years. Offensive line play in the NFL is inconsistent from one team to the next, so the Giants’ ineptitude might not be as pronounced against other opponents.
But let’s face it: This defense features few, if any, game-changing players.
The best pass rusher was supposed to be second-year end Lorenzo Carter, who had four sacks last year. He was a complete non-factor against the Cowboys.
Journeyman pass rusher Markus Golden, who had 12 sacks for coordinator James Bettcher when the two were in Arizona in 2016, had an assist. He did get a hit on Prescott, but only because he got a head start before the snap on a play that was called back for offsides.
Rookie Oshane Ximines, a third-round pick out of Old Dominion, also had a forgettable afternoon with one tackle. And the rebuilding secondary, featuring first-round rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker, struggled — which can be expected of any young player.
First-round tackle Dexter Lawrence had an assist. That’s it.
The Bills will visit MetLife Stadium on Sunday for the Giants’ home opener, and while Josh Allen doesn’t have Prescott’s resume, the second-year quarterback is to be feared nevertheless. Allen has one of the best arms in the game, and if the Giants defend the deep pass against Buffalo as poorly as they did against the Cowboys, watch out.
Bettcher, now in his second season with the Giants, remains undeterred.
“We did not play as well as we expected and as well as we are capable of playing,” he said. “I love the character of this group, because there is no crumbling at the knees. There is no pointing fingers. There’s a lot of ownership and accountability in this group.”
The biggest issue, however, is whether there is enough talent in this group. That will be determined only over time, when these players either prove themselves worthy of their place on the roster or unable to perform up to the standards created by previous great Giants defenses.
Clearly, there is a long way to go.
It is no time to panic, Bettcher insists.
“There is a distinct difference between panicked and urgency,” he said. “Someone that panics is all over the place, is sporadic, has no true answers. When you’re urgent, there’s an energetic, clearly directed course of action. I won’t ever panic, nor will our players.”
Now we will see if the urgency they felt after a wretched showing is enough to find a winning formula. Or if there simply isn’t enough here to make it work.