Let’s not mistake this year’s Giants defense with the ’85 Bears, the ’86 Giants, the 2000 Ravens, or even the 2007 Giants. It’s simply too soon to elevate this group with any of those great defenses, or put them on a level with Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, who are as good as it gets on that side of the ball in today’s NFL.
But if what we saw on Monday night against the Bengals was any indication, and if defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s previous work with this scheme — including that 2007 Super Bowl unit — then there may be something special going on here. Not necessarily Super Bowl special, as Odell Beckham Jr. suggested in an ESPN interview after the Giants’ 21-20 win over Cincinnati. But good enough to make you think that they might at least be ready to play into January.
Whether they’re good enough to make it to Feb. 5 in Houston, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a long way from here to there, and no amount of youthful enthusiasm on Beckham’s part can obscure that the Giants are still not at the same level as the Seahawks and the Cowboys, even though they beat Dallas in the regular-season opener.
But they’re certainly a lot closer today than they have been since the last time they went to the Super Bowl. After four straight seasons with no playoff appearances, there is at least reason for optimism.
“We’re really looking forward to Feb. 5 in Houston,” Beckham said after the game. “That’s the goal, obviously. I probably said that the past two or three years since I’ve been in the league. I feel real confident in this team. This defense is a Super Bowl defense. This is a playoff defense. The offense, we’re working to get better each and every day.”
First-year coach Ben McAdoo shares Beckham’s enthusiasm, if not his pronouncement that they’re Super Bowl ready. But McAdoo believes there’s something going on with his defense that just might be special.
“Tremendous effort by the defense, all night really,” McAdoo said Monday on a conference call with reporters. “The defensive line and pressure packages impacted the quarterback production, especially in the second half.”
The defense took over the game, actually. Once Eli Manning put the Giants ahead early in the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the 3, the defense went to work. It was as good a sequence that Spagnuolo’s players have put together all season.
The Bengals had three offensive series after Manning’s touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard put them ahead 21-20. The first drive ended when Landon Collins made a diving interception of Andy Dalton’s deep pass down the middle at the Giants’ 38.
The second was a three-and-out that resulted in a punt from the Cincinnati 21.
And the third was the most dramatic of all. The Giants sacked Dalton on second and third down. Damon Harrison and Jonathan Casillas were in on the first sack at the Bengals’ 23. Olivier Vernon brought down Dalton at the Bengals’ 16 on the next play.
The sacks have been slow in coming this season, but that’s the kind of series that can ignite a defense. It’s also a sign that the Giants are starting to adapt to Spagnuolo’s system the way the 2007 team did. Remember how difficult an adjustment it was early on that year, when the Giants gave up a combined 80 points the first two games, but eventually caught on and vanquished the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII?
It may be a similar dynamic this season, even though this is Spagnuolo’s second season in his second coming as the defensive coordinator. Many of the key pieces to this year’s defense are new to the system, including Vernon, Harrison, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple. And Collins, who is emerging as one of the best safeties in the league, is finally catching on after a difficult apprenticeship as a rookie.
It’s certainly a far cry from last year’s defense, which was so inept that the Giants blew five fourth-quarter leads and ultimately led to a change in head coaches. General manager Jerry Reese splurged on the free-agent market and, combined with Collins’ emergence, it’s a completely different group this year.
Good enough to get to Houston? Beckham seems to think so, but we’ll reserve judgment until we see a few more of these fourth-quarter closeouts. Especially against playoff-worthy teams, assuming the Giants get past the underbelly of their schedule against Chicago and Cleveland the next two weeks.
Play like this in Pittsburgh and then home against Dallas, then maybe we’ll start to think about Houston in February.
Nine games through the 2016 season, the Giants’ defense bears little statistical resemblance to last season’s porous unit (league rank in parentheses):
20.4 (11) Points per game allowed 27.6 (30)
92.1 (7) Rush. yards per game allowed 121.4 (24)
267.2 (22) Pass. YPG allowed 298.9 (32)
359.3 (16) Total YPG allowed 420.3 (32)