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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Ryan Connelly's absence a big loss for Giants defense, which is trying to figure things out

Ryan Connelly of the Giants is taken off

Ryan Connelly of the Giants is taken off the field after an injury in the second half against the Redskins at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 29, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Maybe it’s a little far-fetched and perhaps too simplistic an explanation for all that went wrong with the Giants’ defense in Sunday’s 28-10 loss to the Vikings. And who knows if things would have been that different had he been on the field to defend one of the best running backs in football.

But it’s safe to say that the absence of rookie linebacker Ryan Connelly was at least a factor in the stunning regression of a defense that seemed to be getting significantly better the previous two games. Not only had Connelly made his presence felt in back-to-back victories over the Bucs and Redskins, but he’d been given the added responsibility of calling defensive signals in the absence of the injured Alec Ogletree.

Cause-and-effect that the fifth-round pick had helped settle down a defense that looked mostly atrocious the first two weeks? Yes, at least to some degree. And was the season-ending knee injury he suffered against the Redskins partly responsible for Sunday’s debacle against the Vikings, when the Giants allowed 211 rushing yards, including 132 by Dalvin Cook?

It was.

Ok, we’re not talking about Harry Carson or Dick Butkus here. But the unlikely emergence of Connolly was a pleasant surprise as he eased into his role as a Day 1 starter, and the impact of his loss was unmistakable in the team’s first game without him. It helps that Ogletree was back from his hamstring problems for Thursday night’s game against the Patriots.

While plenty of the focus in Thursday’s game against the defending Super Bowl champions was on Daniel Jones, who was making his first prime-time start and his first head-to-head matchup against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Giants’ defense was certainly an area of concern going in. Especially against a team like New England, which has set the standard on offense for most of the last two decades.

Ogletree was glad to be back and in position to pitch in, and it was a helpless feeling watching last week’s flop against the Vikings from the sidelines.

“You like to think you could’ve helped, but you never know,” the veteran linebacker said. “Things like that could’ve happened if I was out there, and it wouldn’t make me feel any better. But I was proud of the guys that did step in and play. Obviously, you always feel like you could always affect the game if you were out on the field, but I wasn’t able to be out there, so hopefully this week I’m able to go out there and play and have some effect on the game.”

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher had been on the spot after back-to-back losses against the Cowboys and Bills. And after last week’s loss to the Vikings, there have been more rumblings from fans who have grown impatient with his work. But Bettcher maintains that the only way out is through hard work and consistency.

“This group loves to work,” Bettcher said. “They do not run away from a challenge and they do not run away from work and I love that about them … We can work really hard, but we have work the right way and the right way being a very detailed and focused [approach] on whatever those improvements are.”

Coming into Thursday’s game, the overall numbers haven’t been impressive, especially compared with the Patriots defense. The Giants had allowed an average of 25 points per game, which is 24th in the NFL. The Patriots have surrendered just 34 points in their 5-0 start. The Patriots also lead the league in third-down efficiency, with a 13% conversion rate against opposing teams. The Giants allowed 37 percent on third downs, 13th in the NFL.

Ogletree was looking forward to using the Patriots as a measuring stick.

“We’ve got a good opportunity to go against a top team in the league and one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so we’re looking forward to the challenge,” he said. “It’s up to us to go up there and do our part, do our job and we’ll worry about the results at the end.”

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