By any measure, Steve Spag nuolo has done a magnificent job of recasting the Giants’ defense from a woefully ineffective unit last year into one of the NFL’s best this season. But as bad as the numbers looked in 2015 — and they were among the worst a Giants defense has ever produced — Spagnuolo actually looks back with a sense of accomplishment.
In fact, when a visitor suggested the counterintuitive assessment that it actually was one of his best coaching jobs in light of the circumstances, he agreed.
“That’s not crazy,” Spagnuolo said. “But it’s not just me. I think coaching-wise as a staff, I agree with that. Now, people won’t ever see that or say that, and you’re going to think differently when you look at the stats. But I thought we fought our butts off last year.”
The numbers were downright ugly. Historically ugly.
The Giants allowed a league-worst 442 points, the second-worst mark in franchise history (they allowed 501 in a 14-game season in 1966). The pass defense surrendered 4,783 yards, close to the NFL’s worst all-time (the 2011 Packers allowed 4,796). The Giants, who finished 6-10, blew five fourth-quarter leads, a major factor in Tom Coughlin’s ouster after the season.
But there was such a dearth of talent on defense that Spagnuolo had little chance at success. Even so, to squeeze the kind of effort out of the middling players he was left to coach, he looks back with a sense of pride at how hard they played. He recalls one game in particular as a microcosm of what could have been.
“If Landon Collins catches that ball in the Patriots game, we win that game,” Spagnuolo said of a 27-26 home loss in which Collins had a chance to put the game away with a fourth-quarter interception but dropped it. “It’s things like that you remember, the way we fought. Guys played hard to the end, and that’s a testament to the players.”
Spagnuolo was the last coach brought in by Coughlin, who was forced out at the end of the season, and it was a terrific hire — even if the results in 2015 didn’t bear that out. He previously had a brilliant run with the Giants, helping the team to a championship after the 2007 season and presiding over another strong defense the following season.
He went on to what turned into a disappointing run as the Rams’ head coach — what Rams coach [/DROPCAP]doesn’t meet with disappointment these days? — and had stops in New Orleans and Baltimore before returning to the Giants.
Spagnuolo was passed over for the Giants’ head-coaching job in favor of Ben McAdoo, but McAdoo wisely decided to stick with Spagnuolo as his defensive play-caller. And with general manager Jerry Reese re-stocking the defense with some terrific moves in the offseason — signing free agents Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison and drafting Eli Apple — Spagnuolo again has flourished.
McAdoo’s offense was the strong suit in 2015 and ultimately led to his promotion to the head-coaching job, but now the roles have been reversed. The offense has been problematic all season and Spagnuolo’s defense clearly is the Giants’ greatest strength.
Look no further than last Sunday night’s 10-7 win over the Cowboys (now 11-2) as the latest evidence that the Giants have a championship-caliber defense. And a championship coach to make the right calls.
“I think Spags is one of the best at being able to utilize players’ skill sets,” linebacker Devon Kennard said. “Last year, it was one of those situations where his defense was a challenge to learn, and we’re still learning it. But guys have a greater understanding of it this year, and the guys who came in [as free agents and draft picks] have picked up the slack. We’re able to get them to fill in right away and learn it, and I think that’s just as much of a factor as anything else.”
Said Vernon: “As far as being able to call the right plays, [Spagnuolo] has to trust in his players. We try to do that by making ourselves trustworthy, by knowing what we’re doing. He’s very good at switching up the game plan and putting guys in the right position to make plays.”
The numbers underscore the improvement. The Giants are allowing an average of only 18.8 points per game, a massive decrease from last year’s average of 27.6. The Giants also have improved in not allowing big plays; they have given up a combined 47 plays of 10 or more rushing yards and 25 or more passing yards, fifth-best in the NFL. Last year, they surrendered 73 such plays.
“The one thing we needed to do a better job with was the explosive plays,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s a big stat in this league.”
One of those explosive plays sticks in Spagnuolo’s mind from the Dallas game. Even though it was by far the team’s most complete defensive performance of the season, Spagnuolo was bothered by something.
“The play that I remember is the 31-yard touchdown [pass from Dak Prescott to Terrance Williams],” Spagnuolo said. “That’s just my nature. I think more of the mistakes we made.”
There is much to be done. At 9-4 heading into Sunday’s game against the Lions, the Giants need to close strong to ensure their first playoff berth since 2011, when they won the team’s fourth Super Bowl title.
“Our goal now is to make sure that that [Cowboys] game defensively is not our best game this year,” he said. “And that is just all about getting better, so each day we try to get better.”
Number of tackles, interceptions and sacks for Giants safety Landon Collins so far this year. He is the first NFL safety since Rodney Harrison in 2000 to record at least 100 tackles, five interceptions and three picks in a single season.