The Giants defense allowed the fewest touchdowns in the NFL in 2016, gave up the second-fewest points per game, and carried a team whose offense scored one point more than the 2-14 49ers into the playoffs.
This year they think they can be even better.
They’re talking about shutouts and trophies and being recognized as the best unit in the league. Every team has those kind of aspirations in mid-June, of course. What makes this group different is that it might very well be able to pull all of it off.
“I think we can be special,” cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said Wednesday after a minicamp practice. “When everybody is on one accord and we’re banging, man, we’re pretty good. You come back and you know what you’ve got. You’ve been there before. And this time you can go all the way.”
It’s the back end of the defense, the secondary that took to being called the NYPD (or New York Pass Defense) by the end of ’16, that seems the most formidable. Rising star Landon Collins is at safety, the Giants have three potential shutdown cornerbacks in Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, and a group of promising young players to fill in the very few gaps. In a pass-happy league in which almost two out of every three offensive touchdowns scored in 2016 were through the air (786 of 1,229), that’s an invaluable strength.
And the Giants believe they can measure up to anyone.
“We can be tremendously better,” Collins said. “We’re trying to be ranked up there with (Seahawks safety) Earl Thomas’ and the Broncos’ defense. With the guys we have and the chemistry we have and the respect for one another, it’s unbelievable.”
Rodgers-Cromartie, who has been in the NFL for 10 years and went to two Super Bowls with very strong secondaries, said this is the most talented group he’s been a part of.
They have other things going for them. Each of the past two seasons either the scheme or the personnel was new. This year, for the first time in defensive coordinator Steve Spag nuolo’s second stint with the Giants, there is continuity on the field.
“I say to the guys sometimes, ‘Look, we’re in graduate school now. We’re there,’ ” Spagnuolo said. “This is the first year in three years where the personnel has stayed somewhat the same and the scheme is 90 percent the same. There is definite value to that, no question.”
They also benefit, they believe, from having to face a varied and improved Giants offense every day in practice. Rodgers-Cromartie said he doesn’t think the Giants will face a team this year that can trot out a trio of receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard. That doesn’t include first-round pick Evan Engram, who can only help them improve their coverage of tight ends.
The Giants’ defense may be strong in the secondary, but it is far from back-heavy. They have All-Pro tackle Damon Harrison to help stop running teams, experienced linebackers and a pair of defensive ends who can be as disruptive as any duo in the league. Last season, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon totaled 14 sacks in their five games together when both were reasonably healthy.
All of which makes the Giants believe they can take the next step in their dominance.
“We started something last year,” Rodgers-Cromartie said of the defensive play in 2016.
Now they’d like to finish it.