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Giants' defense: First vs. the run, last vs. the pass

New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo coaches

New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo coaches against the offense during training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, N.J., on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. Credit: Brad Penner

Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knew the discrepancy between the two aspects of his unit was lopsided. He just had no idea how different they were.

The Giants entered Sunday night's game against the 49ers ranked first overall against the run (69.8 yards per game) and last against the pass (316.3).

"I didn't know it was that extreme," Spagnuolo said. "I knew we were doing pretty good [at one] and not so good in the other, but I had no idea."

That's probably because it is so rare to be so extreme. Since 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 teams, only three teams have finished the regular season first in run defense and last in pass defense in the same season: the 2006 and 2007 Vikings and the 2012 Buccaneers.

What makes it a more alarming trend than a charming one for the Giants is that none of those three teams made the playoffs. In fact, none had a winning record.

So as the NFL becomes more focused on passing as the prevailing wisdom and most of the action comes through the air, the question for the Giants is whether such a disparity can be accompanied by team success.

It can, Spagnuolo said, as long as one other statistic remains relatively low: points allowed per game. The Giants entered the week ranked 11th in the NFL with 20.5. In the previous two weeks, it was 15.5.

"Look, nobody wants to be 32nd in anything," Spagnuolo said. "I know when the game is being called and what I'm asking the players to play in the game, we're playing the game to win, not to improve our stats. And that's the truth. So when you get in games, especially toward the end where some of those stats pile up, there were calls in there that say, 'Let's protect the goal line.' . . . It didn't matter what they gained."

Those passing yards exist, and no one on the Giants is excusing them, but they can be rationalized. The Giants have had leads of at least 10 points in the fourth quarter of each of their games, forcing opponents to rely on the pass. They also have been genuinely good at stifling the run, again pushing teams to the air.

They had a bit of a revamped defensive front Sunday night because of injuries: Kerry Wynn and Cullen Jenkins started at the ends and Jay Bromley and Johnathan Hankins were the tackles, and linebacker Mark Herzlich made his first start of the season in place of Devon Kennard (hamstring).

"The numbers are a little skewed," linebacker Jon Beason said. "We need to have one of those great weeks where you hold an offense to 300 yards total or 250. We have that type of potential."There also are the interceptions. The Giants have five of them along with three forced fumbles. Their turnover differential of plus-6 is second-highest in the NFL.

"You've got to get turnovers," Spagnuolo said. "You've got to create them and when they're there, capitalize on them. By that, I mean we have to come up with the football, and we've been able to do that."

If they can show that potential Beason referenced, the pass defense numbers could start to nudge toward the rushing ones.Spagnuolo and Tom Coughlin seem to agree that it's far better to be at this end of the spectrum than have a lousy run defense with good pass-stopping ability.

"I like to be good at both," Coughlin said. "I think we will get better. In the meantime, if we can stop the run and then our pressure on the quarterback continues to build, we'll get better in the secondary as well."

Notes & quotes: In an interview with NBC, Coughlin, 69, the NFL's oldest head coach, said he has no interest in retiring. "It's a lot of fun for me right now," he said. "It's a lot more fun when we win, obviously. It's the competitiveness, it's the young people, it's the players, it's the organizational thing. There's constant change, and you better be able to keep up with that change" . . . The Giants had a chance to take the NFC East lead with a win . . . Central Islip grad Andrew Tiller was active for the 49ers. He was promoted from the practice squad Saturday . . . Osi Umenyiora, Chris Snee, Jack Lummus and John Johnson were inducted into the Giants Ring of Honor at halftime.


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