With about 1 1⁄2 minutes left in the first half of Sunday’s Saints-Giants game, Drew Brees dropped back and hit rookie receiver Michael Thomas over the middle for 23 yards. It brought the Saints across midfield and helped set up a 39-yard field goal with seven seconds left that made the score 7-3.
A rather unremarkable play, really, in the scheme of things.
Which is what makes it stand out so much.
That pass, it turns out, was the longest play the Giants have allowed this season. It was one of the few through the first two games in which a receiver caught a pass and was able to make a move upfield for any extra yardage at all. And it signifies perhaps the biggest change in the defense from last year to this one: the elimination of big gains.
The Giants have allowed only three plays of 20 or more yards, all on passes. They are the only NFL team that has yet to allow a play of any kind for 30 or more yards.
For a crew that spent most of last season looking around at each other trying to figure out who was in the wrong position or in the wrong coverage, this new group has been almost flawless in its technique and tackling.
“I think you see guys who hold each other accountable and are going out there and flying around,” cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “We’re playing fast. You have guys who are communicating. Communication has been great.”
It’s not just the pass defense, either. The Giants have allowed only two runs of 10 or more yards, and only one of them to a running back (Dak Prescott’s 11-yard run in Week 1 at Dallas on a read-option is the other). A lot of that has to do with the rebuilt defensive front, but the secondary is helping, too.
“We all like to thump just like our linebackers and linemen,” safety Landon Collins said. “If you ask our linemen, they will tell you that our safeties come down and are always ready to hunt.”
Last season, the Giants allowed 58 passing plays of 20 or more yards, including eight in the 52-49 shootout loss to the Saints, and 44 runs of 10 or more yards. That’s what contributed most to their ranking as the last-place defense.
The difference now? “All the guys that we picked up and with all the great edge rushers we have now, and just protecting better in the back and just making key plays and getting off the field,” Collins said.
Coach Ben McAdoo agreed that it is a reflection of the entire defense.
“We may not be getting the sacks, but we’re getting the pressure on the quarterback,” he said, alluding to his team’s two sacks. “We’re doing a nice job of challenging receivers in coverage so [the quarterbacks] may have to hold it a tick longer with some pressure in their face. It’s hard to be explosive that way.”
It’s been only two games. There are bound to be mistakes. At some point, there will be a miscue in the coverage or a missed tackle that leads to a big play.
But the Giants have eliminated those flaws thus far. And they feel as if that will continue.
“Coming together?” Collins asked when a reporter suggested that the defense has yet to fully jell. “I mean, there are different things that you can come together on, but as a team and as a defense, we are all together because we all have the same mindset and same goal.”