In Eli Apple’s mind, he has yet to be beaten by an opponent this season.
The second-year cornerback knows that there have been receivers who have caught passes against his coverage, and he’s well aware of the four touchdown passes he has allowed this season, the most among defensive backs in the NFL. But they’re not really beating him, you see.
“Any time something does happen, I take the approach that I didn’t really give it up,” Apple said. “It was just something that I did, that I made a mistake. It wasn’t, ‘The dude was just better than me.’ I never think that on the football field. I always think like, ‘Dang, if I would’ve done this differently, I would’ve made the play.’ ”
Apple has had to think like that a lot this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Apple has been targeted 30 times in the season’s first four games, giving up 21 catches for 234 yards. He’s broken up three passes but allowed the four touchdowns and was flagged for two interference penalties. Opponents have a passer rating of 132.5 when throwing in his direction.
With Janoris Jenkins locking down the other side of the field in most games (opponents have zero touchdowns and a 56.6 passer rating in his direction), teams clearly are going to continue to enter Giants games intent on Apple picking.
“Early in the game,” coach Ben McAdoo said, “Eli is getting attacked.”
The Giants are figuring out ways to deal with that. Last week against the Bucs, they started out with him covering Mike Evans while Jenkins was on DeSean Jackson. That seemed like the smart matchup: the slightly more physical Apple against Evans’ big body and the slightly quicker Jenkins against Jackson’s speed. But Apple was beaten for a touchdown by Evans, and the Giants switched.
“Eli has had some up-and-down plays,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “I say it all the time: There’s plays in there that people probably don’t notice that he does real well and he knows on the ones that they get a big play on, he has to play better. That’s the life of a corner in the NFL, really.”
It was Apple, remember, who broke up a two-point conversion attempt by the Bucs in the fourth quarter on a pass to Jackson.
“I just wish I was able to stay on him more in the game,” Apple said of losing the assignment on Evans. “After that touchdown, they kind of just took me off of him, you know what I mean? I just wish I had another crack at him because I feel like I’m a good enough corner to cover anybody, to be honest.”
The Giants still think that, too, and by moving him around and adjusting schemes, they are giving him the best chance they can to prove it. They also like the way Apple is responding to his less-than-stellar start to the season.
“I haven’t seen him flinch,” McAdoo said. “He’s playing the ball better in the air. He needs to continue to compete at a high level. He needs to give it up on the practice field. That carries over to games . . . He’s improving as a practice player and he’s improving in the games.”
Apple knows there is room for that improvement, and he is striving for it.
“You watch the film and you correct it and you just try not to make the same mistake twice,” he said. “And if it does happen again, you just continue to learn from it, continue to rep it in practice. It’s going to take time sometimes, but you’ve just got to continue to stay at it and keep grinding.”
That’s the only way that psychological tourniquet of convincing himself that he’s not getting beaten, that he’s just making errors, holds up.
“This is a learning curve, it’s a learning lesson, and that’s how I take everything,” he said. “I just go out there, play my game, try to make the plays that come my way . . . I know I’m playing my game any time I’m out on the field.”