Landon Collins is coming off a Pro Bowl season. He was under consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He had one of the most statistically impressive years an NFL safety has ever registered and emerged as a leader and force for an ascending Giants offense.
On Friday night, he played like a guy trying to make the team.
Rather than loaf through the preseason opener, glide around in the secondary for the handful of snaps that he was scheduled to play, then pack it in and watch from the veterans’ virtual chaise lounges on the sideline, Collins set an early tone against the Steelers.
Possibly, too, it will set the tone for the season.
“We just have to showcase that we are still a force to reckon with,” Collins said after an aggressive showing in which he made the first two tackles of the game, assisted on stuffing a run on the second drive, and prevented an end-around from becoming a big play.
“He likes to play football,” Ben McAdoo said of the budding leader of the defense. “He’s always around the ball. He has a nose for the ball. He’s an animal when it comes to that.”
The Giants lost the game, 20-12, but it was a night in which the starting defense provided a brief first glimpse of what they believe can become the best defense in the NFL this season.
“If we continue working as we work and continue working as a whole, working against that type of offense we have now [in practice], we’re definitely going to be one of the best out there,” Collins said. “We’re not there yet.”
Collins said one reason for his on-field aggressiveness is that he is not allowed to hit teammates like that in practice. “I can’t unload like I want to on our guys,” he said. “We got to protect them. We got to keep them for the next game. So when I get the chance to hit somebody else, I am putting all of my force into them.”
It may have been against a Steelers team that started a third-string rookie quarterback, rested Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and is without holdout Le’Veon Bell, but the Giants were impressive nonetheless. The starters forced a pair of three-and-outs and had an interception on the first three Pittsburgh possessions.
It was exactly what they were supposed to do, playing almost all of their starters against Steelers backups (Jason Pierre-Paul and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sat out).
“We’re just excited to see what we’re capable of,” middle linebacker B.J. Goodson said. “We just have to keep going out and keep doing it over and over and over again. That’s the process.”
It was far less easy to analyze the offense, but that might have been because of those who were not on the field. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. did not play, Brandon Marshall was on the field for one brief series and Sterling Shepard sat out the game as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. Those are the four most potent offensive players on the team.
The offensive line looked shaky in pass protection, but some of that was a result of Josh Johnson’s play at quarterback. The group was much more productive with Geno Smith at quarterback with the second-teamers (although Smith was intercepted in the third quarter).
The full starting offense will get a chance to try to flex some preseason muscle at some point later this month. On Friday night, it was the defense’s chance. And Collins’.
“I don’t pressure myself into being better,” the safety said of what he expects from 2017. “I pressure myself into working to get better. That just comes when the time comes. That’s just my ultimate goal.”
This was the first step toward it.
Notes & quotes: Aldrick Rosas kicked field goals of 27 and 52 yards in his quest to become the Giants’ opening-day kicker as a first-year player . . . The Steelers scored the only TD of the first half after te Giants’ CB Donte Deayon muffed a punt with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. That set up a 28-yard scoring pass against Valentino Blake (who had an interception earlier in the game).