The Giants' pass rush returned with a bang Monday night, flattening Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell five times for sacks.
"Coach always tells us to continue to pound that rock and one day it's going to break," Justin Tuck said of persevering through a stretch of eight straight games without more than two sacks in any of them. "One thing we've always had the last couple of years is a game that signified the start of something good [for the pass rush]. Hopefully, this was a game that gets the ball rolling for us on the pass rush."
The return of the sacks and quarterback pressure was obvious to anyone who watched the game. But a more subtle defensive difference might well determine if the Giants get into the playoffs, and how far they can go if they make it.
That change is in the defense against the run. Since the Giants shook up their starting lineup - promoting Mathias Kiwanuka to a starting role in place of Osi Umenyiora at defensive end, replacing Fred Robbins with Chris Canty at defensive tackle and inserting Jonathan Goff at middle linebacker - the results have been impressive. It's not as glamorous as the sacks, but it is a return to what the successful Giants teams of the past have done.
Through the first 11 games of the season, the Giants allowed 1,195 rushing yards on 280 carries, averages of 108.6 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. In the three games since the changes, they have allowed 211 rushing yards on 64 carries. That's 70.3 per game and 3.3 per carry.
And as Tom Coughlin pointed out, 36 of the Redskins' 89 rushing yards on Monday night came on scrambles by Campbell.
"When you see the numbers teams were putting up against our run defense, it hurt," Kiwanuka said. "It's a pride shot. So when you go into a game, no matter whom you are facing, you say, 'We are not going to let them do that again.' When 11 guys decide that enough is enough, you can get that done."
It wasn't only the lineup that switched. There also was a rededication to fundamentals.
"I think it was a change in attitude, a change in philosophy," said defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who has played three of his best games in the last three weeks. "Around here there's been so much importance on rushing the passer and sacks, and we've received a lot of credit for that. The running game just never really seemed to kill us. But when it did start to kill us, guys took that personally."
The Giants' run defense, now ranked eighth in the NFL, also has tweaked the way it attacks the run. "The last month or so, we have played more of what we call an 'over front,' where you are putting the three-technique [defensive end] towards the tight end," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "Our defensive ends, with the exception of Justin, who is a big guy, our defensive ends might be a little bit more conducive to playing in that kind of front."
The Giants will be tested Sunday. The Panthers have the NFL's No. 3 rushing offense and averages 4.7 yards per carry. But they might not be at full strength. DeAngelo Williams (ankle) is listed as doubtful; Jonathan Stewart (Achilles) is listed as questionable. Last year those two totaled 137 yards and four TDs against the Giants.
Even if they are available, the Giants think they have solved their problems in defending the run and will be able to stop them. "It's nothing that we're worried about," Kiwanuka said. "As far as our defense stopping the run, we have the ability to do it. Our coaches put us in good positions and we have to keep defensive gap responsibilities. We just have to play with intensity."