At the start of this month, a Giants team sitting on one victory failed to beat the Buccaneers. But they came away from that game with something else accomplished.
"I think we gave the G.O.A.T. some issues there," safety Logan Ryan said.
He later said Tom Brady, a former teammate of Ryan’s with the Patriots, had in fact admitted to him that the Giants’ defense — in particular a secondary that has become adept at disguising its true intentions — had him deceived and confused.
The Giants haven’t lost a game since, and one of the biggest reasons for those two victories has been the shape-shifting secondary that defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and his players have been showing to opposing passers . . . before quickly changing out of it.
The Giants are making plays, yes, but it is what they are doing just before those plays that is working so well for them.
"I feel like my biggest strength is before the snap," Ryan said. "No doubt I think I do some good things after the snap, but my biggest strength to me I think as a football player is my ability to disguise . . . I do a lot of studying to make it hard on a quarterback. We’re going to disguise a lot. That’s how we have been having some success here and I want to continue to do that."
That should be the crux of the game plan against the Bengals, who, with Joe Burrow out for the season, are expected to start Brandon Allen.
If Brady was baffled by the Giants after 21 NFL seasons and six Super Bowl wins, how well will Allen — making his fourth NFL start — handle their shifting defensive looks? He should be ripe for the Giants’ shell games.
Of course, a team that never shows opponents its true intentions is, in a way, tipping its hand.
"Sometimes the smart way to go is if you’re going to play split safeties, show split safety and let them see split safety," Graham said. "That’s what you have to do sometimes. If it’s single high, show it to him. If you’re always disguising, what’s going to happen is you get into a pattern. Single high? Oh, every time it’s single high, it’s going to split safety. And if it’s split safety, it’s going to single high. We combat that by going through with it."
There also are other dangers. Sometimes the Giants are so out of position at the snap that they have trouble getting to the right spot. It’s why Graham has a rule for this type of cat-and-mouse defense. "Don’t let a disguise screw up you doing your job," he said. "It’s playing that delicate game there."
Ryan, though, said success in subversion has led to a desire to be more and more bold with the sleight-of-hand.
"When you have success with it, you see some quarterbacks struggle, it makes you buy into more. It’s an addiction," he said. "You kind of get into it a little bit more. What can I push? What can I get away with? What’s the boundaries?
"I think there’s an art to it. I feel like we’re becoming really good at it really quickly. Guys are trusting one another to help them out."
So when you see the Giants lined up one way on Sunday, don’t be surprised if they wind up playing an entirely different defensive concept. Or maybe they’ll stick with what they’re showing. Who knows?
Either way, it was enough to rattle Brady and it should have Allen (or whoever plays quarterback for the Bengals) questioning what he’s staring at, too.
It’s what the Giants do best, although there still is one person who can always figure out what their true intentions are.
"I can tell when we’re doing stuff," Graham said, laughing. "They’re not that good at it."
When they can start fooling their own coordinator, they’ll know they’re on to something.