New and improved Giants defensive line chases ghosts

The New York Giants. (Photo via giants.com)
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Everyone remembers David Tyree’s “helmet catch,” the most iconic play of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots to end the 2007 season. But the game’s most accurately representative play might have actually occurred on the Patriot’s ensuing last-gasp drive: defensive tackle Jay Alford’s bum-rush sack of quarterback Tom Brady. Not only did the sack help extinguish the Patriots flickering hopes for a perfect season, it also provided an exclamation point to a game—and really, a season—dominated by the Giants defensive line.

The 2007 Giants were an otherwise ordinary team buoyed by one outstanding unit. The team rode its defensive line to a league-leading, quarterback-brutalizing 53 sacks. The group featured future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, up-and-coming stars like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, and solid contributors like Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield.

Their performance that year turned out to be a high point, in keeping with the tradition of Giants' teams built on rushing the passer. (They won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 on the strength of the "crazed dog" defenses of Lawrence Taylor, and their fans in the 1950s are credited with inventing the now-ubiquitous DE-FENSE chant.)

The defensive-line unit slipped markedly in 2008 before bottoming out last year. The 2009 Giants finished 19th in the league in sacks, and were ineffectual against the run. Over the past several years, the Giants have sunk considerable resources into this unit: from big contracts to established stars Umenyiora and Tuck, to substantial free agent expenditures on veteran pieces Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard, to using their recent first and second round draft picks on end Jason Pierre-Paul and tackle Linval Joseph. The return on all this investment will effectively determine the fate of the 2010 Giants.

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IT WAS THE THURSDAY BEFORE THE SEASON'S OPENING GAME, and nearly every reporter present flocked to the practice-facility locker of Justin Tuck, the Giants' titanic defensive end. When healthy, Tuck is the Giants' best all-around defensive player: a skilled pass-rusher who is also disruptive against the run. The problem has been keeping him healthy. Three of his past four seasons have ended with him being either sidelined or hampered because of injury. Last year, his problems started early when he aggravated an old shoulder injury in the season’s second week and was not himself for the rest of the season. Much of the optimism about a rebound by the Giants' defensive line has centered on Tuck’s return to health.

Despite his injuries, Tuck remains the go-to guy for beat reporters, who value his intelligence and disposition to give them what they need. After the group interview, he made time for several one-on-one interviews with individual reporters, during which he actually said insightful, not-canned things about opponents. On the running backs of the Carolina Panthers, for example: “You create seams and, phew, they’ll find them. It doesn’t matter if they started the play out to the left, they’ll come all the way back to the right and find that ‘A’ gap or that ‘B’ gap or whatever gap is open.”

The memory of these runners—the outstanding duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—is fresh in Tuck’s mind. Last year, in the last game ever played at Giants Stadium, they ran for 247 yards in an emasculating 41-9 blowout of the Giants. The humiliation was underlined by the disgusted post-game comments of players from Giants' defenses past.

The ugly emotions of that day boiled over in Tuck’s fellow defensive end, the talented but temperamental Osi Umenyiora, who had struggled all year to regain his once-elite pass-rushing skills after coming back from knee injury. Umenyiora didn’t start that Panthers game and played only sparingly. Afterward, the proud Umenyiora—who in 2007 was made an honorary chief by the villagers in his native Ogbunike, Nigeria—felt so disrespected that he hinted that the game might have been his last as a Giant. “It’s an unbelievable situation, man. Last game at Giants Stadium, probably as a Giant, just the way everything has unfolded has been unbelievable,” he told reporters. His griping escalated during the offseason when he threatened to retire if he wasn’t guaranteed starting defensive end job. When the Giants used their first-round draft pick on pass-rush specialist Pierre-Paul, a happy resolution seemed unlikely.

But a funny thing happened when Umenyiora showed up to training camp. He pulled back from his comments, even going so far as to excoriate himself for being “selfish in the past with my demands.” Here was a whole new Osi in attitude, and quite possibly, in health as well: Conventional wisdom holds that players who return to form after anterior cruciate ligament surgery usually do so in their second season back. In the span of an offseason, Umenyiora has gone from a headache to a source of hope.

“Absolutely awesome,” was how new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell describes Umenyiora’s attitude as he meets with reporters outside the locker room. (The topic is a recurring one among reporters. It provides them with either controversy or feel-good stories.) “He’s been a team player. I couldn’t be more pleased with his attitude and the way he’s approached things since I’ve been here.”

Fewell—pronounced “fuel”—is a fitting name for the caffeinated, on-point coordinator whom Head Coach Tom Coughlin has praised for his “good energy” and “lively persona.” His upbeat, hands-on style contrasts with the clinical approach of his predecessor Bill Sheridan, whose disastrous one-year tenure ended when the Giants fired him the day after the season’s last game. They also dismissed defensive line coach Mike Wauffle two days later—he was the only defensive assistant who was fired. Taken together, the dismissals made it clear that the status quo of the defense, particularly the defensive line, would not do.

Wauffle’s replacement, Robert Nunn, has preached a renewed emphasis on technique and "gap discipline" to a defensive-line unit that strayed from these fundamentals last year. That’s what Rocky Bernard, the Giants spherical and soft-spoken defensive tackle, told me when I approached him for an interview at his locker.

“With Wauffle it was more about ‘getting off, getting off, getting off,’” he said, describing an approach that valued attacking penetration above all else. “With Nunn, we’re not just getting off like a wild man anymore. We still have a gap, but we balanced up our stances a bit so we’re not shooting the gap as much. It’s more just staying in your gap when [blockers] are trying to cut us off, reach us and scoop us and stuff.”

Lack of gap discipline—when defenders recklessly chase the play instead of staying in their assigned places to prevent an opposing running back from cutting back against the grain—was a major problem for the Giants last year. The Panthers game was a perfect illustration: That’s what Tuck was talking about when he discussed their backs coming “all the way back to the right and find that ‘A’ gap or that ‘B’ gap or whatever gap is open.”

Bernard said that Nunn is also stressing discipline within pass rush lanes. Last year, as the season went by and the team's sack totals failed to mount, the desperation of sack-starved defensive linemen tempted them to abandon their lanes and therefore allow quarterbacks to scramble to daylight. “For the ends, we’ve worked on the entry angle on rushing the passer. Not so much up the field but in, so that we converge on the pocket a little bit more,” he explained.

Bernard was sitting in the back left section of the locker room with most of the other defensive linemen. There was a decidedly more sedate vibe in this section than in other parts of the room, where the players were in jokey post-practice mode (“We’re free!”). These defensive linemen are massive men, and when practice is over, they’re tired. And when they’re tired, they don’t generally embrace the mental strain of answering questions that deviate even slightly from the beat-reporter script or contain even trace amounts of negativity—like the questions I was asking for this article about the pressure the defensive linemen face after the disappointment of last year.

 

"I'M NOT GONNA SPEAK TO WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR, CHIEF," said Chris Canty, the Giants defensive tackle-defensive end hybrid who, like Bernard, is in his second year with the team. Where the impression of Bernard’s massiveness is mitigated by his roundness, his small shaved head, and his gentle voice, Canty cuts the classic defensive lineman figure of a Big Bad Dude. At 6-foot-7, he is the tallest Giant, and his hulking presence is accentuated by his deep voice and the bushy fullness of his hair and his beard.

Canty and Bernard are linked in the minds of Giants fans because of the sizable free agent deals they signed before the 2009 season. (Canty got $16 million in guaranteed money, Bernard got a lesser but still-significant $6.9 million guaranteed.) They were brought in to bolster a defensive-tackle group whose most consistent contributors, Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield, were both coming off major knee surgeries. But Canty and Bernard each battled injuries early and barely made an impact upon returning. Their joint failure placed the bulk of the defensive tackle responsibility on the surgically repaired pair of Robbins and Cofield, to bad results.

So it is understandable that Canty is wary when I try to ask him a few times in different ways what went wrong last year. He responded each time with platitudes about his hopes for this year. He finally gave me a playfully exasperated “c’mon, Chief."

The hopes for a vastly better performance this year aren't unreasonable, though. Taken together with the expected bounce-backs of Tuck and Umenyiora, Canty and Bernard’s ability to live up to anything close to expactations could make the defensive line into something resembling the celebrated 2007 unit. So would the return to 100 percent health of Barry Cofield in his second year back from knee surgery. Cofield is in the last year of his contract and will be motivated to reestablish himself as the steady player he was before last year, when his production slipped.

Another player in the last year of his contract who the Giants can expect bigger things from is defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. A long-armed, angular pass rusher cut from the same cloth as Umenyiora and Tuck, Kiwanuka has for years seemed on the cusp of turning the corner from pretty good to very good.

To leave as little to chance as possible, the Giants invested their first two draft picks this year on defensive linemen: end Jason Pierre-Paul and tackle Linval Joseph. Pierre-Paul is a baby-faced athletic marvel, a raw 21-year-old talent. His athleticism gained renown on YouTube when a tape surfaced of him doing 14 successive back-flips, no small feat for someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds. In person, he is similarly bouncy and puppy-doggish. He is quick to flash a toothy smile, and his mannerisms are as frenetic as his speedy, zig- zagging speech, which is peppered to an extreme degree with “like,” “man,” and “you know?” As in, “Some people thought I shouldn’t have come out [of college] early, man. But I feel like the only difference is—you know what I mean?—like it’s not really a big difference except the game is faster now, you know? So I just have to play even more fast that I was playing before and that’s not a problem with me. So things should go smooth like I said.”

While Pierre-Paul comports himself (and does back-flips) like a much smaller man, Joseph is every bit the 6- foot-4, 328 pounder who was drafted to be a space-eater. He has a huge head, huge forearms, huge ankles, and, in the scout-speak to describe a huge ass, “sand in his pants.” Like his fellow rookie line mate, he is a personable if cautious interviewee. He had a green number 24 jersey hanging in his locker. It was his jersey from the NFL scouting combine, and he brought it with him to East Rutherford as a token of how far he had come in a few short months. He is what the beat guys describe as "grounded."

 

JUSTIN TUCK WAS THE LAST GIANT INTRODUCED DURING PRE-GAME WARM-UPS for the season opener in their new stadium this weekend. He emerged from the tunnel wearing a firefighter’s helmet to honor 9-11 victims nine years and one day after the attack. Because he is not the star quarterback, Tuck will never be “the face of the franchise.” But his public persona—stolid, tough, valiant, mensch-like—is pretty much exactly in line with the values the conservative, proudly old-school Giants try to associate with their brand.

More than that, the Giants identity is predicated on a tradition of defense. In their first game in their new home, the defensive line carried on the tradition. Nine months and several hundred feet from where they allowed the Panthers run all over them last year, they limited the same opponent to just 89 yards. On the game’s first series, Chris Canty, last year’s free-agent bust, made a third-down tackle to prevent the Panthers from gaining a first down. He celebrated by flexing his biceps. Pierre-Paul, always jumpy and eager, was called for an offsides on a first quarter kickoff. But he wound up being a force on special teams and was singled out for praise by Coughlin later in the week. Cofield notched four tackles and half a sack. Kiwanuka, who actually started the game at linebacker as part of Fewell’s plan to give the team more bulk against the run-heavy Panthers, sacked the Panthers quarterback twice. And late in the fourth quarter, with the Panthers down 31-18 and clinging to the faintest of hopes, Umenyiora turned the corner past a blocker, found his pre-injury acceleration, and stripped the ball from quarterback Matt Moore, in the process delivering a blow that knocked Moore out of the game with a concussion.

This was a Giants defensive line.