By whatever measure you want to use, the New York Giants' defense has not been as good as it needs to be this season for the Giants to get back to the playoffs and try to defend their Super Bowl title. The pass rush hasn't been good enough. The run defense has been inconsistent. The secondary has been slip-shot. The tackling has been spotty.
"We definitely can be a good defense. All the makings are there. We're not consistent. We've shown at times that we can be a good defense, but we're not a consistent defense," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "That's what we're striving for, to be a consistent defense. I think that if we can obviously pull together, which we will, and be more consistent with what we do, that we can finish strong.
"We haven't been consistent at either run-game or pressure-game. We haven't developed that consistency that you like to see at this point in the season."
Let's look at some of the areas where the Giants need improvement over the final six weeks in order to "finish strong."
The Giants are tied for ninth in the league with 25 sacks, but there have been too many games this season like Sunday when the team's vaunted pass rush generated no pressure. The team's trio of star defensive ends have generated only 13.5 sacks -- Jason Pierre-Paul has 6.5, Osi Umenyiora four and Justin Tuck only three.
Fewell said he will continue to "tinker" with way to improve the rush.
"I'm always looking to tinker and however we can get more pressure with the people that are talented rushers," Fewell said. "We useda little bit yesterday [Sunday] in our package. We used (Mathias) Kiwanuka a little bit more in our package yesterday. As more guys get healthier and start coming to the fold, we'll do different things to be successful."
Valentine's View: Using Tracy and Kiwanuka more on the line to keep players fresh might help, and the return of Kenny Phillips to the secondary might make Fewell more comfortable sending extra rushers. The reality of the situation, though, is that if Tuck and Umenyiora aren't able to lift the level of their play the pass rush is going to continue to be hit-or-miss.
The Giants surrender 4.4 yards per running play, and only five teams in the league are worse. They have been gashed by LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles, Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns, Isaac Redman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Robert Morris of the Washington Redskins.
"It's always a concern when you give up those games. People are able to run the ball on you and we certainly are going to go back and look on tape and see what caused it and try to fix what caused it," said defensive line coach Robert Nunn.
Valentine's View: Injuries to Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard -- and now to Markus Kuhn, and the slow development of Marvin Austin, are part of the cause. The Giants have had games where they simply did not follow assignments well and contain the back side. They are also hurt, honestly, by the fact that despite the varied and interesting talents of the many linebackers they do have, there is no dynamic playmaker or imposing run-stuffer among the group. You also wonder how much Phillips' absence hurts the run defense.
Is there a solution? The personnel isn't going to change overnight. Perhaps Canty and Bernard will be healthier and have more impact following the bye. The linebackers are what they are at this point. The corners and safeties for the Giants are generally pretty good in run support. I guess in some ways this comes back to some of those veteran players like Tuck, Bernard, Canty, Kiwanuka and Michael Boley playing up to their reputations -- which, largely, has not been the case lately.
A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals said the Giants' defense had a lot of holes, and then he and quarterback Andy Dalton went out and proved it last Sunday. The problem is the same one that has plagued the Giants for several seasons now -- communication breakdowns in the secondary resulting in way, way too many big plays being allowed.
The Giants have surrendered 47 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including eight of at least 40 yards. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (51) and New England Patriots (53) have surrendered more. Only five NFL teams have allowed more than the 17 touchdown passes the Giants have been victimized for.
"I would say mental errors [are causing the brakdowns] and then sometimes players get a key, or get a tip, and see something that they thought they saw, but it really didn't happen. So they jump at something, and they let a coverage responsibility go," Fewell said. "It's very frustrating. We work hard at trying to set up certain things versus certain formations and that type of thing, and to have success, so it can be frustrating."
As well as Stevie Brown has played, gathering seven takeaways, the Giants miss the veteran presence -- and talent -- of Phillips.
"We miss Kenny more than what you realize," Fewell said. "Kenny is really a good matchup with the tight ends that we've been trying to defend the last couple of weeks, so we miss him in more ways than one. Not only in the post or in the half, but his athletic talent to cover a guy likeor (Jermaine) Gresham. It's a big loss when you have a talented player like that."
Valentine's View: The Giants have some talented players in their secondary. Fewell is on point when he says it is frustrating to see them allow these plays to happen so consistently. Webster (-8.2) is ranked 101st out of 107 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus this season, and he has to play better. Brown is a playmaker, but he is also an inexperienced safety who can occasionally make a bad decision, like he did Sunday against the Bengals. Jayron Hosley is a young, talented player who is going through some growing pains. Hosley has an ugly -11.8 score from PFF, 105th out of those 107 cornerbacks graded. So, the Giants are struggling in the slot and they are having issues with communication between safeties and corners. That is not a good combination. Kenny Phillips is not a magic elixir for all of that, though he will help.
The Giants have missed 50 tackles this season, according to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus. That isn't good, working to to five missed tackles per game, but it isn't horrible either. It puts them somewhere in the middle when it comes to NFL defenses missing tackles.
PFF says the biggest offender has been middle linebacker Chase Blackburn, who has missed nine tackles and ranks near the bottom of the league in tackling efficiency among linebackers.
What can be done about missed tackles? Linebackers coach Jim Herrmann pointed out that it is a conundrum because of the lack of padded practices and the risks of any live tackling in practice.
"They wouldn't be here if they didn't know how to do that [tackle]," Herrmann said. "So what you try to do as a coach is you try to teach them how to minimize the missed tackle. There's going to be some missed tackles. It's a part of the game and it has been since when I played way back when.
"Missed tackles are a part of the game, but being able to eliminate those or not eliminate them but to reduce those is what you're trying to do. You're trying to teach them the proper leverage. All these guys got here for a reason."
Valentine's View: In other words, Herrmann is saying you can't really do a whole lot to fix it as a coach at the NFL level. Either guys can tackle, or they can't.