The New York Giants have been asked all week about the improvements in their defensive play the past few weeks, and about whether or not they can continue their recent run of excellent play against Aaron Rodgers and the high-scoring offense of the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
"I think we are playing a lot better, for whatever reasons, I don't know why. I think everybody seems to be coming together now," said Osi Umenyiora. "In the back end we are playing better now and in the front we are playing better. The calls are coming in better and we just seem to be playing better than we were back then."
"Early on, we were so up and down with the linebackers and secondary. One week one thing would hurt us and the next week it would be something else," said Michael Boley. "The last couple weeks, we brought things together, not really simplifying things but putting more emphasis on making sure everybody is on the same page."
Rodgers noted the improved discipline of the defense during his conference call earlier this week.
"When we played them they dropped a couple coverages, the touchdown to Donald, but they have been playing really sound with their defense," Rodgers said. "They are not just letting guys run free, they are in their rush lanes getting after the passer and they are making plays. They are tackling well and they are doing everything really well."
The Giants gave up an average of 385.1 yards and 24.6 points per game this season. In the last three weeks, those numbers are much better:
vs. New York Jets -- 331 yards, 14 points
vs. Dallas Cowboys -- 300 yards, 14 points
vs. Atlanta Falcons -- 247 yards, zero points
Mark Sanchez, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan are not, however, Aaron Rodgers. None of those quarterbacks has the weapons at their disposal Rodgers does, either. Can the Giants continue their run of oustanding defense against the Packers, the best offense the Giants have seen since, well, the last time they played the Packers? In that game, by the way, the Giants gave up 449 total yards and 31 points.
Boley knows what the Giants are up against.
"I am not going to say shut them down but I am going to say slow them down," Boley said. "I think that is the key for us just limiting the plays that they have on offense and hurting them on third downs, that is the thing that is going to help us the most."
Let's take a look at how the Giants defense is different than it was in that Week 13 meeting with Green Bay.
Umenyiora did not play in that game as it was the first contest after he suffered a severe ankle sprain against the New Orleans Saints. Boley returned from a hamstring injury, but estimates he was only about 70 percent healthy, meaning rookie Jacquian Williams had to cover Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley. Justin Tuck played, and registered five tackles and one sack, but is much healthier now. Injuries in the secondary forced spare cornerback Will Blackmon into the game in the final, decisive drive, and Blackmon was victimized by Rodgers and Jordy Nelson.
Improved health has revitalized the pass rush, improved the linebacker play and helped eliminate the communication breakdowns the Giants were experiencing.
2. Chase Blackburn
The Giants hauled the middle linebacker off the scrap heap the week of the first Packers game when Mark Herzlich went down with an ankle injury from which he has not returned. Blackburn made his first start the following week against Dallas, and the Giants have not been able to get him out of the lineup since.
Fewell spoke about what the veteran Blackburn has meant to the defense.
"He brought credibility. He brought a voice that, like I can speak to Chase, Chase can speak to the defense, and we all spoke the same language," Fewell said. "We mis-interpret a couple things here and there, but everybody knew he was gonna get it right. And he was gonna work hard to get it right. So I think it settled us down a lot more. Instead of us being indecisive, we became decisive."
3. Improved Communication
Blackburn is part of that. The return to health of Boley, and to a lesser extent Umenyiora and Tuck, is part of that. Whether they want to admit it or not, simplified schemes is also part of that. There are fewer coverage audibles in the Giants secondary now than there were several weeks ago, thus fewer miscommunications and blown coverages. Plus, the talented but still-learning rookie Prince Amukamara has played much less and the veteran trio of Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant has played together much more.
Justin Tuck summarized the confidence the Giants feel heading into Sunday with this remark:
"We didn't play our best game and I think that's encouraging to know that we hung in with the best team in the country and didn't come close to playing our best game. Our motto around here this week is to just go out there and play our best game and see what happens. I'm sure they're going to play a great game too, but we always felt around here that if we play our style of football and play our best game, we can play with anybody."
Can it all make a difference?
In the end it comes down to Tuck, Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of the defensive lineman getting into Rodgers face and disrupting what Green Bay wants to do. Whether the Giants can or not remains to be seen. You have to believe, though, they have a better shot at it than they did the first time around.