After a disappointing showing against the Cincinnati Bengals, the New York Giants were looking for improvement from their defense Saturday night. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said after the first preseason game that he wanted the defense to play faster, more physical, and more aggressively in the coming weeks.
Some of the Giants clearly took that message to heart as they prepared to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, while others have yet to take a step forward.
Among the starters, the linebacking corps stood out as one of the most dynamic units on the field. Devon Kennard continues to be a force from the strong side, making run stops and applying pressure when rushing the passer. In the middle, Jon Beason was all over the field, predictably active in run defense, but also surprisingly active in pass coverage.
But if the defense had a star Saturday night it was free agent linebacker J.T. Thomas. The ex-Jaguar was a whirlwind on the field, disrupting nearly every other offensive play by the Jaguars tried to run. Thomas finished his night credited with five tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Once again the Giants' starting defense had difficulties defending the run, particularly with Markus Kuhn as one of the defensive tackles. Despite bulking up to 320 pounds, Kuhn failed to push the pocket in one on one situations, and often appeared to be on roller skates against double teams.
On the outside, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played an extremely clean game. The Jaguars appeared to want to test their passing attack against the best corner on the field, so DRC was targeted often, giving up little. He also played very well in run support, maintaining outside leverage and forcing plays back inside to the rest of the play.
The safeties appeared to play very deep, protecting against the deep ball. They also didn't attack passes underneath like Spags probably would have liked. They upped their intensity level as the game went on, but that is far from the story wit the safeties. A bit more on this later.
As the Giants worked through their depth chart, the focus of the game shifted to the defensive line. In a repeat of the previous preseason game, the GIants run defense woes were seemingly cured once Jay Bromley entered the game. Though his selection in the third round of the 2014 draft was almost universally maligned as a horrific reach, Bromley is quickly proving worthy of the Giants' faith. He has quietly put together two very good preseason games, collapsing the pockets, clogging running lanes, and knifing through offensive lines to apply pressure.
Damontre Moore was active all night long, notching a pair of sacks as well as being generally disruptive. Moore lost contain once or twice in the run defense, but he has continued to improve in that area while also being a handful for the offensive tackles he faced.
Moore's running mate at defensive end, Owa Odighizuwa, was a headache for the Jaguars as well. Owa showed a tremendous first step, frequently being the first Giant off the snap, sometimes even beating Moore. Owa's explosive athleticism and heavy, active hands helped him create havoc along the offensive line.
And once again linebacker Uani Unga had a tremendous game. Many roster projections have had the Giants carrying six, or even five, linebackers. Unga, however, continued to make a very strong case for his inclusion on the roster. The rookie was all over the field, showing great range, football IQ, and instincts.
Okay, we have to talk about the injuries. Another preseason game and another promising young safety lost for the year, perhaps two. This game also saw Mark Herzlich suffer a concussion on the very first play of the game while Jon Beason and Bennett Jackson suffered -- what are now being called -- knee sprains. As of now the severity of these injuries, other than Justin Currie's fractured ankle, are unknown. That being said, having two linebackers and nine defensive backs classified as some degree of injured by the end of the game is not what anyone wants to see.
I wrote after the game against the Bengals that even with their issues, the Giants' defense just had a different energy about it. That feeling was reinforced after the second preseason game.
Spags continued to call the defense aggressively, sending stunts and blitzes throughout the game. One in particular, which appeared to be a three man rush turned into a six-man blitz as three rushers seemingly appeared out of a cloud of blue smoke. That play resulted in Moore's second sack of the night.
The defense was also communicating more and more fluently Saturday night. Various players could be seen making calls and adjustments all night long, as the defense acted, reacted, and changed in order to disrupt the offense.
The defense isn't there yet.
And that's okay, because it isn't supposed to be "there" yet anyway. The defense is, however, improving. There have been some marked improvement over their first efforts against the Bengals, and that is exactly what the GIants are looking for. The goal of preseason isn't necessarily to play well so much as to build and play better over successive games.
The defense played faster, just like Spags wanted. Players stepped up and played well, particularly young players, which is especially encouraging. Spagnuolo also delivered on his personal goal to improve his play calling, and put players in better position to play to their strengths.
Once again the injury bug has bitten, but just like with good and poor play, what is now important is how the Giants respond heading into the third preseason game.