The New York Giants' defense stinks! That was the common refrain all throughout the preseason, and through a pair of season-opening losses where the defense didn't put up much resistance while both the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons went on critical long touchdown drives late in those two games.
Thursday night against the Washington Redskins, though, maybe we got a glimpse at the possibility that the defense might not stink. That, in fact, there might even be a few things it does well.
Before we threaten to get carried away here, let's realize that the Giants were playing against their favorite patsies, the Washington Redskins, and that Kirk Cousins is not anything close to a quality NFL starting quarterback. Let's also realize we aren't talking about this defense suddenly morphing into a dominant unit, or even something resembling the 2007 Giants.
There are some signs, though, that defense might not be a complete liability. There are two specific reasons
It looks like they can stop the run
This was an obvious point of emphasis for the Giants after giving up a league-worst 4.9 yards per rush a season ago. So far, so good, and Thursday night against the Redskins was the best evidence yet that the quality run defense the Giants have displayed thus far might not be a mirage.
Washington entered the game averaging 171.5 yards rushing per game, best in the league through two weeks. They gained 88 yards on 20 carries, 4.4 per rush. That number was skewed, though, by a 26-yard run on the game's final play. The Giants forced Cousins to throw the ball 49 times, a recipe for disaster for Washington and exactly what the Giants were hoping to achieve.
The Giants' defensive line is holding up at the point of attack, and they are getting good work in run support from guys like cornerback Prince Amukamara and safeties Landon Collins and Brandon Meriweather.
Incidentally, Amukamara, Collins and Meriweather - who has played with physicality while staying within the rules thus far -- have given the Giants a hard-hitting and sure-tackling trio of defenders at the back end of their defense. Even Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, before his concussion, was showing a surprising willingness to support against the run.
They have been opportunistic
Relentless. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been ingraining that word, and that attitude, in his defenders from the beginning. The Giants aren't incredibly talented on defense -- they don't have a dynamic pas rusher (sorry, Damontre Moore fans), they have only one real play-maker at linebacker and they are relying heavily on Collins and Uani 'Unga, rookies, still trying to figure out the NFL. They have, however, done what Spagnuolo wants and for the most part played relentlessly.
The Giants practice being relentless, they practice running to the ball. That attitude has helped them create six turnovers in three games, three each against the Cowboys and Redskins. The Giants have turned the ball over just once, making them +5 in takeaway ratio. Obviously, that's a good sign.
"As a defense we're always trying to get the ball out, either by interceptions, stripping the ball or whatever," said 'Unga, who had an interception Thursday. "The game is at the ball. You got the ball, you're gonna win the game. so we're always trying to get the ball out."
The lack of a dynamic pass rusher will leave Spagnuolo with an issue all season. Do you send extra people? How often do yous end them? Which ones do you send? Carl Banks mentioned a Collins conundrum Friday on WFAN, pointing out that he is an excellent blitzer, but that sending him means Meriweather is alone in center field -- and that's not a place he should be.
This defense won't be great, and the Giants will have to protect it by scoring a healthy number of points, running the ball better than they have, minimizing their own turnovers and by using special teams to keep field position tilted in favor of the Giants.
Dallas won the NFC East last season largely by protecting a defense many people were convinced wasn't very good with an incredible, time-consuming running game and getting just enough opportunistic plays from the defense when they were needed.
Thursday's game offered a sliver of hope that a similar path, albeit without the dominant running game, might be there for the Giants. At the very least, it offered evidence that the Giants are making some progress defensively.