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Beyond the box score: Young defenders offer Giants reason for optimism

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As young players get better, so should the defense

Buffalo Bills v New York Giants
DeAndre Baker
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The numbers are mostly nothing short of awful for the New York Giants after three weeks.

  • 30th in a 32-team league in points allowed.
  • 31st in the league in yards allowed.
  • Last in passing yards allowed per game (332.3).
  • 31st in passer rating against.
  • 28th in first downs allowed.
  • 31st in yards allowed per play.

There are probably more where these came from. You get the point, though. The defense has not been very good. In fact, it’s been downright bad by most any statistical measure.

Yet, there are signs of better days ahead.

The Giants have three rookies starting on defense. All three — Dexter Lawrence, DeAndre Baker and Ryan Connelly — had their best games last Sunday vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Third-round pick Oshane Ximines played more than half the defensive snaps for the first time and produced a sack and four tackles.

The Giants also have a trio of second-year players — defensive lineman B.J. Hill, slot cornerback Grant Haley and EDGE Lorenzo Carter — starting.

“Playing a major role as a rookie is big. I think week by week they’ll continue to mature, they’ll continue to grow. The more things they see, the different situations that they’re in, they can learn and grow from that,” said 14-year veteran safety Antoine Bethea.

“In Tampa Bay we got some great contributions from those three guys [four if your include Ximines] and we’re continuing to count on them to make plays for us.”

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said this week that he is “absolutely” encouraged by the play of his young charges.

“It’s a continued process and that’s how young players get better, they have to practice, they have to work those techniques that they have to improve at, whatever they might be. We have to make sure as coaches that we are identifying them and being part of the solution.”

Dexter Lawrence: It’s about more than numbers

The Giants 17th overall pick had just one assisted tackle in Week 1 vs. Dallas. In Week 2 he had four tackles, but also a key penalty on a field goal that ended up costing the Giants four points. In Week 3 vs. the Buccaneers, Lawrence got his first career sack, two quarterback hits, two tackles and blocked an extra point.

I have often said that the impact of a player like the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Lawrence cannot be measured simply by looking at the stat sheet. When I spoke to Bethea on Thursday, expressed a similar sentiment:

“He [Lawrence] holds a valuable position in our defense where he takes on the double teams, he frees the linebackers where they can run and get to where they need to get to. He can push the pocket. He does a lot that really doesn’t come out on the stat sheet,” Bethea said.

“His production is still up there. It’s a valuable position in our defense.”

DeAndre Baker takes a step forward

The rookie cornerback had rough games the first couple of weeks and has given up 13 completions in 17 targets thus far. He was much better against the Bucs, though, and there was really a simple reason. He played far more aggressively, far more like the player he had been at Georgia.

“He played more aggressive (vs. Tampa Bay),” Bethea said. “I think we all that Bake is better when he’s able to play aggressive, get hands on and he’s done that. He has a lot of room to grow. It’s only Week 4. We’re looking for him to continue to grow and up his play.”

Baker agreed that Sunday was a step forward for him.

“I feel like I played a better game than in my first two games,” he said.

He also agreed that he had played more aggressively.

“I knew since Day 1 I could play with anybody. It’s not confidence,” Baker said. “It’s just going out there and just executing the call and doing what you do. Staying true to your technique. That’s all that’s about.”

Bethea said it’s far too simplistic to simply say that Baker should always be in press coverage.

“An outsider says ‘get up there and press,’ but there’s more to it. The game is more complicated than that. We get different formations and different cut splits where they don’t allow a DB to get down there and get hands on,” he said.

“Obviously there’s going to be times when you can get down and get hands on, but there’s going to be times where you’ve got to get off and play from off coverage. As a young player you just have to hone in on those skills and really realize what you can do and when you can do it.”

Baker showed the first signs of beginning to figure that out Sunday vs. Tampa Bay.

Ryan Connelly and the green dot

When Ogletree went down with his unfortunate hamstring injury, suffered on a play that didn’t count, Connelly took over as the defensive signal caller. That meant the green dot, signaling that he had the radio, was affixed to his helmet.

The fifth-round pick from Wisconsin wasn’t faxed by the added responsibility.

“It was fine. It wasn’t much different. That’s what I do in practice,” Connelly said. “It’s literally going from hearing the call to giving the call.”

Back to Bethea, who explained that the role of signal caller isn’t as easy as Connelly made it sound. Or, for that matter, made it look.

“It’s tough, but guys have done it. He’s one of the guys who is capable of doing it,” Bethea said. “He plays the game above the shoulders. He’s very smart. His IQ of the game is up there. We can count on him and lean on him to do that.”

Connelly also had a season-high seven tackles and grabbed an interception, the first turnover of the year for the defense.

“He has great instincts. He’s very smart. He works extremely hard, and he just has a feel for playing the position,” head coach Pat Shurmur said. “He’s a young player, so a lot of it is new. But because he has really good instincts, it kind of comes natural to him.”

Needing to grow up in a hurry

If the Giants are going to build on last week’s victory over the Buccaneers and be competitive this season, their young defenders are going to have to continue to make rapid improvements.

“I would say from week to week already in our season our defense is kind of starting to find itself and find its identity. We always talk in the room we’re not going to use that (youth) as an excuse. We are a little young, but we’re not going to lean on that at all,” Connelly said.

“That [thinking about the future] can be exciting. At the same time we know if we’re not performing right now it doesn’t really matter what’s going to happen in the future.”

Add linebacker Tae Davis and defensive backs Corey Ballentine, Julian Love and Sam Beal — all of whom seem likely to play some type of role on defense before the season ends — and that group figures to get even younger as the season progresses.

Toss in rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, rookie wide receiver Darius Slayton, second-year guys Saquon Barkley and Will Hernandez, and even third-year tight end Evan Engram and you can see where the future of the Giants lies.

“It’s just the nature of our team. We have a young team, certainly, of first-year and second-year players,” Shurmur said. “I think what’s important is that they get over the fact that they’re first-year guys, and they go out and perform. We picked them for a reason. We felt like they had a chance to be outstanding players. The guys that we drafted this year are having an impact.”

Defensively, if you look beyond those ugly statistical numbers, that impact should give you hope.