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Giants at Cowboys: Are Giants’ young defenders ready for the moment?

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Vets, coaches remind the youngsters to embrace the experience

NFL: AUG 16 Preseason - Bears at Giants
Dexter Lawrence
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest story around the the New York Giants has been — and will continue to be — the Eli Manning-Daniel Jones dynamic. How long will the Giants ride with the 16-year veteran? What, if anything, will cause the Giants to turn to the No. 6 overall pick?

Jones-Manning is, of course, the sexy story. The one that sells newspapers and drives page views. It’s the headline grabber. The easy one. In the long run, it is the most important story.

For 2019, though, it might not be the story that defines how well or how poorly the Giants do.

A big part of that story will be told by how well the Giants young, untested defense handles its business.

The Giants’ braintrust of GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur were adamant during the offseason that with a few key defensive stops the 2018 Giants could have won more than five games.

So, they rebuilt that defense. Out went proven players like Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison. Out went under-performing players like Eli Apple, Curtis Riley and B.J. Goodson. Out went middling veterans like B.W. Webb, Kerry Wynn and Josh Mauro.

Seven of the Giants’ 10 draft choices came on defense. Six of those, the exception being defensive tackle Chris Slayton, a seventh-round pick, will be playing in their first NFL game on Sunday when the Giants face the Dallas Cowboys in front of roughly 100,000 Cowboys fans at AT&T Stadium.

Dexter Lawrence, DeAndre Baker, Oshane Ximines, Julian Love, Ryan Connell and Corey Ballentine will all be performing under the NFL’s bright lights for the first time on Sunday — and doing it in a hostile environment while playing in a key NFC East game.

Antoine Bethea, a 35-year-old veteran, will be playing in his 14th NFL season-opening game. His advice to the newbies?

“Have fun,” Bethea said. “It’s football. It’s a game we’ve been playing for a long time. We’ve been going over these calls for six months. A lot of these players, they played against more people in college than they are on Sunday. But then again, we’ll see who the ballers are. Don’t let the bright lights get to you too much but at the end of the day go out there and have fun.”

Defensive back and special teams captain Michael Thomas, a 2018 Pro Bowl selection, is entering his seventh season.

“I’m excited for ‘em. My advice to them [rookie teammates] is to embrace it,” Thomas said. “I remember my first game like it was yesterday. You made it. You should be excited. You should have a moment. Even before the warmups, go walk the field on your own, see the scoreboard and all the stuff, but don’t get caught up in the hype cause once they put that football down and we kick off it’s just football.”

“Have fun” is also the message being imparted to his young charges by defensive backs coach Everett Withers.

“This is what you’ve trained for all your life. That’s the way I look at it, something that you lay in bed at night and you dream about it,” Withers said. “These guys have had a ton of work, so now it’s just putting the work that they have done, that they have stacked on top of each other, put it out there on the field. Go relax, play hard and have fun.”

Baker played at Georgia, which reached the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. He is used to big games played in filled-to-capacity 100,000-seat stadiums.

“I’ve been in those games before. It’s just another first game. It’s just football. Just go out there and do what I can do,” Baker said while sitting idly at his locker and scrolling through his phone.

“That’s the least of my worries, that environment.”

Lawrence (Clemson), Love (Notre Dame) and Connelly (Wisconsin) have also played in big games in front of huge crowds and national TV audiences.

Ballentine played at Division II Washburn, far removed from 100,000-seat stadiums and College Football Playoff glamor. Sitting at his locker on Thursday, he didn’t appear concerned about what he would be walking into on Sunday afternoon.

“I come to practice every day just like they [Cowboys players] do. I see Sterling [Shepard], Eli [Manning], practicing against them,” Ballentine said. “I just slow it down in my mind, treat it like it’s another game, another week. Be as prepared as I can be and go out there and play my best.”

The Giants, of course, also have a plethora of second-year players they are counting on to be critical contributors on defense. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, defensive lineman B.J. Hill, linebacker Tae Davis and cornerback Grant Haley among them.

Can all of these young players rise to the challenge presented by Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and the Cowboys? On the road? In their first NFL game?

“There’s always going to be questions,” Ballentine said. “We kind of take it as a challenge. The guys we have that are young are also responsible and willing to hold themselves accountable.”

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said this week that he is “Looking forward to getting to Sunday and seeing these guys go play.”

Bettcher just wants to see his young charges focus on the task at hand.

“Our mindset is we play one play at a time and that’s all that matters, the play we’re in. We talk a lot about being where your feet are on defense, that’s in the moment, that’s focused, locked in, eyes, communication,” he said. “Every down you get a call, you communicate the call, you get in a stance, you get your eyes right and when the ball is snapped you go play. Being able to do that as a young player for 20 plays, for 45 plays, for 60 plays, whatever you are tasked with doing that week, that’s how rookies have to do.”

How well all those young players do that is going to go a long way toward determining what kind of season the Giants have.