“This is year one of your defense,” a reporter said to New York Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham during media availability Thursday.
“Our defense,” Graham corrected.
That team-first mentality and sense of accountability at both the player and coach level has defined Graham’s defense in his first year as the Giants’ defensive coordinator. He took a team that was ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in yards allowed per game and catapulted them to 13th overall in 2020. Over the course of many close games this season, the defense has kept the Giants competitive.
But they will face their most important test of the season against the Cowboys Sunday. A win over Dallas and a loss by the Washington Football Team would send New York to the playoffs. But Graham is focused on one game at a time.
“We need our best game on Sunday,” Graham said. “Our most physical game. Our most sound execution. We have to start fast. We can’t be worried about anything other than the Cowboys and trying to execute.”
In preparation, Graham has used the time in practice this week to improve on past mistakes.
“Our daily focus is to get better every day,” Graham said. “We have to do a better job tackling. I have to do a better job coaching it up. I’m just trying to learn from the previous week and what we can do better. For me, I can speak for myself. I’m trying to learn from my past experiences and see how it could play into the game.
“Every week is new in the NFL. You’re dealing with a different animal with the skill players, the offensive line is different, the scheme is different. We have to play our leverage in coverage. We have to defend the deep part of the field.”
For Graham, disguise is an important tool for finding success as a defensive unit. Graham explained that the defense is going to continue to try to disguise its coverages whether it is third or early down.
“In my experience in 12 years in the league, if you’re really, really good at what you do, then you might not disguise,” Graham said. “Most defenses disguise no matter who they are. I think that’s always a part of what we do. If disguise is part of it, then disguise will be part of it. That’s just one facet of what we’re trying to do in terms of our improvement.”
The Dallas receiving corps poses its own unique set of obstacles with players like CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper. The Cowboys are ranked seventh in the league overall in passing yards.
“The thing that shows up to me is the guys that go in there and block,” Graham said of the receivers. “I’m always fascinated by that. Here they are, they’re getting all these accolades, are they blocking? We have a big challenge in front of us.”
Graham spent one year with Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy in Green Bay and therefore has some added insight into the Cowboys head coach.
“He’s a very smart man, good football man,” Graham said. “The big thing for me is how he sees the run game in terms of the necessities of the run game. Seeing the correlation between the run game and success. It’s the run game where I really think he stands out. Not to discredit what he knows about the passing game, that’s obvious. The timing of it, that’s what stands out to me.”
In New York’s first matchup against the Cowboys in Week 5, the Giants lost 37-34 in the game in which Dak Prescott suffered his season-ending injury. Graham said that he believes a lot has changed on his unit since that match-up.
“You see guys, some plays that were there to make and now they are making those plays,” Graham said. “To me, not even the plays, let’s not talk about it, let’s talk about just awareness. I think I mentioned it earlier in the year. It takes time to build a defense and to build all those things that are intertwined within starting to play good football. You can be the most physical. You can have the right call.”
For Graham, the most important thing is teaching his players how and when to execute in response to a certain situation.
“When you look at games earlier in the year, you see the growth as it goes,” Graham said. “It jumps off the tape in terms of when you’re watching that. That’s one thing I did notice when I’m looking at it. These guys have improved as football players.”
So as Graham looks ahead to what could be his last game in his first season with the Giants, he knows that success is not only dependent on the players, but on his ability to coach effectively.
“I have to get guys with their eyes in the right place, so they are able to execute,” Graham said. “Get their eyes in the right place so they can play ball. To me, I’m worried about Dallas right now. I know this, they give you formations and they leverage you. We have to get lined up to that stuff. I’m going to do my best to prepare the guys for that.”