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The greatest individual defensive performances in Giants’ history

Where does Kayvon Thibodeaux’s game Sunday night against Washington rank?

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Commanders
Kayvon Thibodeaux celebrates after his strip sack - fumble recovery - TD against Washington.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ stirring 20-12 victory over the Washington Commanders Sunday night was largely made possible by a bravura performance by rookie edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux had his best game as a Giant to date in a season in which he has been trending upward. The play everyone will remember is his sack - strip - fumble recovery - touchdown on Washington quarterback Taylor Heinecke that changed the momentum of the game:

But Thibodeaux’s night summed up what Giants fans (and coaches, I suspect) find so exciting about their No. 5 draft pick - his excellence across all facets of the game. Here are Thibodeaux’s stat lines for every game according to Pro Football Focus:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

You may think that Thibodeaux’s 5-quarterback hit, 4-hurry effort in Dallas on Thanksgiving was his best game, and his outstanding PFF score of 87.2 that evening was certainly no turkey. But his score Sunday night was even higher (89.7) and more indicative of the varied ways in which he can affect a game. The strip-sack TD was one of only two pressures Thibodeaux recorded. He probably would have had another on the crucial Darnay Holmes no-interference-call pass play to Curtis Samuel had he not been poked in the eye as he was bull-rushing an offensive lineman into Heinecke’s lap:

Look farther down the stat line, though, and you’ll see nine solo tackles and two assists, with zero missed tackles. You’ll also see six of those tackles as “stops” (a tackle that constitutes a failure of the offense to achieve its objective on a play), including three tackles for loss. That is what is so exciting. Thibodeaux’s reputation as a player who sometimes “takes plays off” raised questions about his drive and competitiveness and may be what made him available when the Giants selected him at No. 5.

Suffice to say, those questions have been answered. In the second half on Sunday night, when Washington responded to Thibodeaux’s crashing down on the QB to send a running back into the space he vacated, Thibodeaux ran him down from behind. When Taylor Heinecke pulled the ball down in the final minute and tried to scramble for the potentially tying touchdown, it was Thibodeaux, who was back in coverage on Logan Thomas, who crossed over to intercept Heinecke and prevent him from reaching the end zone:

This raises another question: Where does Thibodeaux’s effort on Sunday night rank in Giants history among the all-time great individual performances by a defensive player? The competition is fierce because of the Giants’ legacy of great defensive players. Choosing is difficult also because individual efforts can’t be considered in isolation - the significance of the game has to be taken into account too. (The Giants haven’t had many significant games the past five years so Thibodeaux’s play in a game with playoff ramifications for the Giants counts as important by recent standards.) With that in mind, here are some candidates:

Honorable mention

Tackles don’t grab attention the way sacks do, but they can be just as important depending on the game situation. The NFL record for tackles in a game is 20 since they began to be officially counted in 1994, and 19 has been achieved twice. Tied for fourth with 17 tackles is former Giant linebacker Micheal Barrow, a starter on the Giants’ 2000 Super Bowl team that held the explosive Minnesota Vikings’ offense to 114 total yards in a 41-0 rout in the NFC Championship game. Barrow’s 17 tackles (plus two assists) came in a game Giants fans would rather forget: Bill Parcells’ return to the Meadowlands on 9/15/2003 after becoming the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants came back from a 29-14 deficit to take the lead 32-29 with 11 seconds remaining. An out-of-bounds squib kickoff, however, gave Dallas the ball at their 40. One pass completion later, Dallas kicked a 52-yard field goal to tie the score and then won it in overtime. But don’t blame Michael Barrow.

Back in 1982, when tackles were not yet an official statistic, Giants Hall of Famer Harry Carson was credited with 20 solo tackles and 5 assists in a Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers. That too was not a memorable game for the Giants. Coming off their first playoff appearance in 18 years, the Giants’ hopes for 1982 had already been dashed when QB Phil Simms was injured in training camp. After losing their opening game to Atlanta despite taking a 7 point lead into the fourth quarter, the Giants blew a 12-point third quarter lead over the Packers in their next game and lost 27-19. The NFL went on strike after that game and the Giants never recovered when the season re-started.

Twenty players in NFL history have made four interceptions in one game, none of them Giants. 18 Giants have had three interceptions in a game, however. The most recent was Terry Kinard, a Giants free safety for seven years and member of their first Super Bowl team, on Sept. 20, 1987. This game, also against the Dallas Cowboys, was also a Giants loss. Dallas dominated time of possession 41:42 to 18:18, but Kinard’s three interceptions kept them in the game despite the four INTs that Phil Simms threw. A fourth-quarter Dallas field goal sent the Giants down to defeat 16-14, their second consecutive loss of the season following their first Super Bowl.

Sam Huff and the Giants’ DL stuff Jim Brown

Sam Huff intercepts Cleveland Browns’ QB Milt Plum near the goal line to seal the Giants’ 10-0 playoff victory.
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The battles between Giants’ middle linebacker Sam Huff and Cleveland Browns’ running back Jim Brown are part of NFL legend. In the 1958 season the Giants played three consecutive games, with everything on the line, that are among the most famous in Giants history. The final week of the regular season saw the Browns, leading the Eastern Conference at 9-2, come to Yankee Stadium to face the 8-3 Giants. Jim Brown ran wild that day with a 65-yard TD on the game’s first play and 148 yards total. But in the snow, Pat Summerall kicked a 49-yard field goal to win the game for the Giants and force the Browns to return to Yankee Stadium for a playoff for the Eastern Conference Championship the following week.

The Giants were determined not to let Brown do to them what he had done the previous week. ed by Sam Huff, they succeeded. Big Blue View looked back at that game a few years ago:

”I knocked him out, right at the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium,” he told Paul Schwartz in the book, Tales from the New York Giants Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Giants Stories Ever Told. “Dick Modzelewski hit him low, and Jim Brown was trying to shake him off and I came in and drilled him...

“He said he wasn’t knocked out. I said, ‘You might as well have been.’”

Brown rushed seven times for only 8 yards in that game. That included one 20-yard run, so Brown was 6 for -12 on his other rushes. His worst game ever. It wasn’t all Huff’s doing. The Giants’ defensive line was ferocious that day, and the offense got an early 10-0 lead and made Cleveland play from behind. But Huff punctuated the dominating performance by intercepting Cleveland near the Giants’ goal line late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory and send the Giants to the NFL Champtionship game. Back at Yankee Stadium for the third consecutive time the following week, the Giants lost 23-17 to the Baltimore Colts in the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the first sudden-death overtime NFL playoff ever and the game that put the NFL into the national spotlight for the first time.

Lawrence Taylor wins the game all by himself

Lawrence Taylor’s 97-yard interception return vs. Detroit in 1982.
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The giddiness of Giants fans caused by their return to the playoffs in 1981 after a 17-year drought quickly evaporated when the team lost its first two games of 1982, followed by a two-month NFL strike. When play resumed in November, the now 0-3 Giants traveled to Detroit for the annual Thanksgiving game. Lawrence Taylor had been injured the previous week and sat out the first half as the Lions took a 6-0 lead. Taylor and his bad knee then entered the game in the second half and single-handedly took the game over:

  • He put pressure on Lions’ QB Gary Danielson and forced an errant throw that Harry Carson intercepted.
  • He tackled RB Billy Sims after a short gain, forcing a fumble that the Giants recovered.
  • He sacked Danielson with one hand.
  • Finally, he intercepted Danielson as the Lions were threatening to score and returned it 97 yards for the winning TD as the Giants prevailed, 13-6.

This was not a meaningful game for the Giants, who did not sniff the playoffs that year. Its fame derives partly from the national audience it had on Thanksgiving. But for dominating performances, it’s hard to beat this one.

Carl Banks turns around the Giants’ first Super Bowl

Carl Banks keeps Denver’s Sammy Winder out of the end zone in the second quarter of the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos.
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Carl Banks is one of the most visible ex-Giants these days, a ubiquitous presence on TV, radio, and Twitter as an expert commentator on the team he once played for. But Banks is also one of the most neglected and forgotten of the great Giants defenders. That’s what happens when you’re the outside linebacker on the opposite side of the line from Lawrence Taylor.

Banks had 6.5 sacks in the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl season, but that paled in comparison to Taylor’s 20.5. But he did have 113 tackles. None were more important than the ones he made in Super Bowl XXI against the Denver Broncos. The Giants were a dominant team that year and were favored to win. But Denver took the game to the Giants in the first half. In the second quarter the Broncos led 10-7 and were driving for another score. On third-and-goal from the Giants’ 2-yard line, John Elway handed off to RB Sammy Winder, who looked to have a path to the end zone and a 17-7 Broncos’ lead. But Banks closed rapidly and stuffed Winder for a 4-yard loss. The subsequent field goal attempt was no good.

The next time Denver had the ball the Giants sacked Elway in the end zone for a safety to close the score to 10-9. The Giants went to the locker room having dodged a bullet. Phil Simms came out on fire in the third quarter and the Giants won going away 39-20.

Banks had 10 solo tackles, 4 assists, and 4 tackles for loss in that Super Bowl. As Big Blue View noted, you rarely hear about Banks’ performance that day. But it was the best and most important game of his career on the biggest stage.

A one-armed Lawrence Taylor dominates the Saints

Lawence Taylor getting his injured right shoulder wrapped during the 1988 game against New Orleans.
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With the Giants hanging on for dear life in their quest for the post-season in 1988 at 7-5, they faced the New Orleans Saints with Phil Simms, Harry Carson, and Carl Banks all out with injuries. Lawrence Taylor played in this game with torn shoulder ligaments and deltoid muscle and his shoulder strapped in a harness. No problem. Taylor had 7 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles and terrorized Saints QB Bobby Hebert all night, despite the obvious pain every time he went down to the turf.

The Giants won, 13-12, on a last minute field goal to keep their playoff hopes temporarily alive. Head coach Bill Parcells considered it Taylor’s greatest game. Defensive coordinator Bill Belichick said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Taylor play in that much pain.’’

The best game in Michael Strahan’s record-breaking year

Michael Strahan introduces himself to Kurt Warner in a 2001 game.
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The 2001 season saw the Giants’ Michael Strahan set an all-time record for sacks with 22.5. Strahan was a model of consistency that year: After not getting any sacks in his first two games, Strahan only had one more game all season in which he didn’t record a sack.

The Giants were the defending NFC champions in 2001, coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens the season before. In Week 5 they matched up against the Super Bowl champions of the season before that, the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams led by Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner. The Rams were 4-0 and the Giants 3-1 coming into the game, both teams vying for NFC supremacy.

The Giants’ defense, led by Strahan, punished Warner all game. Strahan recorded 4 sacks on Warner to go along with 6 solo tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, and 1 pass defensed. The Giants took the lead in a tense game early in the fourth quarter, but the Rams scored on a drive with 4:16 left and defeated the Giants 15-14.

Justin Tuck comes up big on the biggest stage

Justin Tuck strip-sacks Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII
Credit: The Boston Globe

Justin Tuck had a quiet first two years as a Giant, overshadowed by his linemate Michael Strahan. But in the 2007 season Tuck came into his own, with 12 sacks and 50 total pressures in addition to excellent run defense, good for an 81.5 season Pro Football Focus defense grade.

The Giants barely made the playoffs that year and then went on a stirring run, culminating in their matchup with the undefeated New England Patriots. The Giants had given the Patriots trouble before losing to them in the regular season’s final game, but few outside the team expected them to compete with the Patriots with everything on the line.

The Giants scored first to take a 3-0 lead, but the Patriots responded to go ahead 7-3, and many viewers expected that to be the beginning of the end for the underdog Giants. But the Giants’ defense had other ideas. Midway through the second quarter Kawika Mitchell and Tuck sacked Patriots’ QB Tom Brady on successive plays. Then with the half coming to a close and the Patriots driving for another score, Tuck sacked Brady again, this time stripping the ball away. The Giants went into the locker room convinced that they could hang with the Patriots. And we all know how that game ended.

Tuck’s stat line for the night was very good but not remarkable: 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble, 2 QB hits, 3 hurries, 3 solo tackles plus 1 assist, and 5 stops. He had better individual games in his career, several with 3 sacks and one with 4 sacks. But to do it in arguably the greatest upset in NFL history in the biggest game against a seemingly invincible foe, and to be the one most responsible for changing the mood of the game at a key moment? This was the game of Justin Tuck’s life.

Osi Umenyiora puts a 6-pack on Donovan McNabb

Osi Umenyiora zeroes in on Donovan McNabb
Photo by Nick Laham Getty Images

The 2007 Giants got off to an 0-2 start but then stanched the bleeding with a fourth quarter comeback win against Washington. Up next were the hated Philadelphia Eagles. Eli Manning was not yet the Giants icon that many fans remember him to have been. At that point in his career he was still struggling, and this night was no exception, with Eli going 14-for-26 for 135 yards and one touchdown and the Giants putting only 16 points on the board.

It didn’t matter. The Eagles weren’t going to sniff the end zone that day. Big Blue View looked back at that game a few years ago. The Giants’ defensive line absolutely annihilated Eagles’ QB Donovan McNabb with a total of 12 sacks, tying an NFL record. Leading the way was Osi Umenyiora, who recorded 6 sacks himself, along with 1 QB hit, 2 forced fumbles, and an almost-perfect 95.3 PFF grade. BBV’s Ed Valentine, who was issuing Kudos and Wet Willies even back in 2007, gave Osi a Kudo and said,

He had an incredible six of the Giants record-tying 12 sacks of Donovan McNabb. Poor Winston Justice. What was Andy Reid thinking, not giving the overmatched Eagles offensive tackle any help against Osi? Thank you, Andy!

The Eagles never stood a chance, going down 16-3 to the newly resurgent Giants. It was only a regular season game, but it mattered because it got the Giants to .500 and helped them get back into the picture as a possible playoff team. As you know, that season ended well.

Back to the present

That 2007 Giants team had a defensive line of Strahan, Tuck, Umenyiora, and Matthias Kiwanuka. It was fleeting because Strahan soon retired, Tuck lost much of his career to injuries, Umenyiora eventually went to Atlanta before retiring, and Kiwanuka never reached the heights of the other three. Jason Pierre-Paul was part of it for a while but then departed after losing time and effectiveness to a self-inflicted injury.

In 2022, the Giants have a defensive line of Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Azeez Ojulari. Will it become as fearsome as that of the Giants’ last two Super Bowl teams? Kayvon Thibodeaux’s dominant game against Washington offers hope that this may be the start of something big.