2015 has been a year full of stories for the New York Giants.
Victor Cruz's gruesome injury and inspiring comeback. The rebuilding and reshuffling of the Giants' offensive line. Odell Beckham being everywhere and anywhere -- and wondering how he could possibly follow up his record setting rookie year. And, of course, the ongoing saga surrounding Jason Pierre-Paul's injury and contract situation.
Beyond all the individual stories, there have been the questions of how the Giants are going to rebuild their defense under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. His task is doubly difficult by the youth of the the players he is coaching. Despite being without Jason Pierre-Paul -- one of the most gifted 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL -- the Giants still have talented football players at every level of their defense.
What they are lacking is experience, and changes how Spags can install and call his defense.
"We're almost there. I don't think the full volume is in yet, but I don't know that we need the full volume of defense right now. Sometimes I think in the first game, you play a little faster, you play a little bit better, with less thinking. So we've been conscious of that, and purposely haven't put things in for all the reasons, questions you all asked," Spagnuolo said. "We've got a lot of young guys. But you don't want to get caught short-handed either. So you've got to have enough in the package. I always say, you've got to have enough bullets in the gun to win the shootout. There's enough there, and I think the guys have been -- we've kept it pretty much the same, which is good. We haven't changed on the guys. Sometimes we, the coaches, can make that mistake and try to do too much. We really try to be cognizant."
That dedication to playing faster has been a sentiment that Spags has repeated throughout the preseason. It is also an approach that has likely been formed through his experience installing his defense in his first stint with the Giants in 2007, then his failures in St. Louis and New Orleans, and likely informed by Ben McAdoo's own troubles with the offense in the first part of 2014.
Spags has to deal with inexperience at several positions, most notably the safety position. There the likely starters are Landon Collins and Cooper Taylor, neither of whom have played a defensive snap in a real NFL game, though Collins starred at Alabama and Taylor has performed well in preseason.
Spags had this to say about the Giants' second-round draft pick
"Play hard, play fast. Be as smart as you can be, be loud, communicate -- all the things that a safety needs to do. We all realize it's his first game in the league. But you know, he played on a big stage at Alabama. So hopefully that's prepared him for this particular stage. But one day at a time, get better every day," Spagnuolo said.
"Active guy, runs real well, real fast, downhill speed guy. I think he's a physical guy. In the preseason, trying to keep your guys from getting dings. I don't know if he played as many reps as he probably needed -- I know he didn't play as many as he needed. A guy like that that comes in at that position as a rookie needs 1,000 reps in games. But it's just going to take time before he's up to where we want him. He's going to get baptism by fire. That's just the way it is."
The Giants are also grappling with inexperience on their defensive line with players like Owa Odighizuwa, Damontre Moore, and Jay Bromley all needing to step up and contribute this year. The Giants are particularly hoping that Bromley can become a consistent contributor on their defense.
"We were talking about the safeties, I'd say the same thing about the tackles. I think before it's all said and done, they're all going to have to help us. Jay's a second-year guy, so he's like a lot of people that we're talking about here. Not a volume of plays under his belt in game competition. But they're going to learn on the fly, baptism by fire, as they say. And that's what we'll do."
Veteran defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and John Hankins both said that the Giants' goal on defense is to remain disciplined and stop Dallas' run game first. That is a sentiment that is echoed -- or perhaps instilled -- by their defensive coordinator.
"Yeah, stop the run, first and foremost. We need that. And then if they throw the football, push the pocket. All these teams in this league, Dallas included, they get into play action pass on first and second down, somebody has got to punch a hole in the protection," Spagnuolo said. "That's usually pretty tough because they're keeping more than five guys in. But somewhere in there, there's a one-on-one, and whoever has got that one-on-one has to win.
"There'll be a lot of that [rotating defensive linemen]. But as I go back and think of the years, I think most teams probably have D lineman in and out, especially the first game. Those are the guys that have got to get up to speed, game speed, and play a full game. I bet if you went around the league and looked at all these teams and looked at their D Lines at the end of the day Sunday, I bet you a lot of the teams play seven, eight guys. We'll certainly try to do the same thing. I think that's pretty smart to do early."
Discussion of the Giants' defensive line probably wouldn't be complete without some discussion of Markus Kuhn, and apparently Coach Spags loves the big German.
"I'll tell you what, I love Markus. First of all, he can speak German. Actually, I was in NFL Europe over in Germany. Me and him talk about that a lot. Look it, I think the way the guy is made up -- hard worker, where he came from, how he got here -- that's a defensive tackle," Spagnuolo said. "He obviously works in the offseason, he's in great shape. He's done some real good things. We'll get him in there. We've got to get him in there and put him in the right spot at the right time. I love the guy and I love the way he works, I really do."
There is also the question of how the Cowboys will attack the Giants, and whether or not they will try to isolate their inexperienced safeties.
"I think they'll just run their offense. They've got some pretty good players. My guess is they just worry about getting the ball to the guys they've got to get the ball to. Let it go from here," Spagnuolo said.
"I think the first game of the NFL season, defensively, is all about that [preparing for the unknown]. What I was talking to the guys about was stick to what we've been doing fundamentally, that's our foundation. And the important thing in the first game of the season is the in-game adjustments. Who makes them better? Or who is able to have things to answer what they're doing? I don't know what they'll do. We're trying to guess a little bit. Tony hasn't played many snaps in the preseason, we know Dez Bryant hasn't. I'm sure there'll be some things they're going to run that we have not seen. Hopefully our fundamentals and our basics will cover most of it. They'll have some wrinkles in there."