We got our first look at the newest iteration of the New York Giants' defense last Sunday, and the results were decidedly mixed.
They definitely did some good things against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants knocked the ball out of Cowboys' hands four different times, coming away with two forced fumbles -- one of which was recovered by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- and a pair of interceptions. The fact Rodgers-Cromartie returned his fumble recovery for a touchdown already ties the 2015 Giants with the 2014 Giants in terms of defensive scoring.
The Giants also limited the Cowboys' potent rushing attack to just 81 yards on 22 carries. Part of that was due to the Giants' commitment to using a heavy front four alignment, which was able to limit the number of yards the Cowboys' running backs were able to pick up before contact. The other part of the Giants' success in run defense was due to the Giants' secondary tackling very well, and missing very few tackles.
The downside to that strategy was that the Giants generated very little pressure on Tony Romo. The Giants only pressured Romo a total of 12 times -- combined quarterback hits and hurries -- on 45 drop backs. Though the Cowboys were committed to a quick passing attack, the Giants' personnel choices left them with players who weren't quick enough to exploit the brief windows when Romo was holding the ball.
These two points, the secondary forcing turnovers and limiting the yards after contact in the running game, and the front seven generally failing to get pressure on Romo, give us our best indication about where the Giants defense is right now. It also lets us know where Steve Spagnuolo has to do some work, and what his foundation is to build upon.
Punishing quarterbacks has been the Giants calling card for longer than many current Giants have been alive, and Spagnuolo knows they need to get back to that.
"We've got to get to the quarterback more, no question about that. How do you do it? We'll try to figure it out. Again, I thought their O-Line did really well. He does a really good job. If you go back and look at the pressures we did bring, his hard count got us in trouble. We gave some things away early, he put the protection where it should be," Spagnuolo said. "And look, there's a lot of other bullets we could have went to the game with, but you've got to make the decision. When you're sitting here right before the game, "Do I put too much in and paralyze them a little bit with all the thinking or can we win with what we've got?" Well, our guys played well enough to win. But there were other things we can have to offset what Tony was doing. But he's good, he's a good football player."
Not paralyzing his own unit is a theme that Spags has repeated going back into preseason. He stated then that he wants to ease into the full playbook to make sure the defense is playing fast rather than thinking too much. It seems that the youth and unfamiliarity on defense still left its mark, with the Giants showing their hand early too many times.
The other issue is that with Jon Beason out of the lineup, the Giants lacked the defensive field general that made Spags' defenses so dangerous in the past
"Well, anytime you lose a good football player that helps and his leadership, and is vocal. You know Uani, I thought Uani did a great job. Talk about production, for a young guy going in there. I wish we would have won the game, I think he would have had a chance to get one of the weekly awards that go around the league because he played that well," Spagnuolo said. "But losing Jon, we lose that guy who can go out there and maybe offset what Tony's doing in the middle of a down."
But on the other side of the coin, the Spagnuolo seems to have found the strength of his defense, and its in the secondary.
"I don't know that I could pick out a specific guy. But I had the feeling during the game that this group cared passionately about what they were doing. We've talked all training camp long about how we would chase perfection, but rely on relentless. And I felt like they were giving us that. I think if you get that, I can work with that any time, I really can. Not everything is going to go our way during the game," Spagnuolo said. "That's a good football team we played, I think everybody recognizes that. That's a good offensive line. That's a really good quarterback. And some really good receivers. I know Dez got hurt a little bit there at the end. So it was a really good test for us. I did like the way the guys approached it, I liked the way we came out early in the game. When it's all said and done, the stats don't look good, but I felt like we played fairly decent. What we'd like to have back, obviously, is the first drive of the second half and the last two."
Though the decision to start Brandon Meriweather raised some eyebrows -- to say the least -- before the game, the decision paid off and the whole secondary played well, limiting the explosive plays that gashed the Giants' defense in 2014.
"I'm better off with that [giving up short passes] — or we're better off with that, than the other way. We did talk extensively during the week about keeping all receivers inside and in front. We were going to try not to let Dez wreck the game, because he can wreck a game. So I felt we accomplished that. And we weren't letting balls go over our head, which I think is good. Anytime you can do that, I think you can be in the game," Spagnuolo said. "What that means is you've got to play really good in the red zone. We played good a couple series, we didn't get it done in the end. Then you've got to find someone to make a play. Look, the three turnovers helped, thank God we had those. I think that's a credit to the way guys played. They were around the football and we came up with it."
And Spagnuolo is already looking at how to build around his talented duo of cornerbacks.
"I agree with that [that corner is the strength of the defense]. And we'll do more of that. We'll pick and choose our coverages because of that. It's funny you say that, I was just in there with Dominique and Prince talking about that. I watched their last year's Atlanta game, I thought they played pretty well," he said.
And finally about the Giants' next opponent, Spags had nothing but praise for the Falcons' own young, talented, gamebreaking receiver
"A number of them [experiences with Julio Jones]. Two games in 2012. I'm trying to remember where else, I know there's another one in there somewhere. He sat in my office in St. Louis when he was getting ready for the draft. I was like, "We've got to find a way to get this guy." But then there was no way when Atlanta jumped up for whatever they gave up," Spagnuolo said. "Look, he's as impressive a guy as I've ever sat and talked to. I'm talking about as a person, a football player, how smart he was, his goals, his vision, the whole thing. He was impressive."