Giants defense planning big turnaround in 2013

Antrel Rolle is the top returning tackler on the Giants from a year ago. Credit: Getty Images
Antrel Rolle had some big words on Wednesday about his defensive unit.
Credit: Getty Images

The Giants were, statistically speaking, one of the worst defenses last season, finishing 31st out of the 32-team league. But according to loquacious safety Antrel Rolle, Big Blue will field one of the best units this season.

“Absolutely we can be dominant [because] we have all the pieces to be dominant,” said Rolle. “If we’re not dominant, then it’s an extreme failure on our part. We have all the pieces, we have the players, we have the coaches [and] we have the scheme. We just have to go out there and make it come to life.”

Defensive end Justin Tuck backed up Rolle’s claim, adding that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s game plan is designed to allow his players to be in the position to make impact plays.

“The groundwork is easy. The blueprint is easy. We know what it takes and we have a coaching staff that knows what it takes and puts us in position,” said Tuck. “We just have to do our part, and that starts with hopefully staying healthy, but also having the mind-set that every time we come out here to work, we have to go to work.”

New York has seen its defense achieve both ends of the spectrum over the past two seasons. During the 2011-12 campaign, the defense got hot and led the 9-7 squad to a Super Bowl title. A year later, the Giants again went 9-7, with the relatively same lineup, yet missed the playoffs. The defense was a big reason why that happened, as it couldn’t match the production of Eli Manning’s high-octane offense.

But with a revamped defense, including the addition of prized free-agent defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, a new starting middle linebacker in former Cowboy Dan Connor and a deeper defensive tackle rotation, the Giants are confident that defense won’t be lagging too far behind the offense.

“Our focus at this point in the year is that we come out as a defense with a physical performance and that we’re dominant,” Rolle said.

Rolle is still particularly miffed that Cowboys tight end Jason Witten scorched Big Blue with an absurd stat line of 18 catches for 167 yards the last time the two teams met, in Dallas in an October matchup.

“I can tell you what, I guarantee that he isn’t doing that again,” said Rolle.

But if the Giants are to knock off the Cowboys in Dallas for the fifth-straight time since the new stadium was erected, and control playmakers like Witten and burgeoning star wideout Dez Bryant, the defensive front seven will need to control the line of scrimmage and make sure quarterback Tony Romo isn’t too comfortable.

And for that to happen the pocket must be collapsed from the inside-out. That’s likely why general manager Jerry Reese specifically targeted upgrading the interior part of the defense, starting with the heavies up front. Gone are the likes of defensive tackles Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, and in came newcomers like Jenkins, rookie Johnathan Hankins (340 pounds) and Mike Patterson to match up with massive holdovers like Shaun Rogers (360 pounds) and Marvin Austin (320 pounds).

Rogers is as fresh to the scheme as the aforementioned newbies, considering he missed all of 2012-13 with a blood clot in his calf. But with the re-signing of the large tackle this summer, the Giants feel they have figuratively and literally filled in the gaps.

Last season, the Giants allowed a whopping 129.1 yards per game on the ground, eighth worst in the league. But if the preseason is any indication, Big Blue could see massive rewards in their upgrade, as they only allowed 84.2 rushing yards per game, good for fourth best in the NFL. They also yielded a meager 2.9 yards per carry this preseason, tied with the Lions and Rams for the best in the NFL. New York was one of only four teams to not allow a run of 20 or more yards in the exhibition season.

“That’s definitely a positive [and] something we’re looking to build on,” Rogers said when discussing the defensive upgrades. “Whether we’re dominant or not, remains to be seen [but] hopefully, we’ll keep it moving like that. … At the end of the day, all you want to do is do what it takes to win. And if we do a good enough job at it to get us a victory, then I’m happy with that.”

Big Blue notes …

» Fewell has professed “flexibility” this preseason when talking about the defensive schemes, which means the Giants will likely be seen in some 3-4 defensive fronts (three linemen and four linebacker) to go along with their customary 4-3 look (four linemen and three linebackers) and nickel package (five defensive backs).

» The new-look defense’s first test will be against Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who gashed Big Blue for 131 yards in the opener. It was Murray’s only 100-yard game of the season.

» Head coach Tom Coughlin is confident his team can continue the roll they’re on in the new Cowboys stadium, noting that the Giants’ 4-0 record should give them a “psychological advantage.” Of all the teams that have played in Dallas’ new AT&T Stadium more than once, only the Giants, Bears (2-0) and Saints (2-0) remain unbeaten as visitors.

» The Giants placed running back Andre Brown on the designated-to-return injured reserve (IR) list, which means he’ll be able to return to the team after Week 8. The Giants think he’ll return no earlier than Week 10. Brown is eligible to begin practicing six weeks from today and eligible to play in a game eight weeks from today. But since the Giants’ bye follows their eighth game, Brown will first be eligible to suit up on Nov. 10 at home against the Raiders. This is the second year teams are allowed to designate a player to return from IR. The Giants used this designation on Brown last season as well after he initially fractured his fibula in November against the Packers.

A player on the designated IR list is treated similarly to one on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means six weeks from today, Oct. 15, will be the first day Brown would be eligible to practice. That would then activate a league-mandated 21-day decision period in which they can activate him or, if he is not healthy enough to play, choose to keep him on IR for the rest of the season. He can be activated at any time during those 21 days.

The Giants are hopeful Brown can make a full recovery, which is why they’ve yet to add a veteran replacement to the running back depth chart. Also, the monetary advantages make sense, because if the team added a player right now that has four or more years of experience and he was on the active gameday roster this Sunday, his contract would be guaranteed this season. Should they wait and sign a player after Week 1 concludes, they can cut him any time during the season and not owe any guaranteed money. Two names being considered as post-Week 1 additions are Ryan Grant, who played for the Giants before he was traded to Green Bay in 2007, and Tim Hightower, who worked out for the Giants this offseason as a free agent. Veterans Jonathan Dwyer, Beanie Wells and former Jet Leon Washington were reportedly among the backs who worked out for the Giants on Tuesday.

Since Brown won’t count against the 53-man roster, his spot was given to defensive end Adewale Ojomo, who was cut on Saturday, but resigned to the eight-man practice squad. Taking Ojomo’s spot on the practice squad is veteran offensive tackle Sam Baker.

» Coughlin announced that both wideout Victor Cruz (heel) and Jason Pierre-Paul (back) began preparation for the Cowboys’ game by working out with the team. While both had some limitations in team work, Coughlin deemed both were “full speed ahead.”

» The Giants listed their official injury report today: center David Baas (knee), running back Brown (leg), wideout Cruz (heel), right tackle David Diehl (thumb), cornerback Jayron Hosley (ankle), fullback Henry Hynoski (knee), defensive end Damontre Moore (shoulder), defensive end Pierre-Paul and tight end Adrien Robinson (foot).

Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.


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