The Giants’ defense will certainly be playing in a nicer stadium this season, but there’s still no guarantee it will look any prettier.
The team leaves behind a 2009 campaign where they dropped out of the top 10 in total defense. OTAs and minicamp this week have stressed getting back to the “Giant way.”
“Coming off of last year and having the disappointment that we had, we are definitely chomping at the bit to get out here and play good football,”?said defensive end Justin Tuck after practice at the New Meadowlands Stadium. “And we didn’t do that all year last year.”
Just add that to the list of new things the Giants plan to do this season. During a recent OTA session, the revamped defensive coaching staff allowed everyone a clean slate, while making it clear that no one’s job is safe.
“Everyone has been excellent so far,” new defensive line coach Robert Nunn said, alluding to the unit’s impressive depth. “But I can’t guarantee that everyone is going to be happy all the time.”
That includes defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who will likely fight for one spot with Mathias Kiwanuka.
“If I truly was not the best player, then I would be cool with it,”?Umenyiora said of possibly losing his starting role.
Nunn was complimentary of his veteran leaders but said the defense obviously needs tweaking following last season’s underachievement. The Giants allowed 325 yards per game, 13th in the league, and 26.7 points per game, third-worst in the league. Only the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams allowed more points. They also sacked opposing quarterbacks a pedestrian 32 times.
Perhaps the biggest sign of ineptitude was the once-vaunted defense failed to have anyone produce a 100-tackle season, as cornerback Terrell Thomas had a team-high 85. When your defensive backs are leading the team in tackles, that’s a good indication that the front seven isn’t getting the job done.
Although OTAs don’t allow full-contact [wink, wink] new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has made a concerted effort to “work on the basics and fundamentals” of tackling. The former Buffalo Bills interim head coach said that early competition during OTAs should set the tone for what he wants.
“Just the opportunity to have competition is great for our football team, especially at the defensive line position,” he said. “I think that should be the strength of our football team.”
Fewell is known as a “Tampa Two” coach, which places an emphasis on stout defensive line play. The system is devised to keep everything in front of the defenders, while the defensive backs have zone responsibilities. Sound tackling is at a premium, while blitzing is minimal. The key to the defense is that the front four does the dirty work, while the linebackers clean up what’s left.
One linebacker who may carry the heaviest burden is Gerris Wilkinson. Entering his fifth season, Wilkinson has mostly played on the outside but has worked exclusively in the middle during OTAs. Although he’s only made seven career starts, he believes he can replace Antonio Pierce, who was released in February.
"I think the chances are good," he said. "I feel very confident."
If Wilkinson is the guy, he’ll benefit greatly from a healthy defensive line -- something that rarely happened last season. Tuck [shoulder], defensive tackle Rocky Bernard [rotator cuff surgery], and defensive tackle Chris Canty [calf] should all return to healthy form.
Bernard, who had a subpar ’09 season with 22 tackles and a sack, expects to increase his workload soon.
“I expect to be out there next week doing team stuff,” he said. “No pain. The thing is just trying to get my strength back and I think that’s going pretty good.”
Tuck said he’s excited from what he’s seen so far but tempered his enthusiasm.
“I’ve seen strides but it’s easy to get caught up because we’re not wearing pads yet,” he said. “But it’s impressive at times.”
Feweall wants hitting to be impressive at all times.
“I'm going to demand that we be physical and play physical,” said Fewell. “The Giants defense is a physical defense, and we know that from history. I want to return to that.”
Jack-of-all-trades Mathias Kiwanuka, who lined up at various spots along the defensive line last season, is trying to recover in a different way. On May 28th, he and his brother were riding their motorcycles – without helmets – in downtown Indianapolis, when his brother Benedict collided with a car. Benedict will survive and recover but suffered serious injuries. Although Kiwi avoided the accident, his mental state is understandably fragile. "It's still a little too fresh," he said when asked to expand on the incident. “But I won't be riding a motorcycle anytime soon. It was definitely tough to see.” By Monday afternoon, Kiwi was back on the practice field, in desperate need of a diversion. "When you get back to what you do and that sense of normalcy it kind of puts things at ease. But obviously I'd rather be there in Indianapolis,” he said. “It was tough to leave but knowing he's going to be okay makes it easier."