Prior to a recent home game, someone wrote a simple message on the chalkboard in the Giants' locker room: "A wise man once said, 'We're in first place. Don't screw it up.' "
Heading into last Sunday's game at Washington, the Giants were indeed in first place (tied, at least) in the NFC East. But it seems that only half the team is living up to that battle cry. On Sunday, New York's offense screwed it up as the Redskins beat the Giants for the second time this year. With its patchwork line, inconsistent quarterback play, and nonexistent running game, the offense was able to produce only 72 yards rushing (301 total) while turning the ball over five times. This sort of offensive performance has become the norm for the Giants over the past couple of years, and it's obviously been wearing on the defensive unit. Following the game, several Giants defensive players very publicly laid into their offensive counterparts: "Something needs to be done because this is just crazy," said an incredibly pissed-off Jessie Armstead in the Giants' locker room. "The guys on offense need to fight as hard as we do."
Until they do, Armstead and the rest of the New York defense will be relied upon to keep the Giants (5-5) in the painfully slow NFC East race (Washington is now in first at 6-4). This is nothing new. After all, when it comes to football, New York has always been a defense-first town. It was Giants fans who, in the 1950s, launched the "Dee-fense, Dee-fense!" chant that is now ubiquitous in sporting venues across North America. But while the current crop of defenders hold up statistically compared to Giants teams of the past, they definitely lack the star power of their predecessorsthe Sam Huff/Andy Robustelli?led units of the '50s and the Lawrence Taylor/ Leonard Marshall?era squads of the '80s.
And the lack of an LT isn't the only thing different about this defense. Blessed with outstanding depth at linebacker, the '80s teams used a 3-4 defensive alignment (three down linemen and four linebackers) on its way to two Super Bowl championships. A decade later, the Giants' defense employs a 4-3 scheme (four down linemen and three linebackers) and has since Taylor's retirement in 1994. However, it wasn't until defensive coordinator John Fox arrived (he came on board when head coach Jim Fassel was hired in 1997) that the team finally embraced it.
"The defensive formation you use depends primarily on the personnel you have," explains Chris Klieman, a football consultant with Coach's Edge, a support service and information resource for high school, college, and professional coaches. If you have enough talent on the defensive front, and the Giants do, according to Klieman, "you can line them up in the shades or gaps between the offensive guards and tackles. They can disrupt the opponents' blocking schemes or get into their backfield by themselves, freeing up the linebackers to rush the passer or stuff the run." When the Giants' front is at its most effective, All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan is usually in the quarterback's face and smallish linebacker Armstead, the unit's only other true Pro Bowl?caliber player, is able to use his speed to stop the run or go after the passer himself.
And that has happened more often than not this season. The Giants' defense ranks ninth overall in the NFL, allowing fewer than 100 yards per game rushing, and less than 200 passing. But even more telling has been the effect the defense has had on their opponents' offenses. The Giants' D can be compared to others' by looking at how well various teams in the league have handled the same offenses, using a formula called Defense Differential (DD). The formula compares the rushing, passing, and total yardage the Giants allowed in an individual game against the season averages in those categories for that opponent.
The results show that the Giants' defense has had a major impact on how their opponents implement their offense, particularly in the running game (Stephon Davis's 183-yard performance Sunday notwithstanding). The Giants' DD against the run is 15.9, meaning that their opponents can expect to gain roughly 16 fewer yards on the ground against New York than they normally dohardly dominant, but effective. Their most impressive performance so far came against Dallas, when Big Blue held the Cowboys to only 24 rushing yards, more than 100 yards less than their average this season.
The Giants' DD against the pass is 17.1 (which improved dramatically after they held Redskin QB Brad Johnson to almost 100 yards below his average). But until last week, teams have been doing better through the air against the Giants. With the ball-hawking Percy Ellsworth (five INTs) and backup corner Conrad Hamilton having missed significant time, and corner Jason Sehorn still showing the effects of his injuries, it's no wonder some teams have been able to exploit the Giants deep. Were it not for their halfway decent pass rush (led by Armstead with six sacks and Strahan with 4.5), this number would be far worse.
In the meantime, the Giants should continue to have a "cerebral" advantage over many of their opponents. Fox is an extremely well respected coordinator, and one of the unit's most improved players is middle linebacker Corey Widmer, the man Fox refers to as "the quarterback." It has long been the domain of middle linebackers to call the defensive signals, but Widmer has truly mastered the role. While his teammates enjoy a day off each Tuesday, Widmer is in with coaches reviewing film and learning the offensive tendencies of his team's next opponent. Efforts such as these have earned him respect around the league.
What makes Widmer's rise particularly impressive is that he was a defensive lineman in college (at 1-AA Montana State). He has had tolearn the middle linebacker position, as well as the ins and outs of an intricate defensive system. In Fox's system, the Giants run 24 different standard defensive front and coverage schemes,plus another six red-zone defenses, eight short-yardage defenses, and 14 first-and-long/second-and-long pass coverage packages. "That's more than I had to learn as a player," says Harry Carson, who was arguably the best middle/inside linebacker in Giants history during his playing days, from '76 to '88. "I admire Corey because, like him, I was converted from defensive lineman to middle linebacker when the Giants drafted me. It's a tough position to learn, and a lot of young guys can't handle it because they don't have the mental component. You might have to call three different defenses before the ball is snapped, depending on what the quarterback does. Corey has thrived because he works hard. His improvement has definitely helped the team."
What this defense lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in guile, guts, and preparation. A key thus far has been Fox's ability to mesh stars such as Strahan, Armstead, and Sehorn with role players such as Widmer and Christian Peter. Remember: It was only two years ago that the Giants' defense sniped its way to blowing a nine-point lead in the final two minutes of a playoff game against Minnesota. If they can avoid that type of breakdown during the stretch run, it should be enough to carry New Yorkand its anemic offenseto the postseason.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.