On the Line
In only his second year as a pro, Arizona Cardinal quarterback Jake "The Snake" Plummer has already drawn comparisons to former 49er great Joe Montana. On Sunday at the Meadowlands, however, the Giants' defense made him look more like for mer Jet joke Browning Nagle. The Big Blue D had Plummer running for cover all day, sacking him six times.
"We put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks," Giants head coach Jim Fassel said of his defense, which sacked Arizona QBs a total of eight times on Sunday. "And we got after them today."
They got a big win as well. With the 34-7 thrashing of their division rivals, the Giants, even at a disappointing 3-4, once again have hopes of making the playoffs. It's helpful that their division, the NFC Least, is headed up by the 4-3 Dallas Cowboys. Even more helpful is the unit leading the drive back to the promised land: the Giants' defensive line.
Historically relegated to a sup porting role against the Giants' legion of legendary linebackers (heck, Lawrence Taylor still gets more ink, albeit for his postretirement legal troubles), the line has quietly blossomed into the team's leading unit in the last year; they front a defense that tops the NFL in sacks with 30. (Last year the Giants' D finished third in the league in sacks with 54 and second in the conference against the run with a stingy 90.7 yards per game.) On the Giants, and arguably in the NFL, the line of left end (and spiritual leader) Michael Strahan, left tackles Robert Harris and Christian Peter, right tackle Keith Hamilton, and right end Chad Bratzke plays second fiddle to no one.
"What makes them successful is how they blend together," says Denny Marcin, the defensive line coach. "A guy like Hamilton is a big, tough guy you would want on your side in a street fight. Harris is more of a finesse-type player with good speed and quickness. Strahan is a combination of those two. Bratzke is an overachiever, a guy who studies the game. When you put them all together they kind of feed off each other."
And make big plays. Like those great linebackers of yore, the defensive line has had a knack for coming through in the clutch. Consider the season opener against Washington. In the third quarter, Strahan ran back an interception of a Gus Frerotte pass for a touchdown and Peter forced a fumble on the Washington 22 (the Giants' offense scored a touchdown on the next play) to account for the team's final 14 points in a 31-24 win. It was a reminder of last year's season opener, the unit's coming-out party and Fassel's first game as head coach. The line earned a game ball by sacking Philadelphia QBs six times and forcing a fourth-quarter fumble that helped the Giants nail down the victory.
"The defensive line really tries to set the tone for our entire defense," explains Strahan, the unit's emotional leader. "Whether we're getting after the quarterback or stopping the run, when we're effective, it makes every body's job behind us easier. With our offense struggling and the injuries to our secondary, we have really had to step up this year and take a leadership role."
"The line was a very strong unit for us a year ago and it has continued to be strong for us this year," adds defensive coordinator John Fox, who, along with Marcin, has been credited by the players for helping the group reach new heights. "They are all tough-minded and have a willingness to work hard."
Indeed, the line is probably Big Blue's most blue-collar unit. There isn't a champagne-sipping first-round bonus baby (e.g., Warren Sapp or Andre Wadsworth) among them. Strahan and Harris were both drafted in the second round from Division I-AA col leges (Texas Southern in 1993 and Southern University in 1992, respectively). Harris joined the team in 1995 as a much maligned free-agent signing after starting only one game in three previous seasons with Minnesota. Hamilton and Bratzke were selected in the fourth and fifth rounds in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
And then there's Peter, a reserve who has been seeing time recently as a replacement for the injured Harris. The Nebraska alum is probably the group's most famouser, infamousmember. During his days as a member of the Cornhuskers' back-to-back national championship teams in 1994 and '95, Peter was convicted of various offenses ranging from sexual assault to public urination. And just three days after the Patriots selected Peter as their fifth-round draft choice in 1996, they released his rights be cause the negative reaction by New England fans and media was so great.
His troubles followed him to New York, where he signed with the Giants in the middle of last season. Local women's groups protested and another media outcry ensued. But Peterwho consciously shies away from the presshas had the full support of his coaches and teammates. They insist that he has been nothing but a model citizen and tireless worker since joining the team.
And Peter is aware and appreciative of his team's backing: "Every body has been extremely supportive of me here. This has been a great environment for me. Everyone has let me put [my past] behind me."
Following a successful season last year, one in which Strahan made the Pro Bowl, the line has continued to make an impression on the Giants, their fans, and their opponents. After seven games, Strahan already has eight sacks (good enough for third in the league) and 34 tackles to go along with his pick against Washington. Bratzke, meanwhile, has developed into the consummate run defender, leading the team with 43 tackles this year along with six sacks. Hamilton, a natural end who reluctantly made the switch to tackle in 1995, continues to flourish with 23 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He has also become one of the league's best at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage. Finally, the tandem of Harris and Peter has per formed admirably as well, with a combined 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks (including a 2.5 sack performance from Harris, who returned to action on Sunday).
"I think Christian's ability to step in and do the job shows that we have a really good group here," says Bratzke. "It shows we can overcome injuries and still be competitive."
Overcoming adversity is a trick that the whole Giants team will have to pull off if they are to have any chance of returning to the playoffs. And the defensive line will have to lead the way. And perhaps, if they are able to totally pull the team out of the doldrums, the unit might start to approach the glorious status of past New York defenses.
"We are not the most well-known group of guys in the league. We all just play hard," says Bratzke. "It's not something we think about on the field but I think all of us are looking for a bit of recognition."
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.