The Giants go from defending Peyton Manning’s passing game last week to trying to stop the ground game of Titans running back Chris Johnson.
It’s such a dramatic change in philosophy that it wouldn’t be surprising if half the Giants’ defense comes down with a good case of whiplash before Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff. Imagine, setting your minds one week to chase a variety of Colts wide receivers with what could only be called a finesse lineup, to trying to stop the Titans’ big-play back with the same bruising, physical style the Steelers used to hold the 2009 NFL rushing champ to 34 yards on 16 carries. That defensive performance, by the way, snapped Johnson’s 12-game string of 100-yard rushing games.
It should also stand as a blueprint, and perhaps a tipoff as to how this game might go, for a Giants defense that Joseph Addai victimized last week.
“It’s polar opposites,” defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “Peyton, his head spun around and they ran the ball last week. So, I don’t know if Chris Johnson will throw the football. I don’t know if that’ll happen this week, but yeah, they’re polar opposites and Chris is obviously an excellent running back. We’ve got to do a great job stopping the running game.”
There’s little doubt the Giants will get caught short on defensive bulk up the middle this week, as they did last. Tom Coughlin undoubtedly will activate more than two defensive tackles for this one – perhaps even allowing the good-looking but numbers-challenged second-round DT Linval Joseph his first official NFL action.
But the linebackers will figure in just as importantly as the defensive front, perhaps more so.
For it’s the linebackers the Steelers used to stop the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Johnson. Outside backer James Harrison and inside backer Lawrence Timmons combined for 26 tackles last week as the Steelers’ three-man defensive front of NT Casey Hampton and his two end cohorts, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, kept blockers off them and opened them for clean shots.
The question now is whether the Giants have the kind of linebackers to play a similarly ultra-physical game. Keith Bulluck, who saw Johnson close up in practice since he joined the team in 2008, was once a physical player, but has become more of an wrap-and-tackle guy since his knee injury ended his Titans career last season. Jonathan Goff hasn’t looked real physical in the middle, and Michael Boley is more of a speed linebacker.
Still, Fewell said the Giants will have to play that way.
“That was one of the most physical football games I’ve seen this year,” Fewell said of the Steelers’ 19-11 victory. “It was a bloodbath on both side of the football. No matter what, we’ve got to have that physical mentality and not be denied.”
But do the Giants’ personnel have it in them?
“We can win like that,” Fewell said. “We can win with that kind of mentality.”
It may take some stepping up from their strongside linebacker, however.
“Their running backs are going to try to impose their will on us,” Bulluck said. “They have a lot of talent, but I think we have more.
“(Johnson) looks like a running back. You watch the Pittsburgh game, he didn’t do nothing. You watch the Oakland game, he had a big run. Chris Johnson’s a home run hitter. He’s the best running back in the league. Four-three speed, definitely a home run hitter. But he puts no fear in my heart and I put no fear in his heart.”
There was an idea going around that Harrison and Timmons hit Johnson so hard and so often that they took that heart out of him. But Bulluck warned that it was more of a physical thing.
“Heart? No. They didn’t take any of the heart out of him,” Bulluck said. “He has a big heart for a running back his size. Maybe they took a little bit of the steam out because they hit him hard frequently and often, but I’d never question that kid’s heart.”
Actually, a running back doesn’t go for 2,006 rushing yards and 14 TDs and wind up as the MVP runner-up to the league’s greatest passer, Manning, without at least a little gumption.
The Giants tried to defend Manning with six players in the box and three safeties on the field much of the time. The Colts ran all over them.
Assume they’ll go eight in the box this week, with all three linebackers most of the time.
Johnson will. It’s standard operating procedure for any opponent.
“Yeah, usually about eight,” Johnson said. At least eight in the box. There’s going to be a type of thing where they are going to make a lot of plays, just like Pittsburgh last week. They’re going to make a lot of plays, but when we get outside and break a long one, you just have to execute.”
Most teams fail, however. Pittsburgh showed the Giants how to hold him down.
Now, it’s a question of whether they can crank up enough muscle to accomplish the goal.
“I think it fits very well with what we want to do,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “I think we kind of lost our game a little bit there in Indianapolis and kind of started thinking about Peyton running that offense at a quick pace. And we kind of forgot about what makes us tick and we started to worry about them. So I think this week we can definitely find a way to get back on the same page and play our style of defense.”