The Giants’ offense was about to begin its two-minute drill last Thursday when, as is their custom, guards Chris Snee and Kevin Boothe snuck a peek from the huddle at the defensive line.
“We always scope out the defense – we do it in games, too,” Boothe said. “We look to see the personnel out on the field. I looked over my shoulder and I saw JPP, Tuck, Mathias and Osi. I looked at Chris and I said, ‘Do you see this?’ We both kind of shook our heads. Luckily, it was practice and not a game. I think that was our thought.”
“That,” Snee said, “is not something an offensive lineman wants to see.”
Certainly not when the Giants’ defensive front is playing as well as did the last two weeks. After a season in which the group couldn’t quite get it together – literally and figuratively – much of the time, the defensive line is playing its best football at the most critical time of the season. The unit was ascendant in the season-ending victories over the Jets and Dallas Cowboys that propelled the Giants to their first postseason berth in three years. And the unit will be vital in determining how far the Giants advance in the playoffs, which begin for them Sunday with an NFC Wild Card Game vs. the Atlanta Falcons in MetLife Stadium.
“I think that we still have a lot of improving to do, but I’m encouraged by what we’ve been able to do the last two weeks,” said defensive end Justin Tuck. “We just have to continue to get better. I think we’ve had two good days of practice so far. I think the biggest thing for us is learning what they want to do against us and watching teams that have similar D-lines or run similar systems as we do and see what they try to do to slow them down and having ways to combat that. So yeah, I think we can definitely make a lot of noise in this run. We’re only going to go as far as where our quarterback and our D-line take us.”
With the line leading the way, the defense allowed only 154 total rushing yards the last two weeks (Dallas ran for only 49 yards) and 3.6 yards a carry. They sacked quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo 11 times after totaling 11 sacks in the previous seven games.
This, of course, is the kind of dominance the Giants foresaw when they constructed the defensive line. But Osi Umenyiora missed three games early in the season after undergoing knee surgery and four with a sprained ankle and Tuck sat out four games and was limited in several others with a series of injuries.
Umenyiora returned last week and twice sacked Romo, increasing his season total to 9.0, second on the team to Jason Pierre-Paul’s 16.5.
“I think it is because I have been playing for so long,” Umenyiora said when asked how he could be so productive after sitting out for a month. “I have been doing it for such a while that even when I rehab it is working on football stuff. When I get back out there it doesn’t feel like I missed any time at all.”
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said the line is a much stronger unit when Umenyiora is on the field.
“He’s definitely the missing piece for us during the course of the year up front,” Fewell said. “It puts a lot more speed on the field for us. As we look at what we call the get-offs in the pass rush, he has such good eye-hand coordination when he’s watching the ball and going on the snap of the ball that it puts a lot of pressure on those offensive tackles.”
Tuck – like Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowler - is finally healthy and registered a sack each of the last two weeks. Pierre-Paul has been terrific all season and was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team thanks to his relentless motor and those 16.5 sacks, the fourth-highest total in both the league this season and in Giants history. Kiwanuka is a former defensive end who is now the strongside linebacker, but as Boothe and Snee noted, he will play up front in passing situations. Kiwanuka, Dave Tollefson and tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph combined for 14.5 sacks this season.
“I think we have the best defensive line in football,” Snee said. “And I would have told you that in the beginning of camp. Having blocked them for years and knowing what they’re capable of, I think they are.”
“You tell me who should get double-teamed,” Tollefson said. “I’m not Tuck or Osi but I like feeling like I can beat guys one on one. You’ve got to take advantage of that. And that’s the pressure we put on ourselves. And teams understand, they’re going to try to mix it up. So when it does present itself, you’ve got to take advantage of it, period. Because it’s going to change at any moment.”
What distinguishes the line is not just its skill and determination, but its versatility. Fewell will line up ends on the inside and tackles on the outside. He’ll play right ends on the left side and vice-versa. Fewell will use Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Tuck and Kiwanuka together in what is essentially a four-end alignment – and the one that had Snee and Boothe thankful they aren’t blocking those guys in games.
“(It’s) just what we planned for,” Coach Tom Coughlin said. “We would have four people that it would be very difficult to block them all up. You might have an opportunity to double a couple of them, but somebody is going to get singled in there and you hope when that happens you’re going to get someone free.”
“I think each guy has a talent level, a good skill level and they’re not the same,” Fewell said. “I’m not going to describe each guy’s skill level for you, but they’re not the same cookie-cutter person when they rush. I think that’s what makes them unique. They bring a different skill set, each defensive end.”
The Giants finished the season with 48 sacks, their highest total since the 2007 Super Bowl champions led the NFL with 53 and which tied them with Baltimore for the league’s second-highest total.
The mayhem created by the defensive front has advanced the entire defense. The Giants this season had 20 interceptions, the team’s highest total since the 2000 NFC champions had 20.
Safety Kenny Phillips said the defensive line makes the job of those in the secondary, “much easier. When the quarterback is trying to get rid of the ball so fast, you don’t get deeper routes and he kind of gets inconsistent when it comes to throwing the ball.”
“We have to play team defense,” Canty said. “Team defense and if that means the defensive tackles have to take on double teams and give other guys the opportunity to make plays, so be it. If they want to solo block us, that’s fine, we’ll make some plays. When it’s 11-on-11, and when you have two guys on you, that gives another guy the opportunity to make a play. You can’t be selfish, you can’t be self-centered, we have to play team ball. And I think everyone in this locker room understands that.”
Atlanta’s offensive line will present a formidable challenge to the Giants’ defensive front. Only five teams allowed fewer sacks than the 26 the Falcons gave up. Atlanta has a smart, athletic and veteran line.
Coughlin’s script isn’t revised in the postseason, which means his primary concern is stifling Falcons running back Michael Turner, who finished third in the league with 1,340 rushing yards. If the Giants can do that, they’ll be able to set their sights on quarterback Matt Ryan.
“First, you have to stop the run,” Coughlin said. “If you can stop the run and put them in a position to throw the football, which they will – they’ve done a great job of that all year – that gives you a chance or an opportunity to rush the passer and they’ve done an excellent job. They started the year giving up some sacks. They’ve only given up 26 sacks for the entire season. The quarterback has mobility. They do protect well, but we would have an opportunity to rush the passer.”
As well as they’ve played recently, Kiwanuka and the linemen believe they have plenty of room to grow.
“We’re still elevating,” Kiwanuka said. “We’re still ascending and there’s still a lot more that can be done. But when we go out there and practice, we understand, ‘Okay wow, if we can duplicate this in a game, it’ll be tough to stop.’ For some reason it wasn’t there but we always knew that we had it.”
If they have it again Sunday, it will be a significant advantage for the Giants.
“I don’t know if there are too many offensive lines that can block those guys for an extended period of time,” Boothe said. “Who do you double? Who do you help? Who do you leave one-on-one? It’s a problem I’m glad I don’t have.
“I don’t see too many defensive lines that rush the passer like we do here. I’m happy I’m a New York Giant.”
*The Giants added two players to their injury list today. Backup offensive lineman Tony Ugoh did not practice because of an ankle injury suffered yesterday in practice. Cornerback Corey Webster was limited with a sore hamstring.
The list is otherwise unchanged. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) did not practice. Tight end Jake Ballard (knee), running back Da’Rel Scott (knee) and Umenyiora (ankle/knee) were limited.
Ballard missed the previous two games, so his return would provide a boost to the offense.
“He worked well today,” Coughlin said. “I think he came through it pretty good. We won’t know until tomorrow morning, but I think he did work well today.”
*Two Falcons did not practice: Cornerback Brent Grimes (knee) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe).
*The Giants are 20-24 in postseason games – 13-10 as the home team, including three Super Bowls. They are 11-9 at home in the postseason when Super Bowls are excluded. But they lost their last two postseason games in Giants Stadium, 23-0 to Carolina in a 2005 Wild Card Game and 23-11 to Philadelphia in a 2008 NFC Divisional Playoff Game. Their most recent home postseason victory was a 41-0 rout of Minnesota in the 2000 NFC Championship Game.
*This, of course, will be the first postseason game played in MetLife Stadium.
*The Giants are 5-4 in the Wild Card games. They most recently played in this round on Jan. 6, 2008, a 24-14 victory at Tampa Bay. The Giants won their first four wild card games, then lost four in a row before beating the Buccaneers on their way to Super Bowl XLII.