The D's return to respectability begins
On the walls of the Giants' defensive meeting room hang images of Big Blue greats from yesteryear. To help his current players appreciate the franchise's celebrated history, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has started a new tradition—a homework assignment of sorts.
During meetings early in camp Spagnuolo would point to one of his defenders and assign him a jersey number that corresponded to one of the players on the wall. The next day the current Giant would have to stand in front of his teammates and give a brief presentation about the former one: his background, his college career and, most important, how he fit into the franchise's pantheon.
"There is a great defensive tradition here," says strong safety Landon Collins, "and we want to keep that tradition alive. If you are not doing that, then what are you playing on the Giants for?"
Last season New York did not hold up that tradition; for the first time since 1965 its defense ranked last in the NFL. Worse, the team missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. As a result it parted ways with coach Tom Coughlin after 12 seasons and two Super Bowl victories, and promoted offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
The 39-year-old McAdoo has preached that the Giants need "evolution, not revolution" and has kept many of his mentor's tenets. The team still runs on CST (Coughlin Standard Time, i.e., five minutes early), and most tweaks have been minor: Texts have replaced emails; the rest day has moved from Tuesday to Monday; the weight room has been refurbished; players wake up later and start practicing earlier.
"If it was working, we left it alone; and if it wasn't working, we changed it. We didn't feel we needed to change the whole program," McAdoo says. "Tradition is important here. But tradition offers no guarantees."
The Giants knew they needed more than a history lesson. They needed an influx of talent. So in the off-season the team spent $204 million on four defensive free agents, allocating 69% of that money to the line in re-signing end Jason Pierre-Paul and bringing over tackle Damon (Snacks) Harrison and end Olivier Vernon from the Jets and the Dolphins, respectively.
Harrison was rated as the best run-stopping D-lineman in the NFL last year by Pro Football Focus; Vernon's 81 combined sacks, hits and hurries were second most in the NFL. When you add in tackle Johnathan Hankins (seven sacks in 2014), now healthy after suffering a torn pectoral last year, and account for Pierre-Paul, who has shed the protective wrap on his mangled right hand, which hindered his tackling ability in '15, New York has gone from one of the NFL's worst D-lines to potentially one of the best.
The onus will now be on the pass rush to set the tone for what is shaping up to be an incredibly aggressive unit. Both starting corners, Janoris Jenkins (signed from the Rams) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, are boom-or-bust defenders. And while the team is still shallow at linebacker and safety, the belief is that a dominant pass rush can help cover up those deficiencies.
There are fewer questions about the offense, which has ranked in the top 10 in each of the two seasons McAdoo has run it. The fulcrum is one of the top quarterback-receiver duos in the NFL: Eli Manning, who is coming off his best statistical season, and Odell Beckham Jr., who is still improving after a record-setting start to his career.
Tradition offers no guarantees, as McAdoo says, but a return to defensive glory would put Big Blue on the path back to contention.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
When your top receiver is the best in the world at tracking balls downfield and getting in and out of breaks, defenses are going to center their game plans around containing him. Just knowing this is an advantage to the Giants and their veteran QB, who excels at identifying mismatches and adjusting before the snap. First-year coach Ben McAdoo's scheme uses three-WR formations regularly. When the offense spreads out, so does the defense, revealing where double teams are likely headed. Aligning Odell Beckham Jr. wide often forces a safety to shade that way, leaving receivers one-on-one on the other side or down the middle. This is how average receivers can be made to look great. Big Blue won't always keep Beckham wide, of course. They'll also put him in the slot or backfield, forcing a linebacker to double-team him instead of a safety. The more ways they use him, the more pressure opposing defenses feel.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 6--10
SEPT. 11 atDAL
SEPT. 18 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 3 atMIN
OCT. 9 atGB
OCT. 16 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atLA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.PHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 14 vs.CIN
NOV. 20 vs.CHI
NOV. 27 atCLE
DEC. 4 atPIT [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 vs.DAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 22 atPHI
JAN. 1 atWAS
= PREDICTED WINNER