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5 things we learned (12/21): 'Fun to watch' healthy defensive line

KAYVON-AZEEZ-5THINGS

The Giants did not have time to dwell on Sunday night's big victory, as they were quickly back at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center preparing for this weekend's Christmas Eve matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings offer Brian Daboll's team another tough challenge. Kevin O'Connell's squad currently sits in the NFC's No. 2 seed at 11-3, and are fresh off the largest comeback in NFL history. Minnesota erased a 33-point deficit in the second half to pick up a 39-36 win in overtime against the Indianapolis Colts.

Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey met with the media Wednesday ahead of this weekend's contest.

Here are five things we learned:

1. 'Fun to watch' healthy defensive front

It's hard to believe but last weekend's game was the first of the year that the Giants had its entire starting defensive front. Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari were available against the Commanders, and the results followed. The foursome combined for two sacks, six quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, in addition to consistent pressure in the face of Taylor Heinicke. Having all four available seems to have unlocked a new level to Wink Martindale's pass rush.

"If Leo's not out there, there's four hands going on Dex all the time," said the defensive coordinator. "Now, they got to deal with Leo on the other side being a single block guy. I think that creates issues plus with what you said with the guys on the edges. The thing that's beautiful about the guys on the edges is the relationship they have with (OLB coach) Drew (Wilkins). And it's like they have a mindset that they're always trying to improve. That's exciting when you have two guys that are 22-years-old on the edge, and they're looking to get better every day. They have that growth mindset, if you will, those outside backers. And then the inside guys, they're having a lot of fun. When Dex and Leo are playing together, you can see they have fun playing together. And it's fun to watch."

While the front as a whole played at a high level, the star of the night was Thibodeaux. The rookie outside linebacker registered a career-high 12 tackles (nine solo), including three tackles for loss, and had the play of the day with his strip-sack of Heinicke which he recovered and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. His performance earned him the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

"It was fun to watch," Martindale said about the No. 5 overall pick. "I keep telling you all this: He's working on the little things. He's getting better every week. I think that was an accumulation of all the work that he's done. Like I said, it was a lot of fun to watch…

"Obviously the sack, strip, fumble for a touchdown, was a huge play for us. But an even bigger play, I thought, was when he was in coverage and came out of his coverage when the quarterback started scrambling. He tackled him on the 1-yard line down there. That was a huge play for us. We always talk about (how) there's going to be big plays in this game. Both sides of the football get paid. Just get him down to give us a chance to stand. There is no play more evident than that one that he gave us a place to stand, and we were able to come up with the stop."

2. DJ 'always looking for ways to improve'

During Sunday night's win over the Commanders, the Giants offense put together their most impressive drive of the season. Daniel Jones led the unit on an 18-play, 97-yard drive that took over 8:30 off the clock toward the end of the first half and resulted in Saquon Barkley's 3-yard touchdown run. Jones completed 10 of 12 passes for 91 yards on that drive as he displayed poise in the pocket and converted a 3rd-and9 and 4th-and-9.

"Daniel did a nice job on that drive," said Mike Kafka. "There were some really big conversions, but I think overall the offense just executed really well. We had to overcome a couple of second and longs, a couple of third-and-longs, and those guys hung in there and executed when we needed them to."

Through 14 games, Jones leads all starting quarterbacks with just four interceptions and an interception ratio of 1.0 percent. The fourth-year quarterback is set to make his career-best 15th start this weekend, and up until this point has registered new career-marks in completion percentage (66.0 percent) and passer rating (90.5). Jones has also rushed for a career-high 583 yards and five touchdowns. It's safe to say the 25-year-old signal-caller has left Kafka impressed in their one season together.

"Everyday, Daniel, he comes to work. Whether it's in the classroom, he just sat in there with the install, asking questions, and then on the field he's working his butt off, too," said the offensive coordinator. "It's great for him, he's always looking for ways to improve, no matter what day it is. Whether it's future, past, whatever, he's always looking for ways to improve his game. Asking on how certain people did certain ways and bouncing ideas off of Dabs, (quarterbacks coach) Shea (Tierney), myself, and the other quarterbacks. So, he's always looking for ways to learn and grow. That's one of the things I love about him."

3. Trust in Gano

Graham Gano has easily been one of the Giants' most consistent players since he joined the team prior to the 2020 season. Over the last three years, Gano has connected on 91.3 percent of his field goal attempts (84 of 92), including a franchise-record 19 field goals from 50+ yards (the next highest is Joe Danelo with nine). Two of those came Sunday night, when Gano twice extended the Giants' lead to eight with kicks from 50.

Although successfully kicking a field goal from 50+ yards is an impressive feat, it comes with plenty of risk. If the kicker misses, the other team is set up with great field position close to midfield. Luckily for the Giants, they have a kicker they can trust to give them an honest assessment of the situation before they attempt a long field goal.

"That's the hardest thing because the kicker is going to always tell you I can make it," said Thomas McGaughey. "You have to be realistic in the moment and you got to be smart. Look at the situation. Where are we in the game? What's the score? Knowing that, okay if I miss this kick – the field position. You got to be smart in how you do it and we trust Graham. Graham knows. He knows his range and he knows the situations as they come up."

Gano has seven field goals from 50+ yards this season, tying the franchise record and his career high (2021). It also ranks fourth in the NFL, tied with Baltimore's Justin Tucker and Denver's Brandon McManus. Gano ranks within the top 10 in several kicking categories this year, which is even more impressive when considering the less than ideal kicking conditions he deals with playing at MetLife Stadium.

"His numbers speak for themselves, I think," McGaughey said. "He's been to the Pro Bowl before. If you look at him, he's 7-8 from 50 yards and that's hard to do kicking in the northeast. It's one thing to do it in a dome or in the south where it's 75-80 degrees or you got a controlled environment like a dome. It's a whole other thing to do it here in the northeast. It just takes a different animal. Graham is a hell of a player, he's a great pro, and if he doesn't make the Pro Bowl, he's not going to cry – he'll be alright. Obviously, you want your guys to do well, but if it doesn't happen, it is what it is but he'll continue to keep being great."

View rare photos from the all-time series between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings

4. Saquon saved his best for last

Saquon Barkley went into last weekend's game in a bit of a rough patch. After rushing for 152 yards against the Texans in Week 10, Barkley totaled 152 yards on the ground in Weeks 11-14. But going up against the Commanders' talented defensive line, the fifth-year running back got back on track with a solid outing. Barkley carried the ball 18 times for 87 yards, good for an average of 4.8 yards per carry, and a touchdown while adding five receptions for 33 yards.

The talented running back saved his best for when it mattered most. After the Giants took over on their own 14- up five with 6:06 left in the fourth quarter, Barkley broke out for runs of 12, 15 and 14 yards to open the drive. Within two minutes, the Giants were on Washington's side of the field to set up Gano's second 50-yard field goal, which brought the lead back to eight.

"Saquon, he played hard," said Kafka. "He did a nice job and I think those are all things we can learn from and grow from. I hate living in the past on that type of stuff, but he did a really nice job and gave us an opportunity to win the game. We've got to find a way to get back to that again this week and have another good week of practice."

5. Closer look at Vikings offense

The Vikings enter Week 16 as a Top-10 scoring offense. Leading the unit is three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown for 3,818 yards, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season. Cousins' favorite target among a talented group is Justin Jefferson. The third-year wide receiver, who was named second-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons, leads the NFL with 111 receptions for 1,623 yards and has solidified his rank among the NFL's elite playmakers.

"I told the defense that he's one of the top two receivers in this league, and he's not No. 2," said Martindale. "He's had a phenomenal year – their whole offense has. It's one of those things that they throw the ball, and he could be in double or triple coverage, and he still catches it. I know it's fun for the fan to watch. It's not very fun for defensive coordinators."

Veteran Adam Thielen ranks second on the team with 66 receptions for 686 yards and five touchdowns. Not far behind is third-year receiver K.J. Osborn, who is third with 45 receptions for 457 yards and four touchdowns. Osborn is coming off his best game of the season last week when he caught 10 passes for 157 yards and a score. Martindale noted that the defense must get in the face of Cousins throughout the game and can't give him time in the pocket to find his receivers.

"I think that you got to have the right time to hit the pressure, and you got to keep them guessing," the defensive coordinator said. "Like I said, if we just let him sit back there and they block up our front four, we'll be in for a long day because you can only cover them for so long – especially 18 (Justin Jefferson). Let's not forget about Thielen, either. They got three receivers (including Osborn) playing at a very high level."

The Vikings' passing game is rounded out by T.J. Hockenson. The fourth-year tight end was acquired by Minnesota before the trade deadline. In his seven games (five starts) with the Vikings, he has registered 39 receptions for 335 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, while their run game has struggled overall, Dalvin Cook hit 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive season. He's averaged 4.5 yards per carry on his way to gaining 1,045 yards with eight touchdowns to go with 33 receptions for 265 yards and two scores.

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