Better, but not good enough.
That is the distilled opinion of the Giants' defense by coordinator Perry Fewell, who last week challenged his unit to show some fire and improvement after allowing 577 yards in a loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Fewell liked some of what he saw against the Green Bay Packers, the NFL's highest-scoring team.
"I thought we played with more energy," Fewell said today. "We played with greater purpose last week. We look for them to play like that every week."
But Fewell needs results as well as effort. The Giants yielded 449 yards to Aaron Rodgers and Co., but the bottom line was a 38-35 loss to the undefeated Packers, who drove 68 yards in the final 58 seconds to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
"We wanted the W," Fewell said. "We didn't finish it. If we would have gotten the W and finished it, obviously we would have been pleased. But I think we proved to ourselves that we can play hard for 60 minutes."
They'll get another chance to demonstrate that in a game in which the stakes are higher and the task facing the defense just as difficult. The 6-6 Giants will travel to Dallas to face the 7-5 Cowboys with first place in the NFC East at stake.
For the fourth week in a row, Fewell's defense will face an offense ranked among the NFL's top 10. Dallas is ranked seventh, averaging 385.6 yards a game. Quarterback Tony Romo is fourth in the league in completion percentage and passer rating, sixth in touchdown passes and seventh in passing yards. He throws to an excellent corps of receivers in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin (who is expected to return after missing four games with a hamstring injury) and Laurent Robinson, plus Jason Witten, who has a team-high 61 catches and is widely considered to be the NFL's best tight end. The Dallas rushing attack has been revitalized by rookie DeMarco Murray, who has run for 872 yards.
"They are doing some good things with the run game," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "They have changed a little bit upfront offensively, and their offensive line is a little different. Nevertheless, they continue to rush it and make plays down the field in play action and then, of course, whenever he is in trouble, he looks for Jason Witten."
With so many players moving in and out of the lineup because of injuries, Coughlin was asked if he has "a handle" on what he can expect from the defense.
"I have confidence that we continue to do some things very well and there are things that we have to continue to work on," he said. "I think we know what we have."
"I know we will be ready to play," defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "Some games we come out and rush the passer great, sometimes we play coverage great and sometimes we play run defense great. I just know that this team seems like we have our focus back - not to say that we lost it, but it just seems like it is elevated. I think guys have made that conscious decision that we are going to go these next four games, starting with this one against Dallas, playing our hardest."
They played hard last week, but had trouble slowing down the Packers, as everyone else in the league has this season. Rodgers, the heavy favorite to be elected NFL Most Valuable Player this year, threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns. But he was sacked twice and was under pressure on several other plays.
The Giants, however, had some uncharacteristic assignment errors, though Coughlin disputed a suggestion that has been a season-long problem.
"It happened the other night," he said. Coughlin said that "absolutely" should not occur this late in the season. "You are talking about this time of the year," Coughlin said. "It should not be happening."
The most glaring breakdown occurred on a 13-yard Rodgers' touchdown pass to Donald Driver in the second quarter. No Giants defender was near Driver when he caught the ball. The play occurred shortly after safety Kenny Phillips left the game with a knee injury, forcing Antrel Rolle to assume some of his duties.
"In an unfamiliar position, yes," Fewell said. "We probably haven't run that rep at him in practice. We run it with another safety, which was Kenny, probably at practice. So when Kenny went down and we had to make changes, etcetera, you don't always have a chance to rep those things when that situation occurs like that."
No matter who's on the field, Fewell said those mistakes have to be eliminated in the Giants' final four games. The Giants control their postseason fate, but it could slip through their grasp if they don't eliminate the costly miscues.
"It's extremely critical," Fewell said. "We've had some moving pieces and sometimes when you cover things and the guy moves to another position and that piece moves, you think you cover it and you think you got it manned-out and it's not. So we have to do a better job as coaches of making sure that we cover all of the details and make sure that those things are cleaned up. It's very critical at this time of year."
The defense has played shorthanded all season, though Fewell has never complained about it. The Giants have placed five cornerbacks on injured reserve, including Terrell Thomas. Middle linebacker Jonathan Goff also did not play a down this season. Osi Umenyiora has missed four games and is out with a knee injury. Tuck sat out four games. Michael Boley missed two games. First-round draft choice Prince Amukamara missed the first nine games of the season with a broken foot and now has a back injury. Phillips was hurt against Green Bay and hasn't practiced this week.
Through it all, Fewell has forged ahead, mixing and matching while adding new players on the fly. Linebacker Chase Blackburn was re-signed and practiced for the first time last Wednesday. On Sunday, he intercepted a Rodgers' pass to set up a Giants touchdown.
"You can't cry over spilt milk," Fewell said. "We're in a position right now that hey, we have to come out and play. Nobody feels sorry for our situation. We know that. I think the guys are really trying to do a good job of focusing and doing what we're asking them to do. We just have to try to get it done."
The defense is still shorthanded, the Giants have allowed at least 360 passing yards in consecutive games for the first time in their history and they're playing one the league's most productive offenses on the road. The salient question is, can a defense that is ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed reverse course and play well in the season's final month?
"I don't see why we couldn't," Tuck said. "But it's not going to start with me talking about it. We have to go out and play the game, obviously, and build on what we did against Green Bay. Everyone's talking about how we played against Green Bay, but we still gave up (35) points. But we have to build on our enthusiasm and the passion we showed to play the game."
Fewell expects to see those same intangibles this week. And that is a good place for the unit to start.
"I'm confident that it will make it to Dallas," Fewell said. "This is a big, important game for us. I think the players know that. We know that as a coaching staff we're in a position to do some things that we like to do. I think the passion and the fire will be there."
If they are, the results could follow.
*The list of Giants not practicing was reduced by one today as defensive lineman Dave Tollefson returned to work on a limited basis. Also limited were wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee) and Amukamara (back).
Those sitting out were center David Baas (neck/intense headaches), running backs Brandon Jacobs (hamstring) and Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), Phillips (knee), Umenyiora (ankle/knee) and linebackers Boley (hamstring), Mark Herzlich (ankle) and Spencer Paysinger (hamstring).
Asked about Jacobs and Bradshaw, Coughlin said, "Tomorrow is their scheduled day to work. Both of them."
Coughlin said he had no update on Baas, who was undergoing further tests to determine the source of his headaches.
*Fewell said rookie Tyler Sash could play safety if necessary, but said, "We haven't ruled Kenny out and if Kenny can go, Kenny will go. But (it's) next man up for us. We've had to be that way all year. So the next man will come up."
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