Last week, the Giants' defense allowed 144 fewer yards and 11 fewer points in a loss to Washington than it had the previous week in a victory in Dallas.
But the improved statistics meant little for defensive coordinator Perry Fewell for one very elementary reason.
"When you lose the game, you don't have a good feeling about it," Fewell said. "But there were some things we can build on from that loss from a defensive perspective of how we played."
His players concur.
"We didn't do enough to keep ourselves in position to win the game," linebacker Michael Boley said. "So it's kind of hard to say that we did make any strides."
For the Giants' defensive unit, any progress, however incremental, is good. The unit has received its share of criticism this season because it is 28th in the NFL in points allowed and total yards and is 29th in passing yards given up. In recent games against New Orleans, Green Bay and Dallas – three of the league's top six teams in both yards and scoring – the Giants surrendered, in order, 49, 38 and 34 points, 577, 449 and 444 yards and 372, 360 and 305 passing yards.
In their 23-10 loss to the Redskins, the Giants allowed 300 yards, including 177 through the air.
"I thought in the second half we did a better job stopping the run," Fewell said. "The longest run (in the game) was a 14-yarder, so I thought we made progress as far as that was concerned. The longest pass was 20 yards, so I thought we made progress there."
Now they need to make more. On Saturday in MetLife Stadium, the Giants will face the Jets – who are seventh in the NFL in points scored at 24.7, right behind the Cowboys – in a game that is critical to their playoff aspirations. Win and they can clinch the NFC East title the following week when Dallas visits.
The Jets have an efficient quarterback in Mark Sanchez; a running back in Shonn Greene who needs just 59 yards to reach 1,000 for the season; a tight end in Dustin Keller who leads the team with 50 catches; and wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, who have scored eight touchdowns apiece. The Jets have been the NFL's most proficient team inside their opponents' 20-yard line, scoring 32 touchdowns in 47 opportunities, a 68.1 success rate.
They are confronting a huge challenge in a high-pressure situation, but the Giants defenders believe they are up to the task.
"We know we have to have our best game that we've played all year," Boley said. "And it has to be that way for as long as we're playing this season. Because of that, this week, I think we're taking a different approach. We're going back to the basics. All the little details are covered before we move onto the next thing."
"We are going back to our old ways," safety Deon Grant said. "This week, I think he (Fewell) just said, 'With the guys I got I'm going back to my last year mentality."
The early returns are favorable.
"Great week of practice," safety Kenny Phillips said. "I feel we're all on the same page. We're all buying into the game plan and a lot more communication as far as, 'I'm going to do this, this person's going to do that.' So we're all on the same page."
The Giants' defense is trying to reverse the slippage that has occurred since last season. In 2010, the unit finished seventh in the NFL in yards allowed (310.8) and 17th in scoring (21.7 points per game). This year, those figures are 385.1 yards and 26.6 points.
One reason for the rise, which Fewell and the players are reluctant to acknowledge, is injuries. Terrell Thomas, Jonathan Goff and Bruce Johnson never played a down this season, while Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Boley and first-round draft choice Prince Amukamara have missed multiple games.
"This year, we've had young playing guys that don't really know the system, we have a lot of injuries," Grant said, "so you have to try to dig out all kinds of ways to make it work."
One critical area in which it hasn't is third down. Last year, the Giants' defense was first in the NFL on third down, limiting their opponents to a 31.7 percent success rate (66 of 208). This season, the Giants are 22nd in defensive third down efficiency. Their opponents have converted 40.6 percent of their opportunities (76 of 187). The Giants have already allowed 10 more third-down conversions than they did all of last season.
"It's frustrating as heck," Coach Tom Coughlin said.
"It is a frustrating thing, especially when you set up a situation and you think you're in the right position to make the third down stop, and they convert the third down," Fewell said. "We put ourselves last week in a situation where we had several third-and-one situations. I think it was five times we were in that situation, and we won two of the five. We don't want to be in that situation. You have to win first and second down in order to win the third down. And in order to win the third down, you don't want to put yourself in third-and-three or less. And we've been putting ourselves in third-and-three or less too often. And therefore, the offense is able to perform at a higher percentage rate."
The problem has become more acute in recent weeks. Each of the last five opponents – Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas and Washington – converted at least 50 percent of their third-down opportunities, the first time that's happened to a Giants defense since the 1970 merger.
Those teams were a combined 34-for-63 on third down (54 percent). The breakdown was nine-of-15 (60 percent) when they needed three or less yards for a first down, 13-for-20 (65 percent) when they needed between four and seven yards and 12-for-28 (42.9 percent) when they had to gain eight or more yards.
"It seems we've allowed teams to get in third-and-shorts and obviously the percentages go up," Tuck said. "Early in the season we did a good job of keeping them in third-and-eight pluses. That obviously allows us to get more creative on third down. I think the biggest thing is don't let them bleed us for four or five yards on first down. We have to start putting offenses behind the eight ball to start the game, start early. That comes to play on first and second down. I think a lot of people think that third down is the most important play. It's really not. I think first down is. For some reason in last couple of games we haven't played well on first and second down, which has resulted into us not playing well on third down."
"You get in a situation where you do pretty well on first and second down and then get in third down and we don't get them off the field, it's kind of frustrating," Boley said. "We haven't found that niche to stop the bleeding. That's something we're going to have to get better at this week."
Fewell had a succinct answer when asked what the problems have been for his defense on third down.
"Just execution," he said. "That's the problem. We haven't been able to get off of the field and it's been execution. It's been a breakdown here or a breakdown there by either the coverage or by the rush or the execution of the pressure. Obviously, we've gone up against some pretty good offenses. We think we're better than that obviously, but they've executed better than we have. That's the bottom line."
The Giants need to change that line Saturday to defeat the Jets and remain in the playoff hunt. Fewell and his players are confident the defense is going to step up at this crucial time.
"Their enthusiasm has been very good," he said. "I think they are up for the challenge. If that's any indication of being the old Giants, then I like the way that they prepared this week."
"Playing this game at this level, you have to have amnesia (about what happened recently)," said Antrel Rolle. "You can't let the week before affect the week ahead of you. Once you do that, you will find yourself in a constant slide and I think we understand that as a team. We understand that we have to get up and get going."
*Center David Baas, who missed the last three games with a neck injury, practiced again today on a limited basis. Baas said he expects to start on Saturday.
"That's my plan," Baas said. "We're still continuing to go out there and practice. Normal routine as far as checking with doctors, checking, making sure everything's still good. As far as I'm concerned, that's my view, I'll be out there."
*Tuck conducted his weekly session with reporters wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers football player who was paralyzed last year and has maintained a positive and inspirational attitude as he continues his rehabilitation.
"I know Eric pretty well," Tuck said. "Obviously, with Rutgers being so close, him having his injury here (in MetLife Stadium), I just reached out to him and his family and took him out to dinner one night and just hit it off. The motivation I get from him is tremendous. A situation where not many would be as upbeat, he is as encouraged about his future as anybody I know that can walk. I think that's pretty encouraging."
*Ahmad Bradshaw was one of six Giants players who did not practice today, but he is expected to play Saturday.
"He practiced yesterday and did a lot so we backed off today," Coughlin said.
Also missing practice were tight end Jake Ballard (knee), wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee), defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee), running back D.J. Ware (knee) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle).
Coughlin said, "Osi probably won't make it." Asked about Ware, he said, "Tomorrow he should bounce back."
*In addition to Baas, four players were limited: tight ends Bear Pascoe (ribs) and Travis Beckum (chest), safety Derrick Martin (back) and wide receiver Devin Thomas (neck).
Pascoe has played more fullback than tight end, but will line up at the latter this week with Ballard expected to be sidelined.
"He plays hard and gives it everything he has," Coughlin said of Pascoe. "That is one thing about that guy, he is a tough guy and he does everything that you ask him to do. He gives you everything he has got."
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