EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The nutcracker was played in the Giants' training camp this evening.
Practice was highlighted by the kind of hitting drill seldom seen in recent training camps. It was a one-on-one hitting exercise in which both the contact and the players' and coaches' reactions were loud. Two groups worked simultaneously. A ball was placed on a large pad underneath a crouching offensive ballhandler, such as a running back. At the other end of the pad stood a defender. When the whistle blew, the offensive player picked up the ball, took a couple of steps and lowered his body into his defensive opponent, whose job it was to bring him to the ground. Everyone hit the grass, with each side claiming its share of victories.
Those two-man contact skirmishes were called nutcrackers when Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi ruled the NFL.
"Normally, there's a shock factor when the fans watch that at first, the media sees it at first, with 'Oh, they're hitting?'" coach Joe Judge said. "I'm just putting to context what we're trying to do on every play. We're staying on our feet for most of practice with the exception of a couple of live tackling drills. You have to selectively do those through training camp to get the guys ready.
"Again, we're not doing anything out there to try to see who the toughest guy in the schoolyard is. We're trying to get every player ready to play safely for 60 minutes against a competitor for 16 weeks."
The drill is a Judge favorite. He has used it when he was an assistant at Alabama and with the New England Patriots and lists several benefits that are derived from it.
"We can't get the guys ready to drive on I-95 by riding back roads," Judge said. "If we think the Pittsburgh Steelers (their Kickoff Weekend opponents) are coming in here to hug us, we're all sadly mistaken. We have to train these guys in a physical manner to make it safe for them to play the game the way the game is played.
"I've been doing that drill personally within the programs I've been in for the better part of a decade. It's a safe drill. It's in a controlled space. It's how we can teach guys to safely have collisions because that's what the game is going to be. It's a collision game. It reinforces technique we can teach off it on the tape. We do that in training camp. We've also done that throughout the season at different programs I've been a part of."
Judge seems eager to continue that tradition here.
"That's actually a drill a lot of times you use for even a young guy coming up off the practice squad or maybe someone returning from an injury," Judge said. "Whether they're a ballcarrier or a tackler, you have to test out where they are health wise. If it's a defensive player, is he healthy enough to tackle? Is he turning on contact? If it's an offensive player, can he sustain the ball security through contact and make sure he's not fumbling every time he's hit."
The rugged drill was another example that this camp will be different from what the Giants have experienced in recent summers. Judge has two 11-on-11 matchups going at the same time, players who commit mental or assignment errors are promptly corrected and seldom does 15 seconds pass without the coach making a pointed comment.
"Everything we do has a purpose," Judge said. "We're very intent on explaining to our team why we're doing things the way we're doing them. I'm a big believer in educating our team in why we're doing things. That we're not just out there blindly winging it and trying to go ahead and force punishment. I explained the other day, when you make mistakes on the field, there are consequences. In the game, it's penalty yards. At a practice, we have to understand that there are consequences for mistakes. This isn't a punishment. It's a reminder that we have to draw our attention and be more detailed with how we approach things."
Judge is pleased at how the players have responded to the lessons and discipline that his staff and him have introduced.
"We're trying to demand the best out of everybody and make them improve every day," he said. "We're not letting details slip. The thing I'm most impressed with is how coachable this team is. They come in here every day, they're looking for details, they're looking for coaching points, they want to improve and they want to do better. They understand it's about the message, not how the message is always delivered. We coach hard. We're very demanding. This is a tough job. We're in New York City. This is a tough place to play and coach. We have to have guys who are thickskinned and understand we have to operate in high pressure situations. We can't go out there on the practice field and just sing Kumbaya together and think we're going to advance."
*Cornerback Corey Ballentine went down in the one-one-one drill but soon returned to the field. Wide receiver Cody Core left the field but Judge did not have an update on his condition.