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5 things we learned (12/8): Kayvon & Azeez back together

THIBODEAUX-OJULARI-5THINGS

The Giants continued their preparations Thursday for this weekend's divisional matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The game represents the team's third consecutive game against the NFC East and their first against the Eagles this season. The Giants will take on the Washington Commanders for the second time in three games next week on Sunday Night Football.

Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey met with the media Thursday to discuss the challenges of facing the Eagles (11-1):

Here are five things we learned today:

1. Kayvon & Azeez back together

As we enter Week 14, the Giants have not had their starting defensive line play an entire game together yet this season due to injuries. Between Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux, Lawrence is the only one that's started every game. The group went into last week's contest healthy before Williams departed early with a neck injury, as Ojulari played in his first game since Week 4.

Despite Williams missing part of the game against the Commanders, the defense had one of their most productive days getting after the quarterback. Five different players registered a sack as the unit added a combined 10 quarterback hits. Although it was just his first game back, Ojulari was on the field for an impressive 49 defensive snaps (58 percent).

"It was obviously a big day getting after the quarterback, but we really haven't the initial starting lineup together since we started, if you want to really reflect on it," Wink Martindale said. "So, when you get the entire starting lineup together that's when it's going to be even more fun than what it was Sunday, but you can see the difference. You guys can see it, you can feel the difference or however you want to say it and just watching the both of them out there."

Ojulari notched a sack and a forced fumble along with two quarterback hits. Despite missing two months, Ojulari has back-to-back games with a sack and forced fumble. On the other side, Thibodeaux recorded a sack and two quarterback hits, and giving him 13 pressures over the past two weeks (six QB hits, six hurries and one sack).

In only their second full game together, Thibodeaux and Ojulari combined for two sacks, four quarterback hits and 11 total pressures.

"I think Kayvon continues to grow and get better every game. There's something new that stands out, and same thing with Azeez," said Martindale.

2. Facing 'aggressive' Eagles defense

The Eagles' defense has been nothing short of dominant this season. The unit enters this weekend's matchup ranking seventh in points and second in yards allowed. Philadelphia has the NFL's top passing defense, allowing an average of 178.5 yards per game, while their opponents' 14 passing touchdowns is tied for sixth. The Eagles have also forced the most turnovers in the NFL, including a league-high 15 interceptions.

"They're really talented, they're aggressive, they play with confidence, and they play fast," said Mike Kafka. "You see a lot of things that show up on tape. They're creating turnovers, interceptions. They have a ton of production in the pass game, in the run game and they're the best team in the league."

The unit has talent at all three levels, but they seem to be overloaded with dominant players up front. The Eagles have five players with five or more sacks, including eight from Javon Hargrave and 5 1/2 from Brandon Graham. The two of them, along with Haason Reddick (nine sacks), Josh Sweat (6 1/2) and Fletcher Cox (five), have contributed to the Eagles' 42 sacks on the season, the second-most in the NFL. Each of these five tallied a sack against the Titans, including two from Sweat.

"We're well aware of where he's at, and really that whole d-line does a really phenomenal job," the offensive coordinator told the media about Hargrave and the Philly defensive front. "I was there with – Brandon Graham was in my draft class. I got a lot of respect for Brandon and he's still playing at a really high level. It's great to see him playing. That whole front seven, they do a phenomenal job."

3. Love 'has blossomed this year'

Although injuries have led to a good amount of turnover on the defensive side of the ball from week to week, one consistent force has been safety Julian Love. Voted a team captain for the first time in his career this season, Love has barely left the field. The fourth-year safety has played every single defensive snap in 11 of 12 games, with the lone exception coming in Week 4 when he suffered a concussion.

Not only has he seen more playing time, but Love has also been one of the top performers for Wink Martindale's unit. The 24-year-old leads the team with 96 combined tackles, 42 more than any other player, to go along with two interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Love has also continued his role from previous seasons on special teams. He has been on the field for more than 50 percent of the team's special teams snaps in 10 of 12 games this season, as special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey referred to him as the "quarterback of the punt team." McGaughey noted how Love has developed into one of the leaders of the team this year, which has led to better results on the field.

"Julian has really blossomed this year and taken off…" said the special teams coordinator. "He's always been a very mature young man, but you see him more now as a leader. I think that's really helped his game. He's playing with more confidence because he knows that people are looking to him, and he's always done a great job of preparing. He's always done a great job of being a really good teammate. As a man, he's starting to grow up. As a leader, he's starting to take control of the locker room."

4. Bellinger 'plays with confidence'

The offense received a boost this past weekend with the return of Daniel Bellinger. The rookie tight end suffered a serious eye injury in Week 7 that led to surgery and him missing four games. Wearing a new visor in his helmet, Bellinger was back on the field against the Commanders, where he caught all five targets for 24 yards. The five receptions were tied for the second-most on the team.

"He did a great job. It was great," Kafka said. "He's a guy that plays with confidence. I think he gives the offense a lot of confidence and does what we ask him to do. It was great to see Bellinger back out there."

The Eagles have surrendered an average of 4.3 receptions and 42.2 yards per game to opposing tight ends. Titans rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo led the team with four receptions for 68 yards last week, while fellow tight end Austin Hooper added three receptions for 22 yards.

5. Talent 'across the board' in Philly's offense

It takes a well-rounded team to start the season 11-1, and such is the case with the Eagles. We touched on the defense above, but it's the Philadelphia offense that has truly made a significant jump this year, and it all starts with Jalen Hurts.

The third-year quarterback has been a force with both his arm and legs. Hurts' completion percentage has jumped from 61.3 percent last year to 68.1, and he has thrown for 2,940 yards, 20 touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 108.3.

"I was telling the defensive staff, I know they're not going to play the Pro Bowl this year, but they're playing it in Philly because they're talented across the board," Martindale told the media. "Jalen is getting into that level, that top-tier quarterback, because you can just see the jump. We went against him his rookie year when he was playing sparingly, and then last year to this past year, he's really worked on his throwing mechanics, his footwork, and it's paying off for him. The same way it did for Patrick Mahomes. If you go back and look at those comparisons, it's very similar. He is a triple threat."

As if that weren't enough, Hurts has added 609 yards and a nine touchdowns on the ground, which has played the biggest role in the Eagles ranking second in points and third in yards.

"The thing that makes him so tough to go against, he's still looking to get the ball downfield until that last second where he says, 'no I'm going to go'. It's going to be a tough challenge for us," the defensive coordinator said about Hurts' ability as a rusher.

Hurts has done a good job of spreading the ball around, but receiver A.J. Brown has been dominant. The former Pro Bowler has been targeted 96 times, catching 61 for a team-high 950 yards and nine touchdowns.

"It's like they've got (wide receiver Terrell Owens) T.O. back there playing again," said Martindale. "He's a problem. We went against him when he was in Tennessee and he's a big physical receiver that you'd have to fight every play. I told (defensive backs coach) Jerome Henderson if he was a defensive player, he'd be an outside backer that's how physical he plays at wide receiver."

DeVonta Smith has matched Brown with 61 receptions, although he has totaled 711 yards and four touchdowns. Quez Watkins has also pulled in 22 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, running back Miles Sanders has had a resurgent season, totaling 924 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Both of which have already set new career-highs for the fourth-year running back.

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