After starting the 2020 season with five straight losses, the Giants were able to catapult themselves back into the division race thanks to a stretch of strong play.
Starting with the Week 6 win over the Washington Football Team, Joe Judge's squad won five of seven games to jump into the thick of it in the NFC East. In fact, the two losses (against the Philadelphia Eagles and eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers) were by a total of three points.
A big reason for this successful run was due to the dominant play of the defense. During this span of seven games, the unit limited opponents to an average of 18.9 points per game, while only allowing two of those teams to rush for over 100 yards.
Overall, Big Blue's defense looked good in 2020, finishing ninth in fewest points allowed in the NFL and 12th in yards. The statistics get even more impressive when looking at the Giants' rush defense. Patrick Graham's unit ranked 10th in both rushing yards and touchdowns allowed, while the team's 4.1 yards per attempt surrendered came in at No. 8 in the league.
Two-time Super Bowl Champion and Giants legend Justin Tuck recently joined Big Blue Kickoff Live to break down the defense. Similar to when he was wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, Tuck believes the success of the Giants' defense, both last year and this coming season, starts up front.
"I do think one of the strong suits of our unit was the defensive line, in particular the front seven from last year. Those guys played tough…" Tuck said. "Over time, the Giants have always been known for their front seven. Now, that seems to be that calling card again. You have a lot of pieces of the puzzle that I would like to see go out this year and really make a name for themselves on that defensive line.
"The only one that everyone is kind of looking at is Leonard (Williams). From that perspective, there's a lot of young talent, a lot of new guys on that front. Obviously, we drafted the guy from Georgia (Azeez Ojulari) … That defensive front, and the secondary for that matter, held up pretty well last year considering what we were able to accomplish last year. I think for me personally, I'm excited about what they'll continue to do and what they'll do with another year under their belts in this system."
As Tuck mentioned, a large factor in the defense's success last season, especially in the run game, was the play of Leonard Williams.
Williams enjoyed his strongest season as a professional in 2020, his first full campaign with the Giants. Playing in all 16 games for the fifth time in six years, Williams registered a career-high 11.5 sacks, which ranked seventh in the NFL and second among defensive tackles. The 26-year-old added a career-best 14.5 tackles for loss and 30 quarterback hits, and his 62 combined sacks, hits and hurries were also his highest since entering the league.
Williams earned a 79.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, 15th among interior defenders, aided by his elite 82.6 run defense grade. The analytics site recently ranked Williams No. 9 on its list of top defensive tackles in the NFL.
"When you have a guy like Leonard who can make plays, not only with the quarterback hits and the sacks but also in the backfield as far as his run-stopping ability, when you have a person like that, especially in a 3-4 defense where I know he's a lot more comfortable in that three scheme, he's going to cause havoc," Tuck explained. "If I'm an offensive coordinator, I'm definitely paying more attention to him…
"There are a lot of things that when you have a stud like that on your D-line and you can kind of play the chess game as far as where you're going to show different looks and so on and so forth, that always I think benefits the people that will be around him."
Williams may receive the most attention from opposing offensive lines this season, but he is far from the only player capable of making plays.
Dexter Lawrence played all 16 games for the second time in his young career and set new career-marks in just about every category. The 6-foot-4, 342-pound lineman recorded 53 tackles (30 solo), four sacks, six tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits and two passes defended. Lawrence's 79.7 overall grade from PFF landed him just behind Williams, while the analytics site recently ranked him as the No. 16 defensive tackle in the league.
View photos of the Giants' roster as it currently stands.
In addition to Lawrence, the Giants re-signed defensive tackle Austin Johnson and added veteran Danny Shelton to the group, while B.J. Hill is set to return as well. All three of these players will be called upon to help make up for the absence of Dalvin Tomlinson, whom the team lost in free agency to the Minnesota Vikings.
"You knew what you had with Tomlinson," Tuck said about the former defensive captain. "He was basically a three-four-year starter there and just one of those lunch pail guys that everyone loves to be around and doesn't necessarily fill up the stat sheet. So many of the things that he did for the team allowed other players to play freely, allowed other players to make plays. He made plays himself, too…
"We have to find a way to have other people step up and fill that void. That's not anything new. That's going to happen next year and the year after as well. It's going to consistently do that when you have good players in these positions that you might not necessarily be able to afford the next year when their contracts are up."
The middle of the Giants' defensive line will be returning most of its key components from last season. But on the edge, Big Blue's defense will be introducing several new faces, including rookies Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith and veterans Ifeadi Odenigbo and Ryan Anderson. Then, there's also the return of injured players Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines.
The new faces may be getting a lot of the attention, but if you ask Tuck, it's Carter who could be looking at a breakout campaign in 2021.
"He has an opportunity now where he's going to have more talent in the secondary, so you would think that we'll get the quarterback to hold onto the ball a little bit longer," the Giants great said about the fourth-year edge rusher. "I'm putting my money on him to have a pretty good year this year for us."
When discussing his time with the Giants, Tuck could not help but mention the role that middle linebacker Antonio Pierce played in the franchise's success, especially in the run to the Super Bowl in 2007, and how he identifies similarities in Blake Martinez.
"What I see from him is his instincts," Tuck said about Martinez. "He doesn't have a lot of false movement in his steps. He gets downhill, he gets to the place he's supposed to be, and he's rarely fooled, rarely late. From that perspective, when you're that split second faster than that guard who's trying to double up and get to you, then you're going to be in the right spot most of the time. He's in the right spot most of the time. When you're in the right spot most of the time, all you need then is to just have the attitude of wanting to make the tackle, to be honest with you. That's what I notice from him.
"I don't know what his 40 time is, but as Coach (Tom) Coughlin says, 'Everybody is a Pro Bowler in shorts.' Some people run great 40 times but their game speed is slower. I would venture to say Blake seems to be the guy who's the opposite of that, where he's not going to blow you away with his 40 time, but his game speed seems to be superb. When you think of that from a middle linebacker standpoint, when you think about him being able to get people in the right position, that's what I look for in a middle linebacker, and he seems to have all those traits."
The front office has added numerous talented pieces to the defense over the last two offseasons, but perhaps the biggest addition to the unit has been defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Graham helped transform a defense that struggled in 2019 to one of the league's better units last season. Tuck believes that with another year of experience in Graham's system under their belts, the defense could take yet another leap.
"They should be even more comfortable in that scheme this year, play faster, play more confident," Tuck said about Graham's system. "And that allows him to do more of those things to kind of free up some people or get some other people who might not necessarily be the pass rusher that Leonard is or that me, Osi and Strahan were. But giving them some favorable matchups that they could win some opportunities there, that's what I think will happen this year, especially when you think about the additions that we made in the secondary. All of this stuff goes hand in hand…
"That's one thing with Patrick Graham, it seems like he was really good at dialing up things where guys were put in one-on-one situations. At that point, you have to win. If you don't win, then we need to do something else."
View the best photos from Friday's OTA practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.