The three-safety defense that served the Giants so well the previous two seasons is making a comeback.
Antrel Rolle's good health, Kenny Phillips' return and Stevie Brown's ascent have prompted defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to resurrect an alignment that helped the Giants win the Super Bowl last season. It will be unveiled Sunday, when the 6-2 Giants host the Pittsburgh 4-3 Steelers in MetLife Stadium.
"We'll find a way," Fewell said today. "All of them are good players. It's a good problem to have that Kenny is back. Brown's been playing really well. It's hard to unseat him right now. We'll find a way for Kenny to get on the field."
In 2010 and 2011, Fewell often deployed safeties Phillips, Rolle and Deon Grant on the field at the same time. Grant is no longer with the team and early in the season, Fewell kept that look in his playbook.
Rolle has started every game and returned to practice today after passing the required medical tests mandated when a player suffers a head injury. He hit his head on the turf late in the Giants' 29-24 victory in Dallas last Sunday.
Phillips missed the last four games after suffering a knee injury in Philadelphia on September 30. Although he, like Rolle, was officially limited in practice, Phillips left no doubt he will face the Steelers.
"I'm going this week," Phillips said.
In his absence, Brown, a first-year Giant, has been a revelation. He leads the team with five interceptions and the NFL with seven takeaways (including two fumble recoveries). His 168 interception return yards are the most by a Giant since 1963. Yesterday, he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his six-tackle, two-interception, one-fumble recovery game in Dallas.
"Because Stevie's emerged and come on like this, it gives me more ideas to have the three-safety package," Fewell said. "And now we can go forward with that."
No one is happier than Brown, who now knows that Phillips return doesn't mean he'll be standing on the sideline.
"I think it could work because I feel that we're three good players and we can all be able to contribute very well to this defense," Brown said. "If that's the route they chose to go and use packages that way, I think it'll be successful."
Fewell did not say if Phillips or Brown – or both – will start next to Rolle. Phillips expects to get his job back, but concedes Brown has been impressive.
"He did what he was supposed to do," Phillips said. "He took advantage of an opportunity. It's rare that a guy loses his position to an injury, but it's possible with the way he's playing. I'm not worried about it. Whatever role they give me, I'll take it. If I have to back up my backup, I'll do it."
Brown said, "I'm just here doing my role and if Kenny is the starter and he continues to be the starter, I'll just go back to doing what I was doing."
Rolle, Phillips and Brown give the Giants a strong trio of safeties.
"We're well in the back end," Rolle said. "It's always great to have Kenny back. I'm looking forward to having him back, looking forward to him making plays in this defense as he always does and just ready to go out there and play come Sunday."
Fewell conceded using the three safeties together was not in his plans before Brown's emergence.
"Initially, we were using Jacquian Williams, as a linebacker, to alternate as a big safety," Fewell said. "Since he went down (with a knee injury), and Stevie's emerged, we get Kenny back, our plans can totally focus on a three-safety package with three good players in there."
*Fewell conceded he's been a bit surprised by the high level of Brown's play.
"Stevie showed that he was good in the spring from the post and he could go attack the ball in the air, and he showed he was good in the half-field, and he could go attack the ball in the air," Fewell said. "Then at camp, he kind of settled off a little bit. You didn't see as much as you saw in the spring. You put him in the ballgame, against Carolina he picks one, so I'm telling the safeties, 'Don't get hurt, because this guy's going to pick another one.' Somebody gets hurt, he goes in the ball game, and he picks another one. It is good to be surprised. I am very happy and excited for him and happy for our football team."
*Phillips said he has no second thoughts about testing his knee in game conditions.
"I do feel confident in my knee," he said. "It's been a long, long process. I feel like it's good enough for me to get back there and make some plays.
"If I'm not ready, I'm not going to go. For the most part, it feels good and I'll be ready for Sunday."
*Rolle had to leave the Dallas game with two minutes remaining after coming down hard on the turf out of bounds near the Cowboys' bench.
"I was trying to avoid the collision once I saw him (wide receiver Dez Bryant)," Rolle said. "I saw the ball was falling and I just tried to avoid him. I didn't want to get any penalties because I was coming. I was coming to do damage and once I saw that he wasn't catching the ball, I was trying to do my best to avoid him. My foot hit Webby (Corey Webster) as I was going down, so it kind of messed up my fall a little bit and had me all out of whack. But I'm all right.
"I wasn't really concerned. I knew what I was feeling at the moment. I just got dinged up a little bit, but fully aware of what was going on, of where I was and everything like that. I'm back out here."
*The Steelers were supposed to stay at the Westin Hotel in Jersey City, but the building has no power. So they will fly to New Jersey Sunday morning, eat their pregame meal at a hotel near Newark Liberty Airport and then bus to MetLife Stadium.
*Rolle was on the Arizona Cardinals team that lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. Reminded that he had his heart broken by the Steelers, Rolle said, "Hey, I found my heart back." It just took a victory in Super Bowl XLVI to do it.
*Three Giants missed practice today: linebackers Chase Blackburn (hamstring) and Williams (knee) and tight end Bear Pascoe (ankle).
Tom Coughlin said the loss of Blackburn will be felt, despite Pittsburgh's frequent use of three wide receivers.
"It's going to be a concern, always," Coughlin said. "In terms of the energy with which he gets people lined up and plays the game. Hopefully, that'll be picked up by the guys that are in there. Any time you take a player of that caliber out…it's happened here in the past. The next guy comes along and plays very well. So, that's what we expect."
Blackburn will be replaced by Mark Herzlich.
"I think Mark will do an outstanding job for us," Fewell said. "He's been right there; he sits beside Chase in the meetings. When I ask questions, if he gets it wrong, Chase looks at him like, 'What are you talking about?' He feels the pressure in the meetings. I think he'll do an outstanding job. He's done it before, so it's not like it's new to him. He'll just be more excited to do it."
*In addition to Phillips and Rolle, three players were limited: center David Baas (ankle/elbow), running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Keith Rivers (calf).
Wide receiver Victor Cruz (calf) and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (quadriceps) practiced fully.
*The Giants lead their series with Pittsburgh, 44-28-3. The teams will meet for the first time since Oct. 26, 2008, when the Giants defeated the Steelers, 21-14, in Heinz Field. The Giants last hosted Pittsburgh on Dec. 18, 2004, when the Steelers earned a 33-30 victory on their way to a 15-1 finish. The teams met every season from 1933 through 1969, except when the series was interrupted by World War II in 1943 and 44. Since the Steelers moved to the AFC in the 1970 merger they have played only eight times, five in Giants Stadium and three in Pittsburgh. Each team won four times.