Michael Boley likes to say that the Giants defense starts with the linebackers. And thus far this season, the linebackers have started with Michael Boley.
The seven-year veteran and third-year Giant has been one of the team's best and most valuable defensive players in its 2-1 start. He is among the team leaders in tackles, he scored a touchdown, he relays the calls from coordinator Perry Fewell to the players in the huddle and he has been a mentor to impressive rookie linebackers Jacquian Williams and Greg Jones.
"I feel a lot better about my play this year than I did last year," Boley said this week during a break in the Giants' preparation for their game Sunday against the Cardinals in Arizona. "I wouldn't try to play the blame game, but in the beginning last year it was also learning a new scheme, getting all of us on one accord as a unit. I think this year being my second year in the same system, it helps not only myself but the whole defense.
"I think I'm going pretty good, but the season is young. At this point, I'm still trying to figure some things out and I still have a lot more to show than what I've put out there so far."
Boley, who joined the Giants as a free agent in 2009 after four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, has always been an athletic, instinctive player. He entered this season with more than 500 career tackles, 8.0 sacks and five interceptions.
This year, he has become the defense's key on-field communicator. After middle linebacker Jonathan Goff suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Labor Day practice, Boley's helmet was outfitted with a small speaker so he could receive the calls from Fewell and pass them along to his teammates. Now, everyone looks at Boley in the huddle.
"I like it, it's fun," Boley said of his new duties. "Being the guy that makes the call, the huddle call, you kind of take it and flow with it. It's not one of those things where it's like, 'Oh my God, what's going on' to a situation where things start flowing smoothly once you get in that groove."
Boley's work as a player, communicator and leader has impressed his coaches.
"He has changed in a lot of ways," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "He is a play-caller and more in the helmet. He is directing traffic and getting us lined up. He has had a lot of responsibility that way and he has responded well."
"When Jon went down and Michael had to take over, I think Michael assumed that leadership role that was vacated," Fewell said. "I think Michael has taken it upon himself to communicate with the defense more. He's always communicated with me. He checks in. He's really taken on the role like, 'Hey, Perry, I can run the defense. I can make all of the calls. I can make all of the checks. We can get this thing done.' I think that's been the biggest change. He's approached it in a professional matter."
Last year, Fewell's first with the Giants and Goff's first as the fulltime starting middle linebacker, the coordinator said that Goff was an extension of him on the field. Boley is working toward becoming that commander on the field.
"I'm seeing him assume that role," Fewell said. "He's not at that point yet, but yes, I'm seeing that and we're feeling much better about the way he can communicate our defense and get all of the calls."
While Boley is calling he is also balling. He has 16 tackles (10 solo), including a huge fourth-down takedown of LeSean McCoy in last week's victory in Philadelphia. Boley has also recovered two fumbles, including one he scooped up and returned 65 yards for a score against St. Louis.
Boley is the leading tackler among the Giants linebackers. Close behind him is the precocious Williams, the sixth-round draft choice who has 14 stops (12 solo), and Mathias Kiwanuka, who has 12 tackles, including two for losses. Add in Jones, another sixth-round selection who is the starting middle linebacker, and it's understandable why Boley is bullish on the linebackers.
"We say in our meetings, 'It starts with us,'" Boley said. "I think that's for any linebacking corps. You're asking a lot out of your linebackers. You're asking them to know what's going on in front of you as well as behind you, so that you as a group can help the defensive unit. So that's why I say, 'It starts with us.' I tell Jones and my other guys that I run with, 'the linebackers, we run the show. We give the huddle call, we get guys lined up and that's where it starts.' So, for us as a group, we kind of take on that leadership role and take it rolling from there. It starts with us."
For Boley, he it started in Atlanta, where he was a fifth-round draft choice from Southern Mississippi by the Falcons in 2005. He played in every game and started 11 as a rookie, thanks in part to the help he received from the team's veteran linebackers.
"I had a guy by the name of Ike Reese who helped me a lot my rookie year, just as far as on his way out, it was thrust on me the way it was Greg here," Boley said. "One day, a guy got hurt and it was, 'Hey, we need you to step up and come in and start this week.' It was kind of the same situation that happened to me. I had a guy who actually was able to sit with me, talk with me because not only did I move into a starting role, I moved into a new position. I went from weak side to strong side in a week. It was difficult at first, but I had an older guy who would help me, go over the defenses, try to tell me to slow things down in my head, don't try to over-think about what's going on. Being able to get help when you're that young, it helps you as you progress throughout your years in the league and giving back to some guys."
When Jones and Williams, as well as Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger, arrived at training camp, Boley thought of his season as Reese's protégé and easily slipped into the role of mentor.
"I've been like that for a while now," Boley said. "With every scheme I've been in, I've been able to pick up on it and not only know what I'm doing but know what's going on around me. So I've had that knowledge to be able to help guys around me, whether it be an older guy or a younger guy.
"In my room, the linebacker room, I'm the old guy now. We have four rookies in our room so I try to take on that leadership role and communicate with them and help them as much as possible."
Williams said he has benefitted from Boley's tutelage.
"He's somebody that I look to," Williams said. "I respect him, I respect how he plays. He's a leader, he's the one that steers you the right way. He's constantly helping me."
Williams said because he and Jones are both playing significant roles in their debut seasons, they have formed a tight rookie linebacker partnership.
"We talk about it," Williams said. "He's more of a run stopper, I'm more of a pass stopper, pass defender, so we kind of stay with each other. We're both grateful about it and we have to keep ourselves humble, hungry and focused."
Michael Boley will no doubt help them do exactly that.