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Giants defense 'turning into' what it wants to be

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A month ago, the Giants' defensive players were under interrogation for an unusually high number of missed tackles, most notably in a loss to San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, the concerns were the 524 yards and three plays of 64+ yards the unit allowed in a two-touchdown defeat to the Miami Dolphins.

The players and coaches acknowledged the deficiencies and vowed the day was coming when the unit would play closer to its capability.

That day was Sunday. The defense dominated the Washington Commanders' offense in a 14-7 victory in MetLife Stadium.

Washington's 273 total yards were respectable enough. But the defense sacked quarterback Sam Howell six times (one more sack than the Giants had in the first six games combined), was credited with 12 quarterback hits, limited the Commanders to one successful third-down conversion in 15 tries, and allowed just two plays longer than 18 yards. The defense might have accounted for the Giants' first shutout in 14 years if a muffed punt had not given the Commanders a short 21-yard journey to their only touchdown.

"I think they're improving," coach Brian Daboll said about his defense. "They're improving their chemistry. They've done a good job with their fundamentals. I think (defensive coordinator) Wink (Martindale) has done a good job with them. Try to eliminate as many big plays as we can. I know they hit a couple to (Commanders wide receiver Terry) McLaurin yesterday, but they're playing well.

"I thought our front did a good job. That's where it starts. (Defensive lineman) Dexter (Lawrence II), I'd say, had a very, very good game, along with (defensive lineman) Leo(nard Williams). Guys like (defensive lineman) A'Shawn (Robinson) and Nacho (defensive lineman Rakeem Nuñez-Roches) that moved in, they did a good job. That's where it starts, chemistry, playing together, I think all those things are in play with that. But again, one week has nothing to do with the next. We're going to have to go out there and do a good job of getting ready to play this week."

On Sunday, they will face a Jets offense that has allowed 20 sacks in six games. Howell had been sacked a league-high 34 times entering yesterday's game, so the members of the Giants' defensive front thought it could be their day – and it was. Lawrence picked up his first two sacks of the season (one full and two half-sacks), Kayvon Thibodeaux contributed 1.5 sacks, Leonard Williams got his first full sack (and blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter), safety Jason Pinnock got his first sack of the season and linebacker Micah McFadden shared one with Lawrence.

"I feel like leading up to the game, just from what we've seen on film, teams getting after them on defense against their offense in terms of sacks and pressures and things like that, I think as a whole front we saw that as an opportunity to step up those sack numbers or get to the quarterback," Williams said. "I think we did a good job of that. I think the coaches did a good job of putting everybody in position for that and we made it happen as players."

Lawrence was credited with four quarterback hits and Williams, Thibodeaux and McFadden had two apiece.

"I think that's the defense we're turning into," Thibodeaux said. "Being able to start off hot, start off fast and carry that momentum. Last year was about bringing them to the deep end and this year it's about hitting them in their mouth first.

"I think we were just able to take advantage of some of the things we saw on film and dudes executed. Dex played like an All-Pro and give it to your coverage - coverage was locked down, which made us able to get there."

"I think when the opportunity comes, you've just got to capitalize on it," Lawrence said. "You get opportunities. We're not going to ever play a perfect game. When big plays like that happen, you've got to make it and we did a good job making those plays."

None of their next seven opponents is ranked higher than 16th in offensive yards-per-game, and only one – Dallas – is ranked higher than 17th in points-per-game. That could give the defensive players a chance to build momentum off their accomplishments yesterday, particularly pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

"I think going forward that gives the defense confidence in those areas," Williams said. "Whenever you thrive in a certain area in any game, it kind of shows the team that you can do it, so you want to keep doing it more and I think it's definitely given our front and rush some juice going forward."

The question remains, what took so long? Why did the defense record only five sacks in the first six games, including three games in which they had zero? Why was tackling an issue, and why were there so many big plays allowed?

"I think there are quite a few factors," Williams said. "We have a young team, there are some rookies that are starting on the team that have to get adjusted to the speed of the game, like where their teammates are going to be on certain plays, all these adjustments. It's players from different systems, whether they are older or younger, they are coming into a new system and have to develop new ways of playing with each other. There are different ways people play with their front and backers, how they fit off of each other, and things like that.

"Throughout the beginning of the season when we knew we were struggling in those areas, we tried to harness in and correct those areas of the defense. I think we have such a good brotherhood on the defense that we really take pride in doing our job for the man next to us and when it's something that we focus on and harp on, I think everybody takes pride in fixing it."

View photos from the Giants' Week 7 matchup against the Washington Commanders.

*Daboll said he did not have an update on the injured players who were inactive yesterday, notably quarterback Daniel Jones. He said left tackle Andrew Thomas, who has missed six games with a hamstring injury, "was better than the week before." Asked if he's encouraged Thomas might return to practice on a limited basis, Daboll said, "I'd say it's early in the week. Wednesday, I'll probably have a better answer for you."

*The Giants deployed rookie running back Eric Gray and veteran receivers Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton as punt returners yesterday. Gray and Shepard each muffed a punt, and Gray suffered a calf injury. So, what will happen at that position against the Jets?

"I'd say we're going to look at it here," Daboll said. Asked if the Giants need to bring in a player from the outside, Daboll said, "We'll have workouts this week like we always do."

*The Giants signed wide receiver/return specialist Gunner Olszewski to their practice squad.

Olszewski was released Saturday by the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom he played two games this season. He had one reception vs. Cleveland on Sept. 18.

A six-foot, 190-pounder, Olszewski has played in 55 regular-season games with four starts for New England (2019-21) and Pittsburgh (2021-22). He also played in one postseason game for the Patriots.

Perhaps most notably, Olszewski has averaged 12.0 yards on 75 career punt returns, including a 70-yard touchdown in Los Angeles vs. the Chargers in 2020. He also has a 22.0-yard average on 41 kickoff returns. Olszewski has 15 receptions for 180 yards and one touchdown, plus 7 rushing yards on 14 carries.

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