EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Patrick Graham arrived Thursday for his weekly session with reporters covering the Giants wearing a green knit hat adorned with a large D. A former defensive lineman at Yale, Graham had lost a friendly wager with practice squad linebacker Niko Lalos, who played at Dartmouth and was enjoying the Big Green's 24-17 overtime victory last week against the Bulldogs.
The hat was an odd accessory to the coach's Giants gear, and everyone enjoyed a few laughs as Graham endured the indignity of wearing enemy colors.
But the lightheartedness belied the anger and determination Graham brought to the podium. Graham is the Giants' defensive coordinator and he is sharply dissatisfied with his unit's recent performances. Normally reluctant to provide even a hint of criticism, Graham presented a different outlook when he discussed the Giants' 44-20 loss last week in Dallas, a game in which the Cowboys gained 515 yards, including 201 on the ground. Dallas was the first Giants opponent since the Baltimore Ravens nine years ago to gain more than 200 yards running and 300 passing. The previous week, the New Orleans Saints rushed for 170 yards in a Giants victory.
"In terms of the yardage given up and the loss of the game, it's unacceptable," a clearly perturbed Graham said. "Period. It's unacceptable. We get paid – myself included – we get paid to win games. … When you give up 500-plus yards in terms of offense, that's not usually winning football, so it's completely unacceptable. Completely unacceptable."
It gets no easier for Graham and his players. The Giants will host a 4-1 Los Angeles Rams team that is averaging an NFL-best 6.7 yards-per-play-yard and 9.0 net passing yards per play. Los Angeles has allowed a league-low four sacks. With quarterback Matthew Stafford, running backs Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel, wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, and DeSean Jackson, and tight end Tyler Higbee, the Rams have as many outstanding offensive skill players as any team. And coach Sean McVay has one of the NFL's creative offensive minds.
"What I have to do and what we have to do collectively as a group is we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and we've got to figure out what can we do better because, as you lead into this week," Graham said. "(The Rams have) one of the most explosive offenses in the league, they've got players all over the place, the coach is a genius, the quarterback is smart, they can throw the ball, run. It's everything. It's a challenge and I talk to you guys about having a challenge and stuff like that after performances like that and now you've got the Rams coming in here, I mean we're going to find out. We're going to find out. I mean, we're going to find out. … To answer your question, it's unacceptable. It's unacceptable."
"I agree," safety and defensive captain Logan Ryan said. "It just hasn't been good enough to our standard. The execution just hasn't been good enough. I think we know that as players as well, that's the same message. We've got to be better on defense."
View rare photos of the history between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams.
The proof is in the numbers. The defense ranks 29th in the league in yards allowed (408.6 a game), 27th in run defense (138.4) and 22nd against the pass. The Giants have allowed 27.8 points per game, placing them 26th.
Those figures represent a significant regression from the 2020 season when the defense was lauded weekly for its performance. The Giants finished ninth in the NFL by allowing 22.3 points a game). Their defense ranked 12th, allowing 349.3 yards per game. The Giants' rushing defense was 10th, allowing 111.4 yards a game, and the pass defense tied for 16th by giving up 237.9 yards game.
"I thought this was one of the best defenses I've played on last year," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. "I was really proud of the unit that I was a part of. I was proud of the players that were next to me. We hold ourselves to a high accountability and a high standard. I think we haven't been playing up to our standard lately. It's in a few phases. It's in the run game, especially because I'm not going to be able to pass rush unless we stop the run. Then, it's also a few situations, like the red zone and on third down where we have to get off the field when we really need it. That's when our defense needs a step up. Last year, I think we were really good at taking that accountability and putting the team on our back when it was time. This year we're just still finding a way to make it click."
The Giants still have standout defensive players like Williams and Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry. In the offseason, they added standout cornerback Adoree' Jackson, linebacker Azeez Ojulari, the team's second-round draft choice, and welcomed back edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, who missed most of last season with injuries. But they have just eight sacks, four less than they had through five games last season.
In addition, they are dealing with the loss of their leading tackler and another captain, middle linebacker Blake Martinez, who tore his ACL on Sept. 26 against Atlanta.
"Blake's is a significant injury, for sure," Ryan said.
But the Giants' D must find a way to improve without him. And after giving up 515 yards and 33 points last week (Dallas scored a late defensive touchdown), tomorrow would be a good time to start against the prolific Rams.
"We've got to improve," Ryan said. "Just too many mental errors, didn't execute our game plan. You play anybody like that, you're not going to beat anyone in the league. The league's too good, too much parity – and Dallas is a pretty good team. You don't play well against them (then) you're going to lose like that. It just shows you how you've got to be on your game every game.
Graham is confident his unit will step up and begin to play as it did last year when it was among the NFL's stingiest defenses.
"What I sense is a sense of urgency," he said. "I'm not saying it was lacking before. These guys work extremely hard. They do what we ask them to do. I think they're excited about the challenge. I couldn't help but get a little excited about it because it's one of the best offenses in the league, one of the best offensive minds in the league. Then, you've got (offensive coordinator) Kevin O'Connell, who's the coordinator along with McVay. It's a challenge. I know these guys.
"I think they knew we could do better. We had a talk, we knew we had to do better. … Regardless of what happened the last (game) – even if we won, was I really going to be happy if we won? Probably not. If we gave up whatever many yards and we won, I'd still be upset about that, but I think the guys were able to flip the switch and they understand that we've got a good team coming in here and we're going to have to fight. It's going to be fun. It's a challenge, I'm looking forward to it and they've got good players, they've got a good scheme. Sunday it'll be time to rock and roll."
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