EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In his four seasons with the Giants, Julian Love has been the team's most versatile defensive player. He has lined up at safety, cornerback and even linebacker and performed at a high level at every one of them.
Love will add another duty tomorrow, when the 6-2 Giants host the 1-6-1 Houston Texans: play-caller.
Of course, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale calls the pressures and coverages deployed on each play. But with Xavier McKinney sidelined for at least four games after fracturing fingers on his left hand in an off-road accident in Cabo San Lucas last week, Love's helmet has been affixed with a green dot, signaling he will relay Martindale's calls to the players on the field.
"He's perfect for the job, because of who he is and how he plays," Martindale said. "He's even keeled. Nothing's too big for him. He's played all over the place. He's played dime. He's played mike. He's playing safety right now. When Dane (Belton) was out, we played him down there in the box. He knows the package inside and out. Don't expect to miss a beat with him wearing the green dot."
Nor does Love, who has experience calling the defensive plays in practice.
"I've had the mic since OTAs," he said. "He (McKinney) has it on game day. I feel comfortable relaying the plays. it's just communicating. It should be fun."
And after the snap?
"From a role perspective, it doesn't change too much," Love said. "We have some guys stepping up to fill in for his role and I'll continue to do what I've been doing."
Love's skill, versatility and attitude exemplify what the Giants want in everyone who wears their uniform.
"It's really valuable to have a smart, tough, dependable football player – which Dabs (head coach Brian Daboll) has talked about since day one," Martindale said. "I have nothing but confidence in him that he's going to be successful because he's had a great week in practice."
Rookie Dane Belton is expected to be McKinney's primary replacement.
"He's been doing a great job of learning and growing up to this point in the season," Love said. "This will be an exciting time for him to show what he's about in a bigger capacity."
The same could be said about Love, a seemingly strange statement to make about a player who has participated in 100% of the defensive snaps in seven of the first eight games. He suffered a concussion against Chicago on Oct. 2 and was limited to 19 plays.
Love and McKinney gave the Giants playmaking, reliability, and leadership in the back of the defense. Both players are team captains. They are first and fourth on the team in tackles with 54 and 37, respectively. Each has one sack. The two safeties teamed up to create one of the Giants' most important takeaways of the season in Jacksonville, where McKinney forced a Travis Etienne fumble at the Giants' five-yard line that was recovered by Love in the end zone. Love has the team's only interception, a huge fourth-quarter pick of a Lamar Jackson pass against Baltimore on Oct. 16 that set up Saquon Barkley's game-winning touchdown.
"We had a good system," Love said his partnership with McKinney. "He's communicating the plays and I'm communicating everything else for the defense. Now it's on other guys to raise their level of communication and get that line flowing, because it's smooth with Xavier and me; we're on a very personal level with the way we can communicate openly. It's going to take some other guys to step up, but I feel comfortable in my role."
But Love concedes it will be different for the entire defense without his running mate on the back line.
"He's a rising star in this league," Love said. It's tough to replace. He's a guy who's been holding down the deep part of the field for us. I think the emphasis has to be on guys just to not let it feel like there's such a big hole. That's going to take, honestly, a community of guys right now to step up and fill the roles that he's been able to play this season and past year."
This is a challenging week for the Giants not to have McKinney. Although Houston's offense is ranked 26th in the NFL overall and 29th in passing yards per game (188.6), the Texans are expected to have their best wide receivers, Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins, available tomorrow. Both were inactive when Houston lost to NFC East frontrunner Philadelphia last week. They have combined for 50 catches and 659 yards, though just one touchdown.
Cooks (wrist) and Collins (groin) are both listed as questionable.
"My assumption is they will play, regardless of what may come on (injury) reports," cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. "You saw two weeks ago, they said with (Seattle wide receivers Tyler) Lockett and (DK) Metcalf weren't going to play, and they did. We're preparing like Collins and Cooks are playing. If they don't, then you just play off that."
Jackson has faced Cooks in the past, including twice two years ago in his final season with the Tennessee Titans.
"Those guys are game changing type of players," Jackson said. "I rate him a dominate receiver – a guy that gets a thousand yards pretty much every year (six times in his first eight seasons). The two times he didn't, he was injured. He's very effective, very productive. A guy that catches the ball short, deep, and intermediate. And he's dangerous with the ball in his hands."
Jackson, Love and the rest of the Giants' secondary will try to keep him from catching it.
View photos from the first half of the season as the Giants entered the bye at 6-2, their best start since 2012.