EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** Desperate times call for … playing a 244-pound fullback at defensive tackle?
That's where Nikita Whitlock found himself in the fourth quarter of the Giants' 32-21 victory over the Washington Redskins Thursday night in MetLife Stadium. Whitlock's double-duty was one of several unusual and unexpected developments as their Giants won for the first time this season after two inexplicable defeats.
And while the Giants were loath to use the "D" word to describe their predicament, they well understood that starting a season 0-3 and finishing it in the playoffs would have been a longshot, and another defeat, even one that was relatively routine after their losing late leads to Dallas and Atlanta, would have significantly bruised their collective psyche. Simply put, the Giants needed this win.
"It was huge, it was huge," said linebacker Jon Beason, who returned to action after missing the first two games with a knee injury. "Anytime you win, you're never going to hang your head. That finish is still not there. It's something we can build on. I don't want to take away from a victory, but at the same time, we think we have a chance to be pretty great. You have to be hard on yourself and be your toughest critic."
"It wasn't easy," coach Tom Coughlin said. "Nobody said it was going to be."
The Giants did get contributions from some of their customary standouts, particularly in the passing game. Eli Manning completed his first eight passes, threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Rueben Randle (seven catches for 116 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (seven for 79) caught those scoring throws. Andre Williams scored the third touchdown, which was set up by a Prince Amukamara interception.
But it was the Giants' unexpected contributions that set this game apart. Running back Rashad Jennings blocked a punt, and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a safety and the game's first two points. Orleans Darkwa fell on the ball after Dwayne Harris muffed a punt. Shane Vereen secured an onside kick that caromed off one of his teammates after it appeared for an instant the Redskins would secure the ball and return it for a touchdown. Defensive end Kerry Wynn made his first career start and was credited with eight tackles (three solo), including a stop of Matt Jones on third-and-one early in the game that robbed Washington of a chance to gain some early momentum.
And then there was Whitlock, the first-year pro who started 45 games at defensive tackle at Wake Forest. The Cincinnati Bengals moved him to fullback after signing Whitlock as a free agent last year. Whitlock beat out Henry Hynoski for the Giants' fullback job, and demonstrated his versatility in the preseason finale at New England by also playing numerous snaps at D tackle. It seemed unlikely he would repeat that double duty in a regular-season game – until Thursday night.
"He's a multi-task, multi-talented guy who can rush the passer, plays fullback as you all know, is on all of the special teams," Coughlin said. "He's got great energy, this kid."
Last Tuesday, the Giants released wide receiver Preston Parker and re-signed defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis. But against Washington, Ellis never left the sideline, while Whitlock played on the defensive line.
"I just went out there and tried to play ball," Whitlock said. "I guess I'm going to have to start watching a little offensive tape, defensive tape, going both ways
"I love playing DT, it's my dream. That's kind of where I grew up, it's how I feel. It's like riding a bike, little rusty, I fell down a few times, got blocked up a few times. But I'm just going to eat a little bit more, gain a little weight, and try to knock this rust off in case they need me."
Whitlock said he reported to training camp at 255 pounds, dropped down to the 230s and now weights "probably 243 or 244.
"I'm just trying to get it back eating a lot. I think it will help me on both sides of the ball. Trying to show them I can do everything."
Jennings led the team in rushing, though his 32 yards on 11 carries isn't likely to earn him Player of the Week honors. But he made a huge play at the end of the game's first series, moments after he was penalized for running into the kicker (which was offset by a Washington penalty). Jennings lined up on the right side, rushed to the punter, and got his hands on Tress Way's kick. The ball left the end zone, and the Giants had a 2-0 lead.
"You hear that 'Boom-boom,' that little noise, you know that's going to change the game every time you hear that sound," Jennings said. "I never played special teams until I got to the league. My first blocked punt was my very first rush in Jacksonville. And I said, 'Yeah, I think I can do this.' Special teams is huge. It changes drastically yardages every time a special teams play happens. If you can make a play out there, it's huge for the team."
Jennings estimates he has gotten his hand on 10 punts in his seven-year career. He began playing special teams out of necessity as a rookie in Jacksonville, where starting running back Maurice Jones-Drew seldom left the field.
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"As a snot nosed rookie, I looked around the locker room and I said, 'I want to play in this league,'" Jennings said. "So I'm going to have to figure out something. I said, 'I'm going learn how to become a good special teams player blocking punts and how to protect the quarterback.' That was my goal coming in the league."
The Giants benefitted from his determination against Washington. They were also aided by the resurgence of Randle, who had four receptions for 28 yards in the first two games.
"Rueben, I felt for a couple weeks he's been coming on and appearing more and more like himself," Coughlin said. "I told him I thought he'd have a big game tonight, and obviously he did, so I am happy for Rueben. Let's hope he comes out of this thing and can give us more of the same."
"It's great as a player for your coach to have confidence in you," Randle said. "You've got to step up to the plate and make the best out of opportunities when they come, and that's what I tried to do tonight."
So did several of his teammates.