Rookies look to step up in Giants defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants got mixed results from the two defensive rookies who made their NFL starting debuts last week, but they remain confident in both of them, as well as the unit that struggled in the season’s first two weeks.

Cornerback DeAndre Baker, a first-round choice who played behind Antonio Hamilton in the season opener, started at left corner last week vs. Buffalo and quarterback Josh Allen frequently threw to the receivers he was covering. But like many players on the defensive side of the ball, Baker improved in the second half of the Giants’ 28-14 loss.

“I think as the game went on, you saw him probably challenge people more,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “I think that’s what he does best. He has to just believe in what he does best and go do it. At the same time, position coaches in the room, myself as the coordinator, we have to challenge him to go do the things that he does best as well.”

The other first-time starter was fifth-round selection Ryan Connelly, who lined up at inside linebacker in place of opening day starter Tae Davis. He had six tackles (three solo).

“I thought Ryan did some really nice things in the game,” Bettcher said. “There are certainly things to clean up and keep growing and improving on. I’m encouraged with where he’s at, but more importantly, the direction he’s heading in.”

Bettcher insists he feels the same way about the entire defense, which after two weeks is tied for 30th in the NFL with 63 points allowed, is ranked 28th by allowing 441.0 yards a game, has surrendered nine touchdown drives of 70 or more yards, and has yet to force a turnover. But the unit did force the Bills to punt on four consecutive possessions last week (not including Allen taking a knee at the end of the half), a sign the unit is improving as the Giants prepare to visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

Keep an eye on these five players when the Giants travel to face the Bucs in Week 3.

“The takeaway from the game is I love how we played in the second half (when Buffalo scored only seven points),” Bettcher said. “I loved the energy, I loved the way we challenged. Coming out of the second quarter, the two-minute drive (when the Bills went three-and-out), I think that kind of carried a little bit into the locker room. That kind of got us going. We had a couple of good conversations in there and our players played better.”

Whether that continues will rest largely on the play of the young players that now comprise most of the defense. Aside from Baker and Connelly, the group includes lineman Dexter Lawrence (another first-round selection), B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson, Lorenzo Carter, Grant Haley, and Oshane Ximines, none of whom have been in the league more than three years.

“I think as a young player in this league, whether you’re a first, second, some third-year players as well, there’s certainly a confidence thing,” Bettcher said. “But it’s knowing when to do what. Third-and-three is different than third-and-eight. Cut split is different than a wide split. You have to be able to do that in the National Football League. You have to have some of that recognition. Some of that is just experience and some of it is confidence. Some of it is experience and using the techniques and tools that you have at your disposal to go be able to play on whatever those situational downs are.”

Baker certainly has the talent. As a senior at the University of Georgia, he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back and was selected first-team All-America. All cornerbacks give up completions, and Baker is not going to let his rough beginning affect his future play.

“I know what I am capable of,” said Baker. Asked if his confidence is lacking, he said, “not at all.”

Connelly also arrived with impressive credentials from a major football school, with 246 tackles, including 20 for loss, at Wisconsin. He went from 26 snaps in the opener in Dallas to 64 last week and had an immediate impact.

“There were some plays I made,” Connelly said. “But at the same time, I think there were a lot of rookie moments for me and stuff I need to clean up for sure. There was stuff I can learn from, both good and bad. So, I’m just going to try to focus on that going forward.”

Connelly impressed Alec Ogletree, the seven-year veteran who lines up next to him.

“I thought he played well,” Ogletree said. “He got in on a few tackles. I thought he communicated really well. He pretty much played fast for us. He needs to continue to do that, continue to grow and see how it goes. He’s really smart and he understands the game of football a lot. I try to share some of my knowledge that I’ve learned throughout the years with him when I see fit for it. He asks questions when he thinks he needs to ask something.

“I think he’s going to continue to grow. Hopefully each week, he can just take more and more steps in the right direction.”

Just as the entire defense hopes to.

“Things haven’t been going our way, there are a lot of areas we can improve on, so every day we are working on them,” Baker said. “We have our best football ahead of us. Once we get into it and get everything going we can play some good football.”

*Before coming to the Giants last year, Bettcher worked for six years in Arizona with Bruce Arians, who is now Tampa Bay’s first-year coach.

“It’s certainly not me versus him,” Bettcher said. “He’s someone I respect more than I can probably put into words. Personally, I’m very close with him and his wife Chris and their family (is close) with my family. I owe him a ton. I do. Again, I couldn’t put it into words. But this isn’t about him or me and all that stuff. It’s about us lining up, having our eyes right, playing with good fundamentals and techniques, communicating on downs and playing fast.”

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