The Giants revamped D-Line has made a big impact on the team's run defense:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Steve Spagnuolo had an unusual response when someone pointed out this week how good the Giants' run defense has been.
"Don't tell me that," the Giants' defensive coordinator said.
It's not that Spags isn't pleased with his unit's recent play. He just doesn't want to jinx it.
All of the Giants' last six opponents have rushed for less than 100 yards, the first time that's happened since the final six games of the 2000 season. Not coincidentally, the Giants will carry a six-game winning streak into their game Sunday against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The recent success of the run defense illustrates how far the entire unit has come this season. In 2015, the Giants' defense was ranked 32nd in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed in the NFL. The current ranks are 16th in yards and tied for fifth in scoring defense.
Coaches often say that good defense begins with stopping the run. So does the Giants' defensive improvement.
Last year, the Giants were 24th in the NFL in both rushing yards allowed per game (121.4) and per carry (4.4). They gave up at least 100 rushing yards in 10 games, including 233 against Dallas and 218 at Minnesota. Four different individuals ran for at least 100 yards against the Giants, including Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
Through 11 games this year, they have leaped to fifth in rushing yards allowed a game (89.1) and fourth per attempt (3.5). Dallas, Minnesota and Green Bay are the only teams to cross the century mark (and the Cowboys and Vikings did it with 101 and 104 yards, respectively). No individual rushers have gained 100 yards against the Giants.
It's easy to pinpoint where the improvement originates – in the middle of the defensive line, where Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Johnathan Hankins have been immovable. Harrison was one of the Giants' most significant free agent acquisitions in the offseason. Hankins, a second-round draft choice in 2013, missed the final seven games of the 2015 season with a torn pectoral muscle (the Giants allowed at least 105 rushing yards in five of those games). The two tackles have been stalwarts, igniting a ripple effect that extends through the entire defense when opposing teams try to run.
"That's where it begins," Spagnuolo said. "Both of those guys have been terrific against the run game. They take a lot of pride in it. I think they take a lot of pride in keeping backs under or the team under 100 yards rushing. I know the group does. The ultimate goal is number of points on the board. It's all about points allowed. I've always said, you have to stop the run first with most teams. Some teams are a little bit different. I think our run defense begins with Hankins and Snacks right there. When they play well, we tend to have a little more success against the run."
Hankins said the credit should spread from the center out.
"The runs definitely starts with me and Snacks, but it also starts with me, Snacks and (ends) JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) and OV (Olivier Vernon)," Hankins said. "What a lot of people don't understand is that JPP is one of the best run-stopping defensive ends. OV is probably one of the toughest guys out there that's playing the spot right now. Both of them together are making it a lot easier for me and Snacks to do our job. The front seven is locking in and trusting one another. It's been good. We just have to continue to keep applying the pressure and playing the way we're playing."
Although they're both listed as defensive tackles, Harrison and Hankins have different responsibilities. We'll let Spagnuolo explain that part of the story.
"We used to play a right and a left tackle," Spagnuolo said. "We don't play it that way anymore. Snacks is always the nose tackle shade and Hank is always the three technique (lining up on a guard's outside shoulder)."
These five players could make a key impact in Sunday's matchup vs. the Steelers
Because of that, Harrison is constantly taking on two blockers at once. But that hasn't mitigated his effectiveness. He is third on the team with 63 tackles (42 solo).
"He has been huge in the run game in every game we have played," Spagnuolo said. "He has been such a key component to the way this thing has kind of gelled together and I am not talking about when he is out on the field, as much as when he is off the field, when he is on the sideline, when he is in the locker room. I watch him all the time. He has been the glue. He has been the guy that can get the guys to refocus. You need somebody in the group that will do that and he has been that guy."
"I used to like the double-teams, but now I'm just trying to run away from them," Harrison said. "Pass them on to Hankins, a young guy. If that'll help the team and make the team better because the linebackers can make more plays, then I'm all for it. I try to fight through the double-team and still make the play. I'm not just sitting on the double-team and holding it. I want to make plays. Double-team and single-team, I still think I have a chance to make a play."
Hankins and he have made a lot of them, and the Giants' run defense is becoming one of the NFL's best. Just don't tell Spagnuolo.
*Four Giants have been declared out of Sunday's game in Pittsburgh: guard Justin Pugh (knee), linebacker Mark Herzlich (concussion), safety Nat Berhe (concussion) and defensive end Owa Odighizuwa (knee).
Pugh, the starting left guard, will miss his fourth consecutive game. Berhe will miss his fifth game of the season. Herzlich and Odighizuwa will sit out for the first time this season.
For Pittsburgh, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) and running back DeAngelo Williams (knee) will not play.