Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnulo gives insight on how the Giants' defense has improved:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Steve Spagnuolo doesn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but today he used a culinary analogy to describe the challenges he faced as the Giants' defensive coordinator in 2015.
"It was kind of like trying to bake a cake without the flour or butter," Spagnuolo said.
The Giants were missing numerous ingredients throughout the season. Three safeties – Nat Berhe, Mykkele Thompson, and Bennett Jackson – were placed on injured reserve before the season. Before the Giants played their final game, linebackers Jon Beason, Devon Kennard and J.T. Thomas; tackles Johnathan Hankins and Markus Kuhn; and end Owa Odighizuwa all joined them. Other players, including cornerbacks Prince Amukamara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Jonathan Casillas, missed at least one game. And the Giants discovered it's hard to accumulate the depth necessary to withstand so many key absences.
"Last year, we battled some injuries," Spagnuolo said. "The other thing, we didn't have a lot of the pieces for most of the year."
It showed in the statistics. The Giants were last in the league in total (420.3) and passing (298.9) yards allowed and on third down (when opponents converted 47% of their opportunities). They were 24th in run defense (121.4 yards a game) and 30th in points allowed (27.6 a game).
"The one stat that bothered me most last year was third down," Spagnuolo said. "It frustrated me. I felt like I didn't do a good job. Now, we're better there."
And everywhere else. Spagnuolo's defense is much-improved this season, thanks to the infusion of free agents Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Keenan Robinson, a full season with a healthy Jason Pierre-Paul, the ascendance of safety Landon Collins, the return of Hankins, and … knock on wood … generally good health. Because of all that, Spagnuolo can construct game plans with a "let's try this" attitude instead of last year's "we probably can't do that" mindset.
"I think that all of those guys are getting more confident because of the success that we've had," Spagnuolo said. "We've added some guys I think that are unique in that they're gamers. They love playing ball. Landon is another year in it, Hankins is another year, DK (Kennard) is another year. Then you have guys in here that are good players. You gel that together and it's come out pretty good.
"The other thing that's missed as coaches, a second year in a system; that makes a big difference. I've been doing this same system for 18 years. The only time I wasn't doing the same one was a couple of years in Baltimore. To me, it's the same. The volume of the defense can go wherever. For coaches and players, that's not the case. We have guys that are still on the staff that were here last year. I credit the coaches and the guys that are picking it up. They've done a hell of a job."
The proof is in the numbers. The Giants – 6-3 as they prepare to host the Chicago Bears on Sunday – have halved their defensive ranking, to 16th in the league. They are allowing 359.3 yards a game, a 61-yard decline from last year. The Giants' defense is seventh vs. the run (92.1 yards a game), 22nd vs. the pass (267.2), 15th on third down (38.9 percent as opponents have converted 56 of 114 opportunities) and an impressive 11th in points allowed (20.4 per game, or a touchdown less than last year).
"The (statistic) that's really important is points allowed," Spagnuolo said. "That's what it comes back to. All of that comes back to how many points did you allow. You throw out all these nice stats, but if you're giving up points, it's no good."
But more than just the numbers have improved. The Giants take the field with a better attitude than they had a year ago.
"We're definitely more confident," said Collins, who leads the team in tackles (74), interceptions (four) and sacks (3.0, tied with Olivier Vernon). "We're way confident just from the D-line that we have in front of us. We don't really have to worry about the run or controlling the run. We just have to be there if they gash us. It's a real weight lifted off of our shoulders. It's an excellent feeling. When you go into the game plan, you're just trying things out. It feels great."
With Vernon, JPP, Hankins and Harrison, plus reserves Jay Bromley, Robert Thomas, Kerry Wynn, Romeo Okwara and Odighizuwa, the Giants can mix and match their defensive linemen.
"It's a fantastic feeling just being able to move guys around," Pierre-Paul said. "Put guys in different positions that they haven't played before and still execute, because everyone knows the defense.
"It is a one game winning streak basically. You win one game and it is on to the next one, and that is what every guy out here is doing. We have that mentality and on defense we are just hunting. It is all 11 men to the ball, it could be one person on the other side. If they have a blue jersey or a white jersey, they will be running to the ball and that is what you will see on film."
And Spagnuolo is taking advantage of the talent and flexibility at his disposal.
"I always go into a game confident," Spagnuolo said. "I believe in the players that we coach. We get a game plan together and we go play. I think we have room for improvement. There is always room for improvement. I just think guys are getting it. We are all getting it.
"I never felt going into a game last year that we weren't going to be successful. Sometimes, it didn't work out that way. But I didn't think that way. Probably, the pride in me says that no matter who we have, we as coaches can figure out a way to defend what we're going against. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. But we have to think that way. This year is just a continuation and another year. I'm just glad it's piecing together like it is."
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