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5 things we learned (9/22): Julian Love, Dane Belton rise to the occasion


The Giants have jumped out to their best start since 2016 and will try to keep the momentum going against the Cowboys on Monday Night Football.

Preparation for Dallas continued on Thursday, as offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey met with the media before practice. Due to the weather, the team practiced inside the fieldhouse.

Here are five things we learned on Thursday:

1. Love, Belton rise to the occasion

Martindale has talked about his unit playing "position-less" football since the start of training camp. This should not come as a surprise as both Coach Daboll and GM Joe Schoen have talked about wanting players that can play multiple positions since they arrived with the Giants. No player exemplifies this motto more than Julian Love.

While listed on the roster as a safety, Love has lined up all over the field for the Giants' defense this season. The fourth-year pro has lined up at free safety, in the slot, at corner, in the box and on the defensive line. He led the team with eight solo tackles in Week 2, had two tackles for loss and picked up what turned out to be the game-clinching sack of Baker Mayfield. Martindale praised Love's versatility on Thursday.

"You've heard me say this many times before: It's a position-less defense," said the defensive coordinator. "So, just because a guy, let's use Julian again, has safety next to his name in the program, he can play anywhere on the field. Why can he do that? Because (of) the way we teach the system; he's a smart player. And wherever we need him and wherever I think his skillset would fit us best is where we play him that week. And you've already seen two different defenses, and it's a credit to the players because they're studying their tails off not only with what we do but what they do. And it's a long process. We got to reap the rewards on Sunday because we gave Carolina a different look than what they've seen."

Another young safety who made an impact in last week's game is Dane Belton. The rookie safety made his NFL debut against the Panthers after missing time with a clavicle injury, and immediately made a big play, recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff. Belton ended up playing 46 snaps on defense in addition to 12 special teams snaps.

"I think that Dane's a really good football player and is going to continue to get better," said Martindale. "For a rookie in the first play, you're in in the National Football League and recover a fumble going down on a kickoff, that's pretty cool. So, if things go up from there, he's going to have a heck of a career – which I think it will. He does have some versatility to him. It's harder earlier with rookies, because until you get them rolling, like the first five weeks after they're used to (it and) they get in the rhythm of the league itself. You can just imagine being at a young age like that and going out there, and (it's) your first time doing what you dreamed of all your life. So, I always take that into account."

"That's a new one for me. You step on the field and the first play you get a fumble recovery," McGaughey added. "That's new for me, so I'm happy for Dane. He's a hard-working kid, he's smart, he has a lot of good football in front of him."

The Giants will wear their all-white Color Rush uniforms on Monday Night Football against the Cowboys.

2. Wink expects stadium 'to be rocking' Monday

Wink Martindale called for Giants fans to bring the noise in the home opener against the Panthers last week. The Big Blue faithful obliged, as the defense was provided a big boost on every third down with the crowd as loud as they were. The fans' effort played a role in the Giants' defense holding Carolina to only two third-down conversions on 12 attempts, something even Panthers head coach Matt Rhule acknowledged as being a factor.

With the home opener now in the rearview mirror, the attention turns towards this week's divisional matchup. The Giants will be in primetime for the first time this season as they attempt to snap their 10-game evening losing streak. The team will be wearing the white color rush uniforms, and are asking fans to join them in wearing all white to create a "white out" in the stands for the NFC East showdown.

"When I say they make a difference, they make a difference," Martindale said about the fans. "It was already quoted from Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers Head Coach) about how they had a hard time communicating, and I think the biggest thing is the challenge I give the fans this week is I told the players from Week 1 to Week 2 is the biggest jump in the NFL of your performance. So, we expect it to be rocking. I heard it's a white out, so I'll wear my white sleeves I guess. And it should be like an avalanche once they get in that stadium. But it was a great environment, and it's going to do nothing but get better because the fans definitely held up their end of the bargain. And it helps us immensely on defense when they have to go to their silent count and everything else. That should be the goal every time."

3. Gano comes through whenever needed

Graham Gano has been one of the most consistent players on the team since signing with the Giants prior to the 2020 season. Gano drilled all four of his field goal attempts in Week 2. He made two from 50+ yards, the first to tie the game in the fourth quarter and the second to give the Giants the lead late in the game, extending his franchise record to 14 field goals from 50+ yards.

"Anytime we ask him to come through he does. I've been on the other side of it before, but it's more often than not he's come through for us..." McGaughey told the media. "The two years I had him in Carolina, I think the second year is when it just clicked for him. I think that's when he figured it out. In the '15 year, he made a lot of game winning kicks during their Super Bowl stretch. Then the next year he was starting to figure it out and then right at the end of the year we played Tampa, and it was a windy stadium, he kind of struggled a little bit that day. But that next year is when he went to the Pro Bowl. He's taken off since then."

Gano's effort led to him being named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. His game-winning kick from 56 yards matched the second-longest field goal in franchise history, and according to McGaughey, the veteran kicker's maximum range is likely around 64-65 yards out. His career long is 63 yards, which coincidentally came against the Giants in the 2018 season.

4. Defense preparing for Dallas' offensive playmakers

The Cowboys enter this matchup with a talented group of offensive playmakers. Despite being off to a slow start this year, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb caught 79 passes for over 1,100 yards last season. Amari Cooper is now with the Browns, but it appears as if Dallas will be getting wide receiver Michael Gallup back for Monday's matchup. The Cowboys' leading receiver through two games is Noah Brown, who caught five passes for 91 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals last week.

Despite gaining just 178 yards on the ground this season, the rushing attack of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard cannot be overlooked. Elliott is averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 25 attempts, while Pollard had a 4.8 avg. in last week's win over Cincinnati. Both backs have shown the ability to break out a huge run throughout their careers, and Martindale knows just how talented the duo truly is.

"First of all it's very difficult for the defense when you have two running backs of their caliber – especially when they're out there on the field at the same time," Martindale said Thursday. "But either one of them could be Pro Bowl running backs. They basically have very similar skillset. I've always said going against Zeke that once he gets his shoulders squared and he starts heading downfield, he's a problem. You better be ready to come tackling. So, it's going to be another one of those games where we got to tighten up our chinstraps and try to get 11 people the football."

Dak Prescott suffered a thumb injury in the season opener, which led to Cooper Rush starting under center in Week 2. Rush went 19 of 31 for 235 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, good for a passer rating of 95.5. The quarterback, who had a brief stint on the Giants practice squad in 2020, has impressed Martindale in his limited action.

"I see a guy that's a starting quarterback in this league," the defensive coordinator said about Rush. "Honestly, I do. And I made the comment just watching him and the decisions that he makes, I think he'll have a long career as a quarterback in this league, and then he'll be one of those cats that become an offensive coordinator and a head coach by the time he's 38 or 39. That's how it usually works."

5. Injury updates; Thibodeaux, Ojulari take the practice field

Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee) and Azeez Ojulari (calf) have missed the first two games of the season due to their respective injuries. There are still a few days to go before the Giants have to make an official decision on the status of their top two outside linebackers. But after Daboll told the media Wednesday that the pair of pass rushers would participate in team drills, the two were once again on the practice field as limited participants in Thursday's practice.

"I got really involved today, so I really was able to open it up and do some things…." Thibodeaux told the media on Wednesday. "Today (I) had a lot of progress. Was able to open it up and do a lot of things. So yeah, today I'm definitely confident."

In addition to Thibodeaux and Ojulari, the following players were limited in Thursday's practice – S Dane Belton (clavicle), C Jon Feliciano (shin), S Jason Pinnock (shoulder), and WR Kadarius Toney (hamstring).

For the second consecutive day, DL Leonard Williams (knee), CB Aaron Robinson (appendicitis) and WR Wan'Dale Robinson (knee) did not participate in practice. Additionally, cornerbacks Justin Layne (concussion) and Nick McCloud (hamstring) did not practice.

View rare photos from the historic rivalry between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.