EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning and New York Giants fans aren't the only ones concerned about the changes the team has undergone in the receiving corps and on the offensive line this offseason. The Giants' defensive players have been watching it all unfold, too, and they think they can help.
"We know our offense is kind of struggling right now with some of the departures," cornerback Terrell Thomas said last week. "But we're already saying, if we've got to be the Ravens of '01 when they won the Super Bowl and just have to shut teams out, that's what we're going to do."
That's pretty big talk from a defense as inconsistent as the Giants' D has been lately. As good as it looked at times last year, sacking Jay Cutler nine times in the first half in a home game against the Bears, for example, it could also play badly enough to give up 28 points in the fourth quarter to Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and the Eagles. The Giants' problem on defense the past couple of years has been an inability to consistently be as good as they keep telling us they are.
"Sometimes last year we were the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and other times we were just an average defense out there," Thomas said. "It was a lack of focus. You could call it a lack of leadership. I don't know what you want to call it, but plain and simple, we're too good of a group, collectively, to play to the level we did at times."
So they say. And so they keep saying. But 2010 was the second season in a row that the Giants' defense came up small in the second half and the team missed the playoffs. The week after the meltdown against the Eagles, they weren't even in their game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers. When the dust settled on that one, the Giants had allowed 73 points over two critical weeks and needed help (which they did not get) to make the playoffs.
So, what's different about 2011? Why should we believe the Giants when they tell us this won't happen again?
"I think the biggest thing is, we have Coach [Perry] Fewell back," Thomas said, referring to the second-year defensive coordinator. "The last three years, we had three different coordinators, and people don't take that into account. We're learning a new defense every year, and at the same time, the coaches are learning us and our ways. Coach Fewell does a great job of putting us in key positions to use our skill sets, and I think having a year underneath his belt, knowing exactly what each and every player can, do, will definitely help us on Sundays."
Kenny Phillips is another reason the Giants think they can be better on defense. An emerging star at safety in 2009, Phillips blew out his knee and lost that entire season. Last year, he played, but he said he wasn't as "explosive" as he'd been in the past. This year, he feels the way he did two years ago.
"Last year was kind of difficult, just being able to break on the ball -- to actually see it and then be able to get to it," Phillips said. "Last year a lot of times, I saw it, but I wasn't able to get to the ball. But this year, now, everything is just fluid. I just feel good about everything this year."
Drafting cornerback Prince Amukamara was supposed to help the secondary, but when Amukamara got hurt in his first practice, the team decided to bring back veteran safety Deon Grant, who was a key player for them last year as they feature some three-safety looks they could use again. With Thomas, Phillips, Grant, Antrel Rolle and Corey Webster, the Giants could have one of the best secondaries in the league.
The emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul on the defensive line also could be a factor in the Giants' hopes of improving as a defense. He gives them another edge rusher to add to the rotation with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, and allows them to move Mathias Kiwanuka to linebacker, where they were thin. They hope that Jonathan Goff can make strides in his second year as the starting middle linebacker, and that their young defensive tackles are ready for greater roles.
"There's tremendous potential here," Kiwanuka said. "We have a great core group of guys. Perry, you know he's going to call the right numbers at the right time. If we live up to our potential, we'll dominate."
If, if, if. That's what it's been for the Giants' defense over the past couple of years. This season, they're determined to get rid of the "if." They absolutely have to.
"You look at that Monday night game versus Dallas," Thomas said of a game the Giants won 41-35 after knocking Tony Romo out with a broken collarbone. "They took the early lead, and we came back and whipped their butts and shut them down, and then in that fourth quarter, we just kind of gave up. That's where you look and say 'more consistency.' When we gave up touchdowns, most of the time, big plays, they were all mental errors. All communication."
They're better than that, is the Giants' point. They've been saying it now for two years. And they may well be right. But it's time they proved it.