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When the New York Giants and New York Jets step onto the new Meadowlands stadium field for the first time Monday night, one defense will practically strut, overflowing with swagger and confidence.
Rex Ryan's Jets were the NFL's top-rated defense and easily the cockiest last season. They're fresh off an AFC title game appearance and are the new stars of HBO's "Hard Knocks."
The Giants don't have a show of their own, and they are coming off an 8-8 debacle that saw them miss the playoffs while their injury-ravaged defense was shredded to pieces.
On Monday night, New York's other team is eager to prove that another defense in the city is worth talking about. The Giants believe that some of that Super Bowl XLII magic is left in their defense and that they can return to that dominant form.
"We look at our performance from last year, and we realize that's not where we were and that's not the defense that we are," Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "So we're ready to go out there and play and perform for ourselves and then our opponent. Yeah, we definitely want to dominate them, but it's not because they're the New York Jets and it's not because they're the other team in New York. It's because we know what we can bring to the table, and we just have to go out there and show it."
The Giants also believe that they are healthy again. Defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are feeling better than they did last season, and defensive tackles Barry Cofield, Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard are all healthy after battling injuries last season. Safety Kenny Phillips is making his way back from microfracture surgery, which ended his 2009 season after Week 2, and cornerback Aaron Ross is injury-free again.Giants general manager Jerry Reese also signed free-agent veterans in safety Antrel Rolle, safety Deon Grant and middle linebacker Keith Bulluck to provide leadership and depth.
To make it all work, Reese also hired enthusiastic and tireless defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, whose energy and personality have been front and center throughout training camp. He demands that his defense hustles, focuses on forcing turnovers and plays fast. He has experimented by using his players in different roles and alignments such as the NASCAR formation, which uses four defensive ends up front for maximum pass-rushing ability.
And then there is the Big Base, which uses Kiwanuka at linebacker and Canty at defensive end in a formation built to defend the run. Canty, who's 6-foot-7, has had an impressive camp thus far. With so many defensive ends to use, the Giants' pass rush could once again be a headache for opposing offenses.
But just as important as being healthy is the team's state of mind. The defense's confidence is growing. Although its swagger was torn down last season, the Giants are rebuilding it with each practice. Defenders howl with delight each time a pass-rusher gets to the quarterback or whenever there is a turnover in practice.
Then there are the new additions such as Rolle, whose confidence has been contagious. After he ended one practice in camp with an interception, Rolle danced in the end zone as defensive teammates celebrated with him.
"If I had a bar graph of where we are as far as 1 to 10, the swagger is at 10," safeties coach Dave Merritt said. "But as far as playing together and everybody having something negative happen during the game, that is what we need to find out, because that is where the leadership has to take over.
"Teams are going to score; they are going to move the ball. Can we stop them from sustaining a drive?"
Last season, the Giants couldn't take a punch. Too many times, the defense would take a hit and fail to recover. It surrendered 40 or more points five times last season, including in three of the last four games. So the Giants have had to rebuild their confidence and their health as much as anything else during the offseason.
"At this point last year we had the aggression and we had the swag," Kiwanuka said. "We just didn't perform, so that took away from the confidence. So as the season went on, we kind of lost a little bit of that swag."
Now the defense with all the swagger belongs to the Jets. The Giants know they won't be the marquee defense on the field Monday night. But they would like to believe they are not far off.
"We're completely OK with being overlooked right now," Kiwanuka said. "I think the last time that we were overlooked, we came out with a ring. So all of the attention that goes on and all of the media stuff that goes on in the beginning of the season, we've been in that situation before, and things didn't work for us. So the only thing that we're focused on is making sure that we have all of that attention at the end of the year."
Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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