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Thursday, January 5, 2012
Giants' DBs have learned to forget

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The anecdotal evidence that NFL defensive backs have to have a short memory has always been available just by talking to some of them. Giants cornerback Corey Webster energetically shadows opponents' top receivers week after week as though he's never read their Pro Bowl stats. Veteran safety Deon Grant, one of the team's sharpest leaders, often reads plays before the snap. And what fellow Giants safety Antrel Rolle doesn't figure out ahead of time, Rolle makes up for with attitude. As Rolle tells reporters all the time, "I'm a cocky, stubborn [so-and-so]."

But not long ago, the Washington Post published an interesting story that offered up some actual scientific evidence, too, that may help explain some things. Like how a Giants secondary that was so often burned through the first 13 weeks of the season suddenly began playing better the past three weeks -- or just in time to help save the Giants' season and give them a fighting chance against Matt Ryan and the terrific receivers the Atlanta Falcons will bring to town on Sunday.

The Post article cited a 2009 study of 762 players from three NFL draft classes that took the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test and found no correlation between intelligence as measured by the test and NFL performance -- except for tight ends and defensive backs, whose achievements actually increased with lower scores.

Well, hello. Haven't defensive backs been saying that forever? Don't think, man. Just react. And if you get beat? Forget about it. The less you think sometimes, the better you play.

"Well," laughs Giants backup quarterback David Carr, "it is funny. We look at that stuff as quarterbacks here, too."

Wait -- you look at Wonderlic scores?

"Yeah, yeah," Carr says. "This is really the only place I've played where we've gotten them. We get a little scouting report each week and" -- here Carr laughs a little sheepishly -- "it's always fun to find the lowest score of the players on the other team. It's usually a DB or a defensive lineman. Hardly ever a linebacker."

Leave it to a Tom Coughlin-coached team, where the clocks are all set five minutes fast and no detail is overlooked, to give its quarterbacks the Wonderlic scores of the defensive players they're facing each week. Presumably just in case, you know, once out on the field, there's an opposing DB to be exploited because his brain doesn't run a 4.3-second 40 like his legs can.

Giants/Saints
For the Giants' secondary, the key is learning to put bad plays behind them.

Does anything ever get said?

"Oh yeah, absolutely," Carr answered. "If it's a bigger guy, you probably won't say anything. But if it's a DB or something, maybe you give him a hard time: 'So ... How was that when you got a 7? ... How did that play happen?'"

Wonderlic scores range from 0 to 50, with 50 being a perfect score.

As the study suggests -- and what everyone from Rolle to Grant to Carr agrees on, without even hearing about it -- is you have to be a thinking man to play NFL defensive back, all right. But it helps to have a selective memory that throws out the bad and holds onto the good, like the Giants have.

Rolle, for example, has personally been a part of the Giants' secondary's resurgence as much as any of their defensive backs. On Monday, he said the reason was a more-is-less talk from Grant -- who is so wise Rolle often jokes with him, "You must be reincarnated." Grant convinced Rolle to quit worrying so much about the entire defense and just do his own job better.

Grant also spends a lot of time bolstering the confidence of rookie defensive back Prince Amukamara, the Giants' first-round draft pick. Amukamara was torched so often over one late-season stretch he's been conspicuously absent from the Giants' nickel defense the past few weeks -- a tacit admission by the coaching staff that the kid wasn't ready to be thrown into the fire after missing most of training camp and a good chunk of the regular season with a broken foot.

But the Giants survived it. And they've gotten better just in time for Atlanta. The Giants have given up only four plays of more than 20 yards in the past three games; four was their average in the first 13 games of the season.

The Giants' defensive back rotation has been whittled down now to a solid rotation of Webster and Aaron Ross at cornerback, plus Rolle, Grant and Kenny Phillips at safety. All of them are veterans. All of them would agree the 11 sacks the Giants' defensive line have thrown out in the past two games has helped their coverage.

But Carr says the secondary deserves credit, too.

"I think DBs, in general, have a short-term memory -- they have to, especially the older ones -- but our guys are almost … inspirational, you know?" Carr says. "It's inspirational sometimes watching those guys on the sidelines. Because they think they can't be beat. You're like, 'But you just gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass and you're smiling and ready to go again?' But they're not shy about it. Antrel, all those guys, they've just got a real good feel for what you're doing.

"They're still good athletes," Carr stresses. "It's not like they're out there running 5-flat 40s. They're still moving pretty good and they break on the ball. But I think when you get into a situation like they're at -- where their physical ability meets their experience -- at the peak, it's a pretty dangerous combination. A lot of times they're more dangerous than a talented young guy that's eight, 10 years younger, just because their knowledge of your pass routes and concepts and where you're gonna go in certain situations is just a lot more dangerous than a guy who's just a really good athlete."

And if something goes wrong? If all of that knowledge and talent still betrays them?

Forget about it. The Giants' Phillips says he and the other defensive backs flushed the first 13 weeks of the season, even that brutal gauntlet when, in successive weeks, they were drubbed by Green Bay's MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers, shredded by New Orleans and Drew Brees, then guilty of numerous breakdowns in a 37-34 win in Dallas that Eli Manning saved with late-game heroics.

Phillips says the way he sees it, what can Atlanta's "explosive offense" try to do to the Giants' secondary that other explosive offenses haven't tried?

"We've been there, seen that this year," Phillips said with a shrug Thursday.

Seen what exactly?

Rolle, ever the confident so-and-so, answered: "I don't want to go into details."

Of course not. He's a defensive back.

Been there, forgot that.