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The Giants Defense Might Be the NFL’s Most Improved Unit

And that might be enough for an NFC East title

The Saints’ Brandin Cooks and the Giants’ Eli Apple (Getty Images)
The Saints’ Brandin Cooks and the Giants’ Eli Apple (Getty Images)

When the Giants pulled out a 20–19 victory over the Cowboys in Week 1, it was tempting to write off the performance as a fluke. After the G-Men held Drew Brees and the high-octane Saints to 13 points in their Week 2 victory, however, it’s time to concede that two straight strong outings points to a pattern: New York is 2–0 for the first time since 2009, and more impressively, the Giants defense might be the most improved unit in football.

Last season, the Giants couldn’t close out games to save their lives: They lost five times after holding a lead with less than two minutes remaining. Already this season, though, they’ve finished consecutive grudge matches. They held New Orleans to just 288 total yards this week, a game after Brees and Co. posted 507 yards against the Raiders. They also sacked Brees twice, hit him six times, knocked down seven of his passes, and held the Saints’ rushing attack to just 41 yards on 13 attempts.

They’ve done so because they appear to finally have something they’ve been searching for the past three seasons: balance in the form of a defense that can do as much to help the team win as the typically potent offense.

Spending big money in free agency is a notoriously risky venture, so when the Giants splurged this offseason to the tune of $200 million, visions of the Eagles’ ill-fated “Dream Team” from 2011 came to mind. Philly’s free-agent haul that offseason — which included pass rusher Jason Babin, corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, and quarterback Vince Young — ultimately flamed out, and so did the Eagles, who finished that campaign 8–8.

But New York’s summer spending spree, which was largely focused on fixing a defense that gave up a league-worst 420 yards of offense per game last year, is paying dividends early this season. Nose tackle Damon Harrison has helped shore up the leaky run defense; defensive end Olivier Vernon (in conjunction with the now-healthy Jason Pierre-Paul) has provided some heat off the edge; and defensive backs Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall have been difference-makers in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo didn’t make any major schematic changes this offseason, but his players are clearly more comfortable in the second year in his system, he’s benefited from the return of key cogs like JPP, Johnathan Hankins, and Nat Berhe, and first-round pick Eli Apple has already emerged as a playmaker. Improved depth, health, and talent on the defensive side has meant that Spagnuolo finally has the pieces in place to execute his defense efficiently.

The clearest way to identify the Giants’ defensive improvements is to compare Sunday’s game to the teams’ meeting last year. The Saints and Giants combined for more than 1,000 yards of offense and 101 points in 2015, and both still possess top-tier passing attacks, yet the rematch was anything but a barnburner. The Giants got a special teams score in the second quarter when Jenkins scooped up a blocked Wil Lutz field goal and ran it back to pay dirt, but Eli Manning and the offense struggled for much of the afternoon, coughing up the ball three times and failing to find the end zone all day.

Last year, that kind of poor day for the offense would have doomed the Giants. This time, though, the defense was ready to pick up the slack. New York’s stout run defense made the Saints one-dimensional on offense, and instead of repeatedly banging their head against a concrete wall, the Saints decided to all but abandon the run game in the second half, when it picked up just 6 yards on three attempts in the third and fourth quarters. Thanks to upgrades to the pass rush and defensive secondary, New York was ready to fend off a heavy shift to Brees and the passing attack: The Giants pressured Brees consistently throughout the game, with Vernon and Pierre-Paul providing some heat off the edge, and when New York couldn’t get home with its front four, Spagnuolo got creative with his pressure packages, sending Hall and safety Landon Collins on separate blitzes, where they were able to sneak through the line to sack Brees.

When Brees managed to beat pressure and throw the ball, the secondary stayed disciplined. Jenkins, who played well last week as he shadowed Dez Bryant, made an impact all over the field in Week 2, deflecting two passes and racking up eight tackles. Meanwhile, Apple notched seven tackles and a pass deflection of his own.

Brees threw seven touchdowns in the Saints’ 52–49 win over the Giants last season, but finished with 263 passing yards on 44 attempts (just 5.9 yards per attempt) and just one touchdown pass this time around. That touchdown, which came early in the fourth quarter, was just the second one the Giants have given up this season: They allowed an 8-yard scoring run to Ezekiel Elliott last week, but that was as much on the offense as the defense, as Dallas had regained possession when Manning threw a pick deep in Giants territory. New York largely shut down Elliott and the Cowboys’ elite rush attack in that game, holding Dallas to just 3.4 yards per carry. And while no one’s going to write home about shutting down a rookie running back, even one as hyped as Elliott, limiting Brees — who’s delivered an NFL record 97 300-yard passing games and has been held to fewer than 300 yards and 6 yards per attempt just four times in the past three years — is damn near impossible.

The Giants offense, which finished sixth in scoring last year with 26.2 points per game, should bounce back from its own uninspiring showing, and the team also boasts a stout special teams group that ranked second in DVOA last season. Now, the team appears to have built a solid foundation on defense as well. That newfound balance puts New York in pole position in the NFC East: Philadelphia has a strong defense but must temper offensive expectations with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz leading the way; Dallas has looked solid offensively without Tony Romo, but is relying on rookies in QB Dak Prescott and Elliott; and Washington is a mess, having lost its first two games, both at home, sparking early “grumbling” from teammates over Kirk Cousins’s erratic play. In a perpetually crazy division, the Giants appear to be the most stable, and that’s largely thanks to a defensive unit that was supposed to be anything but.