With egos squashed, can Giants rebuild once-fearsome defense?

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—When the Giants’ defense collapsed, so did their 2009 season.

After starting 5-0, the Giants finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Their defensive demise was the most surprising part of their fall. Only the Lions and Rams surrendered more points than the Giants, who gave up at least 40 points on five different occasions last season.

"I was really shocked," defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. "We had a high expectation level, and this group is so talented. For us not to go out and perform the way we can was really strange. I couldn’t believe it."

If the Giants’ defense is a nightmare again this season, they can only dream of making the playoffs. Has enough been done for this unit to make a major improvement?

A look at five key questions the Giants’ defense must answer:

1. Will changing coordinators make a dramatic difference?

Chris Canty says the Giants players must put in the work if they want to have a better season than 2009.
Chris Canty says the Giants players must put in the work if they want to have a better season than 2009.

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was fired and replaced by Perry Fewell. Giants coach Tom Coughlin really had no choice but to make a switch. The players lost confidence in Sheridan, who also clashed with star defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

Changing coordinators can make a difference. We saw it last season, when Gregg Williams helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in his first season as defensive coordinator. However, Fewell must prove he can get more from the Giants’ personnel than Sheridan did. At least Fewell has a captive audience. After last year’s embarrassment, all egos have been put in check.

"I can only speak on my behalf, but there might have been a little complacency not doing the due diligence, the work that it takes to be successful in this league," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "One thing Bill Parcells told me a long time ago: ‘You’ve got to earn your victories in the NFL.’

"We only earned eight wins last year. That’s not good enough for his organization."

2. Will the pass rush be a force again?

The Giants’ sack total dropped for the second consecutive season, falling to 32, tied for 18th best in the NFL. That was a far cry from ’07, when the Giants led the league with 53 sacks and won the Super Bowl.

Defensive end Justin Tuck was hampered last year, playing with a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder and getting just six sacks. Tuck, 27, is a star in his prime who figures to be more of a force going forward.

The greater concerns are Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul. Umenyiora played poorly last year, lost his starting job and complained when his role was reduced. The Giants hope the competition between Umenyiora and Kiwanuka raises their level of play. If Umenyiora does not start, his unhappiness could hurt his performance again.

Meanwhile drafting Pierre-Paul with the 15th-overall pick was a risk for general manger Jerry Reese. Pierre-Paul has talent but is raw. It might take Pierre-Paul two or three years to become a consistent NFL pass rusher, if it happens at all.

The Giants, however, need help now. And if their pass rush does not improve, it is unlikely their defense will either.

3. Is the linebacker corps a weakness?

It could be. A serious neck injury has ended Antonio Pierce’s successful run at middle linebacker, and no viable replacement has emerged. Jonathan Goff, Chase Blackburn, Gerris Wilkinson and rookie Phillip Dillard will compete for the starting job in training camp.

All of those players could struggle when isolated one-on-one in pass coverage. However, a player to watch is second-year strongside linebacker Clint Sintim, who is expected to start and play well.

"I’m not a rookie anymore," Sintim said. "I don’t think people realize how much of a weight that is off your shoulders. People expect me to do things, expect me to be a player, and that’s fine. I look at this as an opportunity."

4. Can safety Kenny Phillips make it back?

If Phillips can recover all his quickness after a major knee injury, he and free-agent pickup Antrel Rolle could give the Giants the best safety tandem in the NFC East.

If Phillips struggles, the Giants could once again be susceptible to big plays. Nobody will know for sure about Phillips until training camp, because the Giants plan to proceed cautiously with him until then.

5. Will the defense generate more turnovers?

The Giants forced 24 turnovers in ’09 and committed 31. Teams that commit more turnovers than they cause usually find themselves outside of the playoff picture. Of the 12 playoff teams last season, only the Cardinals had a negative turnover ratio.

An improved pass rush and better secondary play would go a long way toward making the Giants’ defense more opportunistic.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—When the Giants’ defense collapsed, so did their 2009 season.

After starting 5-0, the Giants finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Their defensive demise was the most surprising part of their fall. Only the Lions and Rams surrendered more points than the Giants, who gave up at least 40 points on five different occasions last season.

"I was really shocked," defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. "We had a high expectation level, and this group is so talented. For us not to go out and perform the way we can was really strange. I couldn’t believe it."

If the Giants’ defense is a nightmare again this season, they can only dream of making the playoffs. Has enough been done for this unit to make a major improvement?

A look at five key questions the Giants’ defense must answer:

1. Will changing coordinators make a dramatic difference?

Chris Canty says the Giants players must put in the work if they want to have a better season than 2009.
Chris Canty says the Giants players must put in the work if they want to have a better season than 2009.

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was fired and replaced by Perry Fewell. Giants coach Tom Coughlin really had no choice but to make a switch. The players lost confidence in Sheridan, who also clashed with star defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

Changing coordinators can make a difference. We saw it last season, when Gregg Williams helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in his first season as defensive coordinator. However, Fewell must prove he can get more from the Giants’ personnel than Sheridan did. At least Fewell has a captive audience. After last year’s embarrassment, all egos have been put in check.

"I can only speak on my behalf, but there might have been a little complacency not doing the due diligence, the work that it takes to be successful in this league," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "One thing Bill Parcells told me a long time ago: ‘You’ve got to earn your victories in the NFL.’

"We only earned eight wins last year. That’s not good enough for his organization."

2. Will the pass rush be a force again?

The Giants’ sack total dropped for the second consecutive season, falling to 32, tied for 18th best in the NFL. That was a far cry from ’07, when the Giants led the league with 53 sacks and won the Super Bowl.

Defensive end Justin Tuck was hampered last year, playing with a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder and getting just six sacks. Tuck, 27, is a star in his prime who figures to be more of a force going forward.

The greater concerns are Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul. Umenyiora played poorly last year, lost his starting job and complained when his role was reduced. The Giants hope the competition between Umenyiora and Kiwanuka raises their level of play. If Umenyiora does not start, his unhappiness could hurt his performance again.

Meanwhile drafting Pierre-Paul with the 15th-overall pick was a risk for general manger Jerry Reese. Pierre-Paul has talent but is raw. It might take Pierre-Paul two or three years to become a consistent NFL pass rusher, if it happens at all.

The Giants, however, need help now. And if their pass rush does not improve, it is unlikely their defense will either.

3. Is the linebacker corps a weakness?

It could be. A serious neck injury has ended Antonio Pierce’s successful run at middle linebacker, and no viable replacement has emerged. Jonathan Goff, Chase Blackburn, Gerris Wilkinson and rookie Phillip Dillard will compete for the starting job in training camp.

All of those players could struggle when isolated one-on-one in pass coverage. However, a player to watch is second-year strongside linebacker Clint Sintim, who is expected to start and play well.

"I’m not a rookie anymore," Sintim said. "I don’t think people realize how much of a weight that is off your shoulders. People expect me to do things, expect me to be a player, and that’s fine. I look at this as an opportunity."

4. Can safety Kenny Phillips make it back?

If Phillips can recover all his quickness after a major knee injury, he and free-agent pickup Antrel Rolle could give the Giants the best safety tandem in the NFC East.

If Phillips struggles, the Giants could once again be susceptible to big plays. Nobody will know for sure about Phillips until training camp, because the Giants plan to proceed cautiously with him until then.

5. Will the defense generate more turnovers?

The Giants forced 24 turnovers in ’09 and committed 31. Teams that commit more turnovers than they cause usually find themselves outside of the playoff picture. Of the 12 playoff teams last season, only the Cardinals had a negative turnover ratio.

An improved pass rush and better secondary play would go a long way toward making the Giants’ defense more opportunistic.

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