In the first half of the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field in January 2008, the New York Giants’ defensive linemen were trotting off the field after another series of shutting down the Green Bay Packers when, according to a nearby observer, one of them bellowed, “They can’t block us! They can’t block us!”
They sure couldn’t. The Packers rushed for 28 yards on 14 carries that day and were outgained 380 yards to 264 yards.
While the Packers can point to other problems, most notably Plaxico Burress eating up Al Harris on fade routes, and Brett Favre’s inexcusable interception in overtime, the main reason the Giants won that frigid day was they battered the Packers up front, really on both sides of the ball.
That’s the Giants’ way, and has been for years.
There are many ways to build an NFL team, and the Giants’ way has given them a distinct, somewhat old-school identity under General Manager Jerry Reese, who’s a protégé of his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi, who was a protégé of his predecessor, George Young.
Namely, they will do more than perhaps anyone in the NFL to field a defensive line deep with quality NFL players, because they want a top line even after injuries hit and when their top players get old.
“They put a premium on it,” an NFL scout said this week. “They put a premium on getting the quarterback on the ground.”
The Giants might not be the NFL’s model franchise — that’s the New England Patriots — but that philosophy has served them fairly well. Since 2005 they’re 58-36; have been to the playoffs four out of five years; at 9-5 are in the running to qualify again this year; and have won a Super Bowl.
Their old-as-football philosophy included finding a quarterback, which they did when they came out of the first round of the 2004 draft with Eli Manning. Whatever his shortcomings, he’s their guy, and they’ve spent their remaining resources elsewhere.
Defensive line has been at the top of that list. Since 2003, going back to when Accorsi still was GM (1998-2006), the Giants have drafted six defensive linemen in the first two rounds, and seven in the first three. By contrast, the Packers over that time drafted three defensive linemen in the first two rounds, and five in the first three.
Reese’s commitment to the line was no more evident than this year’s draft. The Giants returned starting defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, starting defensive tackles Chris Canty and Barry Cofield, and nickel outside rusher Mathias Kiwanuka, yet Reese spent his first- and second-round picks on defensive linemen -- end Jason Pierre-Paul at No. 15 overall and tackle Linval Joseph at No. 46 overall.
How much did the Giants need them? Pierre-Paul has been playing more as a nickel rusher as the year has gone on. If Kiwanuka’s season hadn’t ended because of a neck injury after three games, Pierre-Paul still might be having a tough time getting on the field. Joseph basically hasn’t played — he’s been a healthy scratch nine of 13 games this season.
Similarly, in 2009, the Giants were coming off a 12-4 season, had finished No. 5 in the NFL in sacks percentage and had developed Tuck into a force as an inside rusher — though he played defensive end on early downs, he moved inside on passing downs and had 12 sacks in 2008. Yet in free agency, the Giants outbid the Packers for Canty with a six-year deal that included $17.25 million guaranteed. They coveted a second inside rusher that much.
That same offseason, they signed another free-agent defensive tackle, Rocky Bernard, to a four-year, $16 million deal that included $6.9 million guaranteed.
So what has the Giants’ 2010 defensive line cost? Two first-round picks (Kiwanuka, who’s on injured reserve, and Pierre-Paul), three second-rounders (Umenyiora, Tuck and Joseph), a premium free agent (Canty), and a second-tier free agent (Bernard).
They also have Cofield, who was a fourth-round pick in 2006, and defensive end Dave Tollefson, a Packers seventh-round pick in 2006 whom the Giants signed off Oakland’s practice squad in 2007.
Long gone are two other high-value picks, swings and misses both: first-round defensive tackle William Joseph from the 2003 draft and third-round defensive tackle Jay Alford from 2007.
What do the Giants have to show for it? They go into Sunday’s game against the Packers ranked No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 13 in points allowed.
They also exhibit the signs of a premier defensive line: the league’s best defensive third-down percentage, second-best sacks percentage, and five quarterbacks knocked out of games this season. Umenyiora, who’s an outside rusher, and Tuck, who lines up all over on passing downs, have 10 sacks each. Pierre-Paul has 4½ and Cofield four. Kiwanuka had four before his season ended after three games.
Spending that many high-value picks plus substantial free-agent money necessarily takes those resources from other positions. It’s hardly a foolproof approach — the Giants were swept this year by NFC East Division-rival Philadelphia and are in a fight just to make the playoffs — and it’s not the only way to build a successful team long term.
The Patriots, for instance, have been the NFL’s best team since 2001 because they’ve surrounded the game’s best player, quarterback Tom Brady, with quality receiving weapons; made sure they’re good on the interior of the defensive line; and mixed and matched everywhere else to win with superior coaching.
But in the past few years, the Giants have drafted and signed well enough that they’ve avoided major problems elsewhere. Their offense ranks No. 3 in the NFL in yards and No. 6 in points. Their linebackers and cornerbacks are ordinary, but the point of putting so much into the defensive line is that it can do more for the back seven than the back seven can do for the line. And safeties Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips are good.
“The difference in the game (against the Packers on Sunday) will be if (Manning) doesn’t muck up the game,” the scout said. “If he doesn’t do something (wrong) in the red zone or fumble when he gets sacked — Charles Woodson hits him in the face on a blitz and he drops the ball. If he manages the game they should win.
“Everyone wants to say (Manning) is a top quarterback, I don’t know, I don’t think so. I can name eight, nine guys I’d rather have. I don’t trust Eli Manning in a game. I don’t trust him having to consistently make plays. All they needed to do in that Eagles (loss) last week was get a couple first downs to close it out. He couldn’t do it.
"Aaron Rodgers is a better player than Eli Manning. Aaron Rodgers is a top-six quarterback in this league, and he’s going to have to play like it. It’s going to come down to protection (of Rodgers).”
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Green Bay Press-Gazette