Secondary has buckled down after a season of busts
There were times this season when the New York Giants' secondary looked like baffled Little League outfielders who let a popup fall between them.
''I thought you had it.''
''No! It was yours all the way.''
The miscommunication often resulted in scoring plays or ones that led to points.
The problem was persistent and looked likely to be one of the major reasons the Giants would miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
But a strange thing happened with two games left in the regular season. Players got healthy, communication improved and the secondary is suddenly blanketing receivers and shutting down some of the best quarterbacks in the game, a formula that has thrust the Giants (11-7) into the NFC title game against the 49ers in San Francisco (14-3) on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell insists he didn't press the magic button to make everything right.
Defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck finally got healthy and joined Jason Pierre-Paul in giving the Giants one of the most feared pass rushes in the game. Weakside linebacker Michael Boley recovered from a hamstring injury, while the late signing of veteran middle linebacker Chase Blackburn solidified the middle. The secondary of cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross and safeties Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant also finally got on the same page.
''Our coverage is based on feel and knowing where people are and trust,'' Fewell said. ''We've been able to feel and trust each other now because we've played together as a unit. Defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. The parts have all come together. I don't have to substitute a guy in and change the coverage and say this guy has a weakness so I have to do something different. We've come together and we've been able to play together.''
The statistics against the pass in the Giants' four-game winning streak against Mark Sanchez of the Jets, Tony Romo of the Cowboys, Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers are impressive.
The quartet has combined for 1,010 yards passing, five touchdowns, four interceptions and been sacked 17 times. That's roughly an average of 252 yards passing. New York did not allow a pass of more than 34 yards in those games and no tight end has caught a touchdown, worth noting given that Vernon Davis is the Niners' biggest weapon.
''The key is we're not giving them anything easy,'' Grant said of opposing offenses. ''We're taking away the first read and making them look to places where we have the advantage.''
The Giants also are doing a good job of disguising their coverages the past month. Opponents will come to the line of scrimmage and see two deep coverages with the safeties. Just before the play, a safety will drop down to the line of scrimmage and cause confusion.
It's worked the other way, too.
The indecision means quarterbacks need more time to throw and that is a problem the way the defensive line is playing.
''We have three or four defensive ends who can change the complexion of the ballgame on any given play,'' Fewell said. ''A lot of teams I've been associated with in the past, you have one, possibly two. If you had two, you felt like you were great up front. If you have three or four, at any point in time, one of those guys can make a game-changing play like Osi did last week. That's why it's very unusual.''
In their 27-20 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco on Nov. 13, the Giants limited Alex Smith and the 49ers to 305 total yards and held the ball for almost 35 minutes. San Francisco made big plays though. Davis caught a 31-yard TD pass and Kendall Hunter scored on a 17-yard run after Frank Gore left the game.
Rolle said playing the Niners against isn't important.
''I think it was just more of a mindset that we had and the preparation that we've been going through throughout the week,'' he said. ''Ever since the (Jets) game we've been all on deck, guys have been in tune with what's going on here, what's at stake. That had the most to do with anything.''
Webster also believes there is chemistry in the secondary. It developed over the season as the defensive backs held weekly meetings at different players' homes to go over the problems. It united the group.
''When guys are pointing fingers in different directions, things could fall apart, but we never did that and I think that shows the character of the team,'' Webster said. ''It is a close group and whatever our mistakes are that we made in the past, we want to correct them. Like everything else, if there is a mistake not learned from, another one could happen. We have done a great job of learning from those mistakes so we can eliminate those mental mistakes that we had that gave up big plays and big yardage and that is why the yardage and stuff is down now.''