Giants camp report: Pressure squarely on defense, coordinator

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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ALBANY, N.Y. –- There's one guy who could determine the future of the New York Giants, and it's not Eli Manning or Justin Tuck or even Tom Coughlin. It's Perry Fewell, and I'll tell you why: Because he's the team's new defensive coordinator, and if he doesn't do a better job than his predecessor the Giants are toast and their head coach may be, too.

For the Giants to return to the playoffs ... for Coughlin to keep his job another season ... the team needs to correct its mistakes from a year ago, and most of them were in one area. I'm talking, of course, of a defense that was so porous it hemorrhaged 40 or more points in five of its past 11 games, including three of the past four.

Basically, it stunk, and it was the reason the Giants did, too.

Complain all you want about Brandon Jacobs, Manning or the offensive line, but they didn't sabotage the Giants; their defense did. Manning & Co. put up 402 points, more than enough to push this team to the top, but not enough to overcome a defense that was so rotten it wound up surrendering more points (427) than any Giants team since 1966.

"I'd go far as to say it was embarrassment to all of us," defensive end Justin Tuck said.

That about sums it up. Sacks were down. Yards were up. And the points ... well, we've already addressed that. Only one team –- the St. Louis Rams –- allowed as many touchdowns (54), and the Rams won one game. The Giants won three of their last 11, and, afterward, an angry John Mara –- co-owner of the Giants -– stood before reporters and announced that "the status quo is unacceptable."

In essence, he called out his head coach to shake up the club, and Coughlin responded by firing his defensive coordinator. Then he hired Fewell, and no addition in the offseason was more important -- because Perry Fewell doesn't just have to straighten out the Giants' defense; he must save their season.

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I mean it.

Yeah, OK, so Coughlin and his players ultimately are responsible for what happens. But Coughlin won't last if his defense doesn't improve, and if this sounds familiar it should. The last time Coughlin's job security was in question was the end of the 2006 season when he was called on to do something, anything to reach the playoffs. So he did. In an extraordinary move, he fired his offensive coordinator on the eve of the season finale, promoted assistant Kevin Gilbride and –- voila! Just like that –- won a stay of execution.

A year later, he won a Super Bowl.

Now it is Fewell who is entrusted with getting the Giants back to where they belong, which is at or near the top of the defensive leaderboard and at or near the top of the NFC East -- and he should have help from the roster. Safety Kenny Phillips looks recovered from a devastating leg injury. Veteran Keith Bulluck might be the answer at middle linebacker, especially with a surgically repaired knee holding up. There are pass rushers everywhere, with rookie Jason Pierre-Paul joining Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka off the edge. And safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant bolster a position that was a minefield a year ago.

I think you get the picture. There is talent here. But there was talent here a year ago, too, and you saw what happened. In the end, it's up to Fewell to make the right calls, play the right players and implement the right schemes to fix the leaks. If he does, the Giants are division contenders. If he doesn't, they're looking for new players and, in all likelihood, a new head coach.

"Is there any way of overstating the importance of his addition?" I asked Kiwanuka.

"No," he said, "and we're not going to overlook it internally. We were fortunate to have two years with (former defensive coordinator Steve) Spagnuolo, but then we had a down year. Now we have a guy who's on the same level, coaching-wise, as 'Spags,' and we understand that is what we need.

"We need someone everyone can trust; a guy who knows and understands personnel as well as schemes. He may be overlooked outside of here, but we can't control that. Everybody in here understands what he brings to the table. We know how important he is to us."

Getting safety Kenny Phillips back will definitely make a difference. (AP)  
Getting safety Kenny Phillips back will definitely make a difference. (AP)  
If anyone forgets, he can always consult former Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell. A starter on the 2007 Giants team that won Super Bowl XLII, he moved on to Buffalo where he played for –- you guessed it –- Perry Fewell. Mitchell and Kiwanuka are friends who stay in touch, so it was only natural that the Giants' defensive end heard from Mitchell about his new coach.

"He called me up," Kiwanuka said, "and said, 'Hey, you're going to love this guy; he's not afraid to take risks. He listens to players, he can relate to them and he's smart.' He told me from Day One to go ahead and trust him because he's going to put you in the right situations."

He did a year ago with a Buffalo defense decimated by injuries. The Bills led the AFC in interceptions with 28, second only to Green Bay in the NFL, despite 11 defenders winding up on injured reserve –- including four starters and five defensive backs. One of those defensive backs, rookie Jairus Byrd, had a league-high nine interceptions before bowing out for the season and wound up second in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.

Now look what was going on -- or not going on -- in New York. The Giants had 13 interceptions and 24 takeaways, or seven fewer than their turnovers, and that must change. And Fewell is the man who must change it.

"He's proven," Giants' GM Jerry Reese said. "His defenses turn the ball over, and you can see it out here. I can't remember a training camp with so many interceptions."

Another plus for Fewell is what his defense did last September against New Orleans. OK, so the Bills lost. Big deal. They lost a lot last year. But for three quarters they checked the Saints on 10 points, waiting for their offense to respond. It could not, failing to score in the second half in what would become a 27-7 loss, but look at the bigger picture: Fewell did what he was supposed to do, which was to give his team a chance to win.

That is the hope here, and so far, so good. Players see him mixing his defenses –- with Kiwanuka operating at linebacker in one scheme; they marvel at his energy, with Fewell running alongside a defensive back, matching him step for step, after an interception in practice; and they tell themselves that maybe, just maybe, they can be what they once were ... a defense that looks more like a brick wall than an open window.

"I think we're going to thrive under him," Umenyiora said. "We believe in his scheme, and we believe he'll put us in the right position to make plays. This year we have something to prove to everybody."

Including themselves. But they don't get there without someone pointing them in the right direction. And the only direction for the Giants defense now is up.

Or else.

"With the talent we have here," said Bulluck, "and the scheme that's in place we can definitely be the No. 1 defense."

That would be a start.

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