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Giants hope secondary fixes pay dividends against Packers

by | CBSSports.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You might have been reminded this week -- perhaps ad infinitum -- that the New York Giants nearly upset the then-undefeated Green Bay Packers in Week 13. The score was close (38-35), the Giants had their chances, but ultimately a last-second field goal secured the victory for the visiting Packers.

Members of the Giants' secondary remember a series of "small mistakes," as safety Kenny Phillips put it, which ultimately determined the outcome.

"It was just one of those games you wish you could hurry up and press the 'restart' button," rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara said.

Regardless of what was happening on the other side of the ball, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had no intentions of leaving the score that close, and he abused the Giants defensive backs accordingly. He completed 28 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns; but even more damning that, New York's secondary looked lost.

A busted coverage allowed Green Bay receiver Donald Driver enough room to make perhaps the easiest touchdown catch of his 13-year career; Amukamara was spun around by Packers receiver Greg Jennings on another scoring reception; and New York's entire secondary seemed to disappear as Rodgers made completions of 24, 27 and 18 yards to set up the winning field goal in the game's final moments.

For the Giants to have any chance of pulling the upset they failed to score five weeks ago, the secondary has to avoid similar mistakes.

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Fortunately for New York fans, the defensive backs have made impactful changes, the fruits of which have been glimpsed in recent weeks. Not only did the Giants hold Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to 199 passing yards in their wild-card victory, but the secondary looked sharp under intense pressure during the final two regular-season games as well.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo combined to throw the ball 96 times against the Giants in that span, and the returns were limited at best. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's unit yielded a total of 547 passing yards -- a modest number, all things considered -- with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

The root of the improvement is still being debated.

General manager Jerry Reese told reporters that aspects of the defense had been "simplified," which would make sense considering the 22-year-old Amukamara struggled significantly in the Week 15 loss to the Washington Redskins (he was benched at halftime of that game).

But coach Tom Coughlin didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.

"No, that wasn't it," Coughlin said Monday, when asked if coverage schemes had been simplified. "I think we're playing better, we're playing tighter coverage. I think the guys are much more mindful and prideful, and they're playing more physically."

Even Amukamara, who had played sparingly on defense since being benched, answered the call against the Falcons. When starting cornerback Aaron Ross went down with a head injury, the first-round pick fearlessly stepped into what could have been a disastrous situation.

"As soon as I got in, Corey [Webster] already told me, he just said, 'You know they're coming at you, so just play like the ball is coming to your side every time,'" Amukamara said.

"He's stepped up," safety Antrel Rolle said of Amukamara. "He was in tune with the game and he played with a lot more confidence than in the previous games. You know, we've been on him pretty hard."

Rolle said Webster and Ross -- who has been cleared to return -- have kept Amukamara "attached to the hip," which is important considering who the opponent is on Sunday.

When asked, linebacker Michael Boley agreed that Rodgers' posse of targets, a group that includes receivers Driver, Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley, was the best in football.

"I think Jordy Nelson has had the better year, he has been their big-play guy," Rolle said, when comparing the Packers' receivers. "Greg, you always know what you are going to get from Greg. He's crafty and a very smooth receiver, one of the best in the league in my eyes. They have a lot of weapons. They are stacked at each and every position."

But New York has already made significant strides against the types of short passes to players in space that Rodgers and the Packers favor.

"We also have done a better job underneath and that was an issue for us in terms of pattern reads, identification, recognition of who is where and [we're] doing a better job with a lot of the checkdowns," Coughlin said.

New York has also improved the way it has defended tight ends after Finley caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown against the Giants in Week 13.

The Giants yielded 15 catches to tight ends over the final two weeks of the season, but smothered Falcons legend Tony Gonzalez to hold him to just four catches last week.

"I don't want to give a secret away," safety Deon Grant said, "but we just changed the looks and changed the different guys we have playing [tight ends]."

The Giants defense ranked 29th in the league against the pass for a reason. However, they were better than three teams that combined for 41 victories during the regular season -- the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and the Packers.

Not only does that speak to the slim margin between victory and defeat in the NFL, but it also illustrates the incredible opportunity the Giants have this Sunday at Lambeau Field. If Green Bay can give up a league-worst 4,796 passing yards, can New York really be that far behind?

"It's our turn to go to their field, and I'm sure if we execute and do what we're supposed to do, there should be different results," Amukamara concluded.

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