New York

New York Giants' Defense Looking to Join NFL Elite

The New York Giants went from one of the NFL's worst defenses in 2015 to one of the 10 best in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's second season in charge.

It was a unit that carried the Giants (11-6) and rookie coach Ben McAdoo to their first playoff appearance since 2011.

With 10 starters returning and several key reserves back, this defense has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

Spagnuolo has every intention of pushing it. He added some things to the playbook and took out others which they didn't run much in a 10-6 season in which the defense carried the team.

"This game, you stay up with the times," Spagnuolo said Wednesday after the second day of a mandatory three-day minicamp. "You can't get caught doing the same thing too many times over and over, because this league catches up to you. So we'll have a couple of tweaks."

One of the tweaks won't be the lineup. Other than defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent, the other 10 starters are back, including safety Landon Collins, who finished third in voting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Spagnuolo jokes that his unit is now in graduate school in terms of its knowledge of the defense. They were freshmen when he returned for a second stint with the Giants in 2014, and his unit finished ranked at the bottom of the league.

Year Two saw New York sign cornerback Janoris Jenkins, tackle Damon Harrison and end Olivier Vernon as free agents. End Jason Pierre-Paul regained his form after missing half the previous season because of a fireworks accident. Collins made a massive jump in performance in his second season.

"It's like second nature now," Collins said of the defense, which was third against the run and 23rd against the pass. "It's just building, building on top and adding more to the defense so we can just confuse the offense. It's great."

Linebacker Jonathan Casillas has played in Spagnuolo's defense for four seasons, the first in New Orleans and the last three with the Giants. The constant he has seen is the coordinator giving his unit the entire playbook and seeing how much it can handle.

"He has manipulated and changed his defense according to the players he has, the team and the scheme he wants to run, and I think he has done a great job with that," Casillas said. "When he feels comfortable with the guys and that trust factor is there, I think he puts a little more, a little more, and a little more on us, especially as the year progresses."

The defense also has a chip on its shoulder. It was embarrassed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a 38-13 loss in an NFC wild-card game.

"When you're trying to build something, you want to keep everybody together for the most part," Vernon said. "We got a lot of guys right now that saw what we could do last year. Right now, it's all new and fresh. Everything that we did last year is on the back burner now. It's a whole new grind. Everybody has to prove themselves once again."

The big question is who will replace Hankins. New York drafted Alabama tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in the second round this spring. Jay Bromley, a third-choice in 2014, is entering his fourth season, while Robert Thomas and Corbin Bryant also will be given a shot at the job.

The defense should get help from the offense this season with the signing of free agent receiver Brandon Marshall and speedy tight end Evan Engram, the first-round pick. If the line picks up its play and the running game gets going, this team will be better.

"Man, to be honest it is all about that trophy," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "We have to go out there and try to get some shutouts. I think that we have that capability to go out there and shut guys out. When everyone is on one accord and we are banging, we are pretty good."

NOTES: Six players did not work out Wednesday: Engram, G Justin Pugh, S Darian Thompson, CB Eli Apple, TE Rhett Ellison and LB J.T. Thomas. ...G D.J. Fluker left the field limping on his right leg. ...Marshall made a nice one-handed catch for a touchdown in a team drill. .. QB Eli Manning got a few laughs and fooled the defense, running the football in a spread formation.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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