Wide receiver Ike Hilliard was back after missing the final nine games of 2002, tight end Jeremy Shockey was coming off Rookie of the Year honors, quarterback Kerry Collins was ready to emerge as the most productive passer in the NFL.
So the Giants opened their 2003 season with a victory over the St. Louis Rams, and it was their defense that was lethal. It was their defense that sacked Kurt Warner six times. It was their defense that caused him to fumble six times and lose three of them. If was their defense that intercepted a pass which was returned 34 yards to set up yet another field goal.
It was their defense that almost completely stifled running back Marshall Faulk, who had 28 yards on nine rushes, who caught seven passes for 27 yards, who didn't score and who was limited to 55 total yards from the line of scrimmage.
"Offense sells tickets," said defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn, "and defense wins games."
No argument, at least in Week One.
The Giants separated Warner from the football in his end zone (he did hold on to the ball for nine seconds, far too long with the advancing hordes closing in and no receiver clear) when rookie tackle William Joseph, the first-round pick, clobbered him and end Kenny Holmes recovered the ball for a touchdown.
Holmes recovered two of Warner's fumbles; middle linebacker Mike Barrow had two of the half dozen sacks.
"We got it moving in the second half," said Collins, but mostly that was running back Tiki Barber who got it going. He finished the game with 146 yards on 24 carries. Warner finished the game with a moderate grade concussion and stayed overnight in a local N.J. hospital for observation.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Undrafted rookie OT Jeff Roehl (Northwestern) had to play most of the game when left tackle Luke Petitgout left with back spasms. He did well, according to Collins and Barber, and in the second half began clearing the way for a few of Barber's runs.
--FS Omar Stoutmire, who wasn't re-signed by the Giants until late March, after half a dozen others had been inked, led the team with 10 tackles (nine solo) and a 34-yard interception. "We were very ready to play," the 5-11, 205-pounder said. "The only time I 'gambled' was when I got the interception."
--RB Tiki Barber's 146-yard performance was his highest in an opening game in his seven NFL seasons. "Things just started to open up," he said. "At one point I looked at the offensive line and four of those guys had never played in an NFL game [only left guard Rich Seubert was a starter last year]. But they pulled together and made it work."
--The four O-linemen who received their first taste of competition were right guard David Diehl and right tackle Ian Allen, who have been starters; Roehl, who came in for Petitgout, and Wayne Lucier, who filled in for center Chris Bober.
--Both of the Giants' "power backs" were left on the Game Inactive list and didn't dress for the game. They are Ron Dayne and Dorsey Levens, and while Dayne didn't say anything, Levens seemed to know his fate Saturday and, at the time, said he didn't understand. "If they didn't want me to be here, why did they sign me?" he asked. "There were other teams who wanted me [as an Unrestricted Free Agent]." Levens has indicated he would like to be cut loose, and the Giants may accommodate him.
--Fourth-round pick Rod Babers, a cornerback from Texas, was released Saturday after leaving camp the weekend before, allegedly because of the death of his grandfather in Houston. "There was at least one other incident during camp," said coach Jim Fassel.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Three for three is a great day. Putting the kickoffs into the end zone is a great day. Winning is an even greater day." -- Giants' kicker Matt Bryant, who survived a challenge from UFA veteran Mike Hollis to retain his starting job, and kicked FGs of 47, 44 and 24 yards.
REPORT CARD VS. RAMS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- QB Kerry Collins completed 14 of 26 passes for 202 yards, didn't throw a TD but didn't get picked, either. The wideouts were open more than he threw to them; Amani Toomer caught just two passes but for 98 yards, which included a 77-yard burst early in the second half. Collins was sacked only twice -- once because he held the ball too long -- which was a plus for the new and still rebuilding O- line. The offense didn't include many passes to start TE Jeremy Shockey. Was he being used as a decoy? He caught just three for 36 yards.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Tiki Barber gained 146 yards on 24 carries, his best-ever opening day performance. The 225-pound Brian Mitchell, the 33-year-old, 14-year veteran return specialist, served as the Giants' "big back" and did in fact come in for a 1-yard TD dive in the third quarter. The O-line lost LT Luke Petitgout in the second quarter with back spasms but undrafted free agent Jeff Roehl came in and played well. So did new starters Ian Allen at RT and rookie David Diehl at RG.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- The defense sacked QB Kurt Warner six times and caused him to fumble six more times, three of which were lost. He fumbled in the end zone when hit by Joseph, and end Kenny Holmes fell on the ball for a touchdown. The three starting linebackers combined for 18 tackles and two sacks. Holmes easily handled Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace while the other end, Michael Strahan (four tackles, one sack) was at his usual peak performance against tackle Kyle Turley. Strahan's sack gave him 100.5 for his career.
RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- Marshall Faulk was limited to 28 yards in nine carries, and as DE Michael Strahan said after: "He's their number one player. If you stop him you generally have a good chance to beat the Rams." Overall, the Rams were restricted to 40 rushing yards in o3 carries. The eight-man D-line rotation worked well; first-round pick William Joseph, a tackle, looked good inside plugging the middle.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- There were no long returns by Mitchell, who handled both kickoff and punt return duties. "We weren't great," he said, "but we didn't make any mistakes, either. But overall the special teams were great. I think we had the better special team on the field today." Kick coverage was better -- the Rams managed just 23 yards on two punt returns, but rookie Arlen Harris did take six kickoffs back a total of 133 yards, including a 41-yard long gain.
COACHING: B -- Winning games usually earns a higher score for the coaching staff, and despite some errors in clock management, coach Jim Fassel was clearly and obviously in charge and aware of what was going on despite his new duties as offensive coordinator. The decision to make both power backs -- Ron Dayne and Dorsey Levens -- inactive was a bold move. It paid off when Mitchell scored the team's only offensive TD on a 1-yard crash up the middle in the third quarter.