Amidst a terrible season, one of the Giants strong suits was stopping the run. We say that tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Big Blue was 18th against the run in 2003, allowing close to 120 rushing yards per game. They responded in atypical Giants fashion by signing some really big guys to stuff up the middle of the defense.
Keith Hamilton was one of New York's better defensive tackles for years, but he played at barely 290 pounds. Successful tackles of yesteryear included guys like Erik Howard and Jim Burt, stocky players, indeed, but hardly the type of enormous space-eaters that helped the Patriots win two of the last three Super Bowls.
"You don't have to go very far to look at the Super Bowl teams," Tom Coughlin said. "They have the big guys in the middle there and the ball doesn't get run, and that's what we're trying to do with maybe a couple of guys."
Coughlin speaks of Norman Hand, who tips the scales at 335 pounds, and Fred Robbins, a shade lighter at 325. Both players were signed as free agents and signaled a new direction for New York's run defense strategy.
Hand was actually much bigger when the Giants signed him on April 7.
"His weight came down steadily," defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said. "His speed, quickness and change of direction improved. He's attentive, intelligent. He has the athletic ability to be a good football player."
Next to Hand is RDT Robbins, who spent the past four seasons with the Vikings, averaging 30 tackles per year.
The goal of the big fellas is to occupy space and push runners outside. It's also to keep would-be blockers off new MLB Nick Greisen.
While the Giants tried to sign another middle backer this offseason, Greisen survived and will begin the campaign calling New York's signals. He takes over for Micheal Barrow, who put up huge tackle numbers annually, but never really made the impact plays the Giants were searching for. Barrow now toils in Washington.
However, Lewis' plan is to shut down the run on first down, which will enable the Giants to put in their nickel and dime sub packages. At that point, Lewis can pull the string on all the aggressive calls he hopes to utilize this season. At that point also, Greisen will retreat to the sideline in favor of an extra defensive back.
"The most important thing is to stop the run so you make the offense one-dimensional," safety Brent Alexander said. "Then you can put them in positions where you know they're going to pass the ball."
Carlos Emmons' size and strength, as well as Barrett Green's sheer speed should also help upgrade the run defense considerably.
One point of emphasis for Lewis's defenders is to fly to, surround and try to strip the ball on every play. It's been obvious from day one in practice the emphasis the defenders have placed on stripping the ball carrier.
"Every day we have a different coach that's the yell coach, the guy responsible that they're reminded that they're to run to the football and to strip the football," Lewis explained. ‘Get the ball out. Get to the ball. Strip it and rip it.' If you're aggressive to the ball and you get to the ball, you'll be successful. If the ball is on the ground or pops in the air, those teams that give great effort and fly around with great energy and emotion and enthusiasm, those are the teams that can actually capitalize on those turnovers. The ball gets knocked out quite a bit, but the teams that don't hustle to the ball and give great effort, they don't get there; they don't get it."
Lewis explains that much of New York's inefficiency in forcing and recovering turnovers in the past was as simple as them not working harder than the next guy.
"There is no other explanation than laziness," he said. "You have to coach your butt off to get them to run to the football every play every day. If you surround yourself with the right people, that's not that difficult a task. Of course we feel like we have the right people here."
One of the right people to stop the run and force turnovers is Michael Strahan, widely regarded as one of the league's premier run defenders. So far, Strahan likes what he's seen of Lewis' defensive approach.
"We will be aggressive," said New York's six-time Pro Bowler. "We will fly around. We will be relentless. We will be disciplined.
"I love the defense. I think the defense is going to be great."
* * *
Strength of unit: Michael Strahan. For all the improvements and added emphasis on stripping the ball, the Giants run defense starts and stops with Strahan. He's one of the elite players against both the run and pass, and Lewis' defenders will follow Strahan's lead. The fact that Lewis plans to move Strahan around some during the course of a game only adds to the potential havoc he could wreak on opposing offenses.
Weakness of unit: Not much. With Hand and Robbins on board and Keith Washington expected to play RDE on run downs, it's hard to find much wrong with how New York upgraded its run defense. Obviously, Hand and Robbins have to stay healthy. Robbins doesn't come to the Giants with the excellent reputation that Hand does, so he should have a little extra to prove.
Key additions: Norman Hand and Fred Robbins. Both players know they have the weight of the Giants defensive world on their shoulders. Defensive tackle was one of the key spots New York knew it had to upgrade and Coughlin and Ernie Accorsi feel confident that they did the trick by inking this pair of monstrous men. The addition of Nick Greisen to the starting lineup should pay big dividends as well.
Key losses: Keith Hamilton and Cornelius Griffin. Last year's starters never really played up to expectations, although Hammer gave his all to New York for a dozen seasons. The Giants would have loved for him to come back for one more year, but he decided he'd rather hang up the spikes. Speaking of Hamilton, he was recently sentenced to 3 years probation and more than 1,000 hours of community service for having cocaine in his possession after being pulled over last May. As for Griffin, the Giants didn't even think for a second about retaining his services.
Darkhorse: Lance Legree. He's not your prototypical darkhorse since this is his fourth year on the team. However, with all the talk of the new starting DTs, as well as the addition of Martin Chase and Mario Monds, Legree is still hanging tight and running with the second team. He very well could be the Giants first tackle off the bench once the season opens.
On the hotseat: Keith Washington. He's adept at stopping the run, but Osi Umenyiora is hot on his heels to grab the starting RDE spot. Once Umenyiora improves his run-stuffing ability, it's his job. Washington needs to produce early on to hold off the youngster.
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