Try David Tyree vs. Curtis Deloatch.
"Me and David Tyree have a little competition going on, see who's going to get down there the fastest and make the play,'' Deloatch reported. "He's winning so far.''
Far behind the scenes, far from the marquee quarterback issues, tucked deep down past the shock of losing two starting defensive ends for the season in one game, the Giants are building something solid with the likes of Tyree and Deloatch. For years an area of concern, contempt, ridicule and incompetence, the Giants in their first year under Tom Coughlin have assembled a special teams unit worthy of approaching something special.
"That's a thing we work on every day in practice,'' said Deloatch, a rookie cornerback from North Carolina A&T. "It's a big emphasis on special teams because you're only out there for one play and that one play can turn into a game-winning play.''
Every team speaks this way about special teams but for many, it's nothing more than lip service. Year after year, Jim Fassel emphasized the need for better special teams play but through a succession of overmatched or ill-suited coaches, bad luck and not enough attention, the Giants struggled in that area. Coughlin before every game lists the special teams attributes of the opponent in such detail that he often sounds ready to jump into the fray and serve as a gunner on the punt coverage team. Unfailingly, after every game one of his first comments is not about Warner or Tiki Barber or the play of the defense, but how the Giants fared in the special teams battle.
At midseason, the Giants were faring quite well, although they did little eye-catching as far as long returns, blocked kicks or the sort of razzle-dazzle that makes its way onto highlight shows. What the Giants showed was a consistency that Coughlin demands. He'll have it no other way.
The Giants after eight games were limiting opponents to 18.8 yards on kickoff returns to rank among the league leaders. They allowed opponents an acceptable average of 8.8 yards on punt returns. Quite surprisingly, Willie Ponder led the entire NFL with a 27.8-yard kickoff return average. How rare is that? The last Giant to lead even the conference in kickoff return average was David Meggett in 1990 at 23.4 yards.
After missing two late field goals that twice failed to seal a victory in Green Bay, Steve Christie rebounded and entered the halfway point of the season with three field goals of 50 yards or longer. Jeff Feagles in his 17th season as a punter continued to play all the angles and perform at a high level. Mark Jones, a rookie from Tennessee, had yet to break a long punt return but his average of 7.7 yards represented an upgrade from years past.
There is order where there once was chaos, installed by Coughlin through Mike Sweatman, the special teams coordinator who did his thing for Bill Parcells and the Giants for both Super Bowl teams. The atrocities of last season - Matt Bryant's kickoff out of bounds in a loss to the Cowboys, Brian Westbrook's punt return for a touchdown in a loss to the Eagles - have been replaced by consistency and at times excellence.
No doubt, the roster is loaded with more speed than in the past but a good deal of the credit also goes to Sweatman, a no-nonsense assistant whose history suggests success follows him at every stop. Sweatman, an assistant with Coughlin under Parcells, is assisted by Mike Priefer, a holdover from Fassel's staff.
"A solid, solid football coach,'' Coughlin said of Sweatman. "He's a guy who paid his dues a long time ago and has learned his trade very well. I've known Mike for a long time as just a real solid person, a guy with great values, kind of individual you pretty much know what you're going to get on a week-to-week basis. He was a guy I looked to right away.''
Special teams often only get noticed when something goes wrong but this season, more has gone right and at times things have gone spectacularly. One of those times was early in the 34-13 rout of the Vikings.
On fourth down from the Vikings 45-yard line, Feagles sent a punt angling to the right. Racing downfield, Tyree and Deloatch - the "gunners'' assigned to split double-team blocking and pursue the ball - arrived as the punt descended, seemingly headed for the end zone and a touchback. Tyree, positioned perfectly with his heels inches from the goal line, batted the ball back into play, where Deloatch, also positioned perfectly, carried the ball out of bounds at about the six-inch line.
"It was an instinct thing, as I was running I saw David tap the ball and I didn't know whether or not it was going to roll into the end zone, so I just scooped it up and ran out of bounds,'' Deloatch said.
"If they're not free and open that ball goes in the end zone,'' Feagles stated. "It's a very difficult position to play, not only are they fighting going down the field, at one point they are let go by the other team and then they have to find the ball, be in position and make the play. You've got to be in the right place in the right time.''
That play, plus three tackles, was the impetus for Tyree being named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, an award that almost always goes to a kicker, punter or return man, rarely given to the grunt who makes the stops.
"It gave me a great feeling of satisfaction,'' said Tyree, a second-year receiver from Syracuse who is on the roster for his special teams prowess. "As far as the NFC, that's huge, half the league right there. It's one of my things, I definitely want to be the best, I want to be in the line of a Steve Tasker or those guys who made the Pro Bowl, so when I go against an opponent, I want them to say 'This guy is the real deal' when it comes to special teams.''
A week later, Tyree nearly repeated the feat when he again positioned himself near the goal line and made an athletic jumping play to keep the ball out of the end zone. Teammate Jim Maxwell downed it at the Bears 5-yard line.
"It's a mindset, it's athleticism, it's speed, it's being able to handle the double team,'' Coughlin said of the role of the gunners.
The Giants have been able to handle nearly everything thrown at them on special teams. What a change from the past.
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