Inside Slant, Notes, Quotes, Report Cards

Somebody better notify teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, Carolina and Indianapolis, among others. There is another defense rattling its cage and roaring to be set loose.

The New York Giants defense, that is.

The unit has grown almost game-by-game, and to point out the remarkable strides it has made we offer defensive end Michael Strahan's testimony. "When we started out in training camp, I thought this might be the worst defensive unit I had ever been a part of," Strahan said after Sunday's win over Dallas. "Then we started to get better as the new guys learned about us and we learned about them. Now? This could be a championship defense. It has that much."

One of those "new guys" is middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, and he was less depressed than Strahan was about the unit, but still uncertain. "When I first got here (as a free agent from Washington) I thought this might be a top 10 defense," he said. "But we got off to a slow start. Yet the key is that when you're playing defense, you want to play your best defense in December. If you're playing your best in September, you're in trouble. Now we're coming down the stretch and we're playing good defense, because that's what wins championships in the NFL."

The defense vs. Dallas was suffocating. The Cowboys' high-powered offense was limited to 206 total net yards, only 81 of which were produced on the ground. Dallas was held to four first downs in 16 third-down attempts. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sacked four times and threw two interceptions. He also fumbled twice and lost both of them to the opportunistic defense.

"I thought the defense was outstanding," said coach Tom Coughlin.

"I thought it was better than that," joked Strahan.

Strahan had two of the four sacks, defensive end Osi Umenyiora one and rookie defensive end Justin Tuck the other one. Umenyiora (11) and Strahan (9.5) now have 20.5 combined sacks, the most for any team's starting defensive end pair in the league.

"Osi is just going to be phenomenal," said Strahan. "He has size and speed and he just had to learn what to do with all that."

Maybe Strahan can continue explaining it to the 24-year-old while in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl -- which both of them clearly deserve.


-- The Giants are 8-4 and alone in first place in the NFC East. They need two more victories in their final four games to equal the total of wins in the last two seasons (4-12 in 2003; 6-10 in 2004). It is also fairly certain that 10 wins will get a team in the playoffs in the NFC, either as a division champion or a wild card entrant.

-- DE Michael Strahan's two sacks Sunday give him 127.5, moving him past the late Derrick Thomas of Kansas City and into 10th place on the NFL's all-time sack list. He is just one-half sack away from the ninth on the list, Rickey Jackson. He also needs five more to tie Lawrence Taylor for most sacks in franchise history.

-- DT Kendrick Clancy got all the credit from MLB Antonio Pierce for making possible the latter's 12-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery early in the third quarter. "I swear Kendrick just picked up the center (Al Johnson) and threw him five yards into the backfield," Pierce said. "He hit the quarterback (Drew Bledsoe) who fumbled. I had the easy part. I just had to run 12 yards."

-- DE Justin Tuck's sack Sunday was the first of his career. "The Giants told me they were going to take me in the second round," he said, "but then they said they weren't prepared to see (cornerback) Corey Webster still there. So I was picked in the third round, and they told me they were surprised I was still there. You know, I'm just happy I was. I love playing for this defense."

-- PK Jay Feely has missed four of his last five field goal attempts, including a chip shot 33-yarder Sunday that clanged off the right upright. "He'll win some big games for us down the stretch," said coach Tom Coughlin. "We don't plan on doing anything."

-- RB Tiki Barber gained 115 yards in 30 carries vs. Dallas, moving his season total to 1,233 yards, and now he needs an average of 74 yards in each of the final four games to surpass his career season high of 1,518 set last year.

-- FS Brent Alexander, a 13-year veteran, and rookie free agent S James Butler, had interceptions Sunday, giving the team 15 for the season. Last year the Giants had 14 interceptions.



PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- QB Eli Manning was missing open receivers Sunday, something he hasn't done much of so far this season. He had TE Jeremy Shockey all alone in the end zone and the ball sailed 10 feet over his head. He had WR Plaxico Burress in the end zone later and threw to the wrong side -- unless Burress turned the wrong way. His decisions have been less than acceptable. He completed only 12 of 31 passes for 152 yards, threw two picks and saw his streak of 12 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass end. The blocking was more than sufficient (and only one false start call, compared to an astounding 11 the week before).

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- RB Tiki Barber carried 30 times for 115 yards, well below his per-carry average of 4.9. There were too many calls for him to hit the middle of the line, and the cracks just weren't there. Nevertheless, he had his third straight 100-yard-plus game. RG Chris Snee and RT Kareem McKenzie were especially effective in run-blocking, but McKenzie allowed the only sack on Manning, by DT Jason Ferguson (the two were teammates last season with the New York Jets).

PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Giants' defense was suffocating, and Dallas QB Drew Bledsoe was harassed all game. He was sacked four times, intercepted twice, lost two fumbles and was held to 15 completions in 39 attempts. The Giants forced Dallas to use outlet passes when all other receivers were covered and/or when the pressure mounted in its intensity; hence, RB Julius Jones caught nine passes to lead both teams. The two dangerous receivers, Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson, had five catches combined for 53 yards and one touchdown.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- Jones was the Cowboys' leading rusher as well, gaining 74 yards in 23 carries, but even with a long gain of 12 yards he still averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. The tackling was stifling all along the line. The two leading tacklers, MLB Antonio Pierce and DE Michael Strahan, each had seven. SLB Carlos Emmons had six, WLB Nick Greisen, DT Fred Robbins, FS Brent Alexander and SS Gibril Wilson each had five. Of the 16 Dallas first downs, only six were by rushing.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- WR David Tyree, the NFL's most dynamic special teams performer, downed one of Jeff Feagles' punts at the Cowboys' 2-yard line and another on the 4-yard line. Feagles punted six times for a 44.7-yard average (39.7 net). PK Jay Feely made one of two field goal tries, and has missed four of his last five. The Giants' return specialist wasn't very special -- Chad Morton had three kick returns for 61 yards and two punt returns for six yards. Kick coverage was better. Dallas was held to 30 yards on two punt returns, 66 yards on four kick returns.

COACHING: B -- Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis has put in new wrinkles that are working out. He had DEs Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora (Osi in a linebacker position) rushing from the same side of the line and it resulted in a Strahan sack. He has a problem at right cornerback, where neither rookie Corey Webster or second-year Curtis Deloatch have played well, but he is masking that with combination coverages. The offense, however, is struggling, and it would appear that coordinator John Hufnagel isn't adept at halftime corrections. Special teams coach Mike Sweatman has his units flying high.

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