D-line continues to prove critics wrong

The pundits were convinced during the summer that the Giants defensive line would be soft as an old peach, particularly in the middle where a rotation of tackles seemed to offer more options than solutions. Their opinions only grew stronger once the Giants reached the quarter poll of the season. Even the leader of their defense seemed to have his doubts.

"This season we started out rough and I could actually say, ‘This is probably one of the worst defenses I've ever been on,' " Michael Strahan said. "But it seems everybody has taken a lot of what happened to us personally and guys have decided to trust each other and play lights out. That's why I think we play better."

Now with three games to play it seems safe to say the doubt was misplaced.

"When I first got here, I said this would be a top 10 defense," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said.

That's not quite reality yet, but closer than anyone could have expected after a trio of defensive misadventures against the Saints (422 yards), Chargers (485) and Rams (478).

"Our defensive staff has done an outstanding job," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Tim Lewis [the defensive coordinator] has done an outstanding job. The progress they've made going back maybe eight games or so ago, when we started to get the pressure we needed in terms of preventing big pass yardage, has been constant and steady. The credit goes to the players and the coaches."

To the surprise of most everyone, except the Giants, their front four has looked more fearsome than timid. In four of the six games preceding Sunday's game in Philadelphia the defense had allowed no more than 202 total yards and 81 rushing yards. And the sacks keep coming.

"The key thing is you want to play your best defense in December," Pierce said. "If we were playing our best defense in September, then we had a problem. That was our worst month actually and that's good. So now down the stretch you talk about defense. Because that's what wins championships in the NFL."

The reliance on strong defensive line play for playoff success certainly isn't a new concept in the NFL. Champions have long rode the wave of pressure defenses.

The Giants first Super Bowl champions in 1986 had one of the great linebacking corps of all-time with Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Gary Reasons and Harry Carson. But very few offenses could deal with their ends, George Martin and Leonard Marshall, or the strength of nose tackle Jim Burt.

Banks and L.T had been joined by Steve DeOssie and Pepper Johnson by the time Super Bowl XXV rolled around following the 1990 season. But their line of Eric Dorsey, Erik Howard and John Washington more than held its own.

And that certainly was the case the last time the Giants won the NFC Championship in 2000. Strahan and Keith Hamilton bolstered the line with Jessie Armstead and Micheal Barrow behind them at linebacker.

This defense has befitted from the renaissance of Strahan's career after a season-ending pectoral tear in 2004 and the blossoming of Osi Umenyiora into the NFC's sack leader.

"I'm not sure anybody's seen anything quite like that [Strahan's comeback]," Coughlin said. "I mean, I certainly haven't. He has love of the game and brings enthusiasm and zest to work and practice and, quite frankly, to the games on Sunday. It looks like he was 25 years old [he's 34]. He's obviously playing very well and he's having fun doing it."

This simultaneous combustion has proven a big problem for offenses whose blocking schemes now must account for two swift, powerful ends.

"The other team is looking and pointing at us, whatever that may mean," Strahan said. "Osi is a great player. He's just had to let the mental part catch up with the physical and this year he's having an incredible year. He's very hard to stop. You just can't line up one way [to block] … Now with the way he's playing, and the way the guys inside are playing, you have your hands full and it's tough [to stop]."

Against the Cowboys at Giants Stadium, the defensive ends put on a show, sacking Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe four times. Strahan has two, rookie Justin Tuck and Umenyiora one each.

"Their defensive ends are pretty good players," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said.

Said Pierce: "Right now you're seeing a confident player [in Umenyiora]," Pierce said. "You're seeing a guy who knows he can beat any individual out there. Osi is bad."

The play of the ends has allowed the tackles, particularly Kendrick Clancy and William Joseph, to take advantage of blocking mismatches.

"Kendrick has been hitting the gaps every week," Strahan said.

Tremendous acceleration and anticipation enabled Clancy to knock the ball from Bledsoe's hand as he was about to hand off, creating a fumble Pierce ran into the end zone with from the 12 on the first play of the second half.

"We made plays that I felt were critical to the game," Giants linebacker Carlos Emmons said. "Any time you can do that on defense it helps performance."

Joseph, the former first-round pick, has missed the last three games with an elbow injury, but his back has been watched by Fred Robbins and Kenderick Allen, who had a big fumble recovery Sunday against the Cowboys.

Joseph participated in light drills leading up to the Eagles game and may be close to returning, but Coughlin says there's no need to rush.

"[Joseph's return] gives us again the solid rotation, and the more people that we can utilize, the better," Coughlin said.

And once the weather grows cold NFL history tells us the strong are the ones who survive the playoffs.

"I'm a believer that defense wins championships and I'm a believer that you've got to be able to run the ball and stop the run," Coughlin said. "We're playing good defense. Let's put it that way. But we've got four critical games to go here."

The Giants consider themselves legitimate contenders for the NFC Championship, although they are hesitant to publicly admit so for fear of appearing overly confident. They seem content to let their play speak for them and hoped Sunday's game against a decimated Eagles offense carried them one step closer to their NFC East title.

"The one thing I always tell the defense is that it doesn't matter what the offense does, it doesn't matter what we do on special teams, the only thing that matters is what we do when we're on the field," Strahan said. "I think after [the Rams game] we said we're either going to be one way or the other. We chose to be a good defense and we chose to trust each other with Tim Lewis and what he was trying to accomplish with us. So far, it's worked.

"You're not going to win anything without strong defense. That just doesn't happen. So under any circumstances a great defensive effort, particularly stopping the run, is critical to success this time of the year."

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