Spags in ‘rush' to Upgrade Giants D

Barely 27, with just three years of coaching experience at Lafayette, Steve Spagnuolo walked into Tom Jackson's office before the 1987 season hoping the University of Connecticut coach, a former Penn State assistant for Joe Paterno, would help him jumpstart his career.

Sitting in the room with Jackson was UConn defensive coordinator Brian Usher, who was looking for a secondary coach. Spagnuolo had coached the defensive line and special teams at Lafayette but Usher immediately sensed something dynamic about him.

"Even at a young age he demonstrated all the attributes a successful coach must have," Usher said. "He was a tireless worker, extremely organized, an excellent teacher and at the time a driving force in converting our scouting information for our upcoming opponents to computer. He was ahead of the curve. He established himself at UConn very quickly and was also an excellent recruiter.

"By the time he left UConn [after the 1991 season to work for the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe] we knew his goal was to coach at the highest level possible. His professional steps since have supported that goal."

For the last eight seasons, Spagnuolo has used the innovative instinct that helped make him thrive at UConn to help the Eagles defense become of the most aggressive in the NFL, first as a special assistant, then as secondary coach and finally as their linebackers coach the last three seasons.

"You learn something important on every step you take in this business," Spagnuolo said.

And now, Tom Coughlin is hoping Spagnuolo has what it takes to light a fire under his defense.

"I was very impressed by his detail, his energy and his enthusiasm," Coughlin said when he hired Spagnuolo in January. "His résumé is outstanding. He's held so many different jobs. He's been a defensive line coach, even a scout [with the Chargers in 1993]. And he's been with Jim Johnson [the Eagles respected defensive coordinator] and that outstanding defense for many years. His philosophy is an aggressive one."

When Coughlin fired Tim Lewis following the 2006 season he handed Spagnuolo a difficult task. The defense took a big step back last season, ranking 25th in the league after allowing an average of 342.4 yards, which was over 15 yards higher per game than the previous season.

The Giants ranked 14th against the run (114.4), 28th against the pass (228.1) and allowed 362 points, 48 more than in 2005.

"I don't know that the system we'll use has been completely defined," Spagnuolo said. "And the only reason I say that is, I've only been here since January. I really haven't had any hands-on work with the guys. The staff and I have been working conceptually. But I don't know that will be completely laid out and finalized until we get some time to practice."

What's certain is the Giants will attack the ball, the trait that has made the Eagles defense so tough to handle since Andy Reid became coach in 1999. And they will do it by putting an emphasis on athleticism, making an attempt to get their quickest and most talented players on the field by devising schemes to make it happen.

"The scheme has changed a little bit," said Pete Giunta, the cornerbacks coach. "We'll keep the things that we've done well and add a lot that Steve and the staff in Philadelphia did well. Our guys have seen the Eagles so much on tape."

The organization has already offered two small hints about its direction. They drafted Texas cornerback Aaron Ross in the first round, a pressing defender who excels by playing physically. And they announced that last season's top pick, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, would be moved to strong-side linebacker, adding mobility to the back line.

"You want guys playing defense for you that are intelligent, productive and can play fast," Spagnuolo said. "If you can get those kinds of players you just plug them into the system. And that's what we will do here.

"Typically what happens in this league is teams study the top five offenses and defenses from the past season looking to discover what they did. But I will say this: I believe the consistently good defenses are the ones who stop the run and pressure the passer. You can break it down all you want. But those are the nuts and bolts."

Spagnuolo has already had several conversations with Antonio Pierce, the Giants middle linebacker. The two have shared ideas.

"I think it's going to be fun playing for him," Pierce said. "Just look at what he did in Philadelphia. That defense was always one of the most feared in the league. That's something we need here. As long as he can make something happen with the linebackers and defense, I am happy with it."

The Giants never openly criticized Lewis during his three years as coordinator. But there always seemed to be confusion about assignments. Pierce said the defensive ends were often mystified about what their roles were in a 4-3 defense that frequently morphed into a 3-4.

"We were put into situations that weren't conducive to speed rushers [at defensive end]," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said.

Once practice begins, Spagnuolo will use this information as he begins to evaluate his talent and formulate his plan.

"Everybody on this defense is going to start out with a clean slate," he said. "I'm not going to worry whether a player was able to do or not do something one or two years ago. We are going to rely on coaching and our ability to put people in the right spots. And then we'll see how it progresses from there."

Spagnuolo knows he could have stayed in Philadelphia and thrived under Reid's stable system. Instead, he decided to come to the Giants and thrust himself into a situation that's far from firm, working for a coach likely on a one-year tryout under rookie GM Jerry Reese.

"What I've come to learn in this league is that there's the same amount of pressure every year," Spagnuolo said. "It's doesn't matter – we felt it in Philadelphia after five straight winning seasons. And we will approach this one the same way – we won't go back and worry about the past or the numbers. We will take the great staff and players we've been provided and hope to move forward and be successful in that way."

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