Staying Power

After the first interception return for a touchdown of his young NFL career, Aaron Ross raced to the Giants sideline, his feet barely touching the ground as he accepted slaps on the back from his excited teammates.

Joining in the celebration, Tom Coughlin rushed over, leaned in and offered his congratulations to Ross.

What did the head coach say to the rookie cornerback?

"Great job, that's basically it,'' Ross recalled. "Great job. I said, 'Thank you coach.' We hugged each other, and that was it.''

It was quite a moment for both men, considering what went down between them not long before all the exploits.

Ross had just sealed the deal on a 35-24 Giants victory over the Jets with a scintillating performance. Ross earlier in the fourth quarter came up with his first NFL interception, leaping in front of receiver Jerricho Cotchery to pick off a poorly-thrown lob by Chad Pennington on the Giants 2-yard line with the Jets clinging to a 24-21 lead.

After that came the game-breaker, as Ross with 3:15 remaining and the Giants ahead 28-24 expertly anticipated a pass to Cotchery in the right flat, undercut the route, in a flash plucked the ball out of the air and was on his way to a 43-yard return, coming up with what he dubbed a Superman imitation as he did a one-legged leap into the end zone.

"It was a bunch formation that we had been watching all week in practice and the number two guy, he basically sat down and ran something like an option route, either an in or an out depending on where I was lined up on him,'' Ross explained. "I was lined up inside so the odds of him running inside were very slim so I guessed he would run an outside route and I jumped it.

"[The coaching staff] put me in the perfect situation and it is just up to me if I want to make the play on the ball.''

Not only did Ross want to make a play on the ball, he was able to do it to complete a performance that would have been eye-catching even if it did not include some unforeseen personal drama.

Ross did not play the entire first half, as he was benched by Coughlin for violating team rules earlier that weekend. It was likely a missed curfew the Saturday night prior to the game and the first-year player was cut no slack by Coughlin. Ross was supposed to make his second career start, as he replaced Corey Webster as the starting left cornerback a week earlier against the Eagles. But game-time arrived and Ross remained on the sideline as Kevin Dockery took his place with the first-team defense.

"You have to do the best that you can to help the player understand the significance of what has taken place and you help them to learn that it is not acceptable going forward,'' Coughlin explained.

Asked what he learned about the incident, Ross said, "Not to do what I did ever again. It was a silly mistake on my behalf. It won't happen again and it was a message to the team. If you mess up for disciplinary reasons, you will sit on the bench until it is time for you to get in.

"It was a mistake. I feel like I responded really well.''

The response was exactly what the Giants want and need out of Ross, who as a first-round draft pick out of Texas was expected to contribute right away, perhaps not as a starter but at least as an important cog as the nickel back. This is the way it's supposed to work for high draft picks, especially at the position of cornerback, where immediate impacts are not uncommon.

With Webster in his third season not showing the necessary progress, the quick emergence of Ross is essential to the inner-workings of the Giants defense. Last season's starting duo of Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters was not going to be able to get it done – too much age and wear on the tires – and Webster could not hold onto the job because of inconsistent play. With Ross on the left side and Madison seemingly rejuvenated on the right, the entire Giants secondary played exceedingly well in Ross' first career start, a 16-3 thumping of the Eagles.

The spotlight in that game shined on the 12-sack eruption by the front group but many of those sacks would not have materialized if not for excellent coverage downfield. Ross finished up his first start with five tackles, one quarterback hurry and two passes defensed. Osi Umenyiora with a franchise record-breaking six sacks of besieged Donovan McNabb received all the glory but he refused to get caught up in his outburst, knowing there was more at work than his own dominance.

"Nah, it is nothing, it is just one of those things that happens,'' Umenyiora said. "The coverage was good, man. The coverage was the primary reason. The guy blocked me a couple of times so it is not like I was just blowing by him. Sometimes the quarterback throws it and sometimes he doesn't and for some reason everything just seemed to fall into place. I don't feel like it was just an extraordinary performance by me, it was a team effort. The DBs did their job; [Donovan] McNabb held the ball and I was just able to get around.''

Sure enough, Ross' ability in coverage, whether lined up outside in the base defense or in the slot in the nickel package, has provided an upgrade. The most noteworthy comment about Ross from Coughlin is that even if the rookie makes a mistake, it's one borne out of aggressiveness, which certainly was not the case with Webster.

In game No. 3, Ross replaced the benched Webster at left cornerback for the second half of the victory in Washington and in his most extensive playing time was in on the game-saving tackle – along with Justin Tuck – of Ladell Betts on the game-securing last-second goal-line stand. That earned Ross his first NFL start in just his fourth game.

It does not appear Ross will be out of the lineup any time soon, just as long as he obeys the rules from here on out.

"I wouldn't trade him for anything,'' said Madison, an 11-year veteran. "We just got to get him where he's supposed to be.''

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