The narrative has changed over the past three weeks. Safety Antrel Rolle, cornerback Corey Webster and the rest of the secondary have helped the Giants limit their last three opponents to an average of only 218 yards passing per game, providing the defensive backfield with a shot of confidence in time for the playoffs.
“We do some things right back there,” safety Kenny Phillips said with a wry smile. “We have some guys in the secondary that’s playing amazing right now. Just look out for us.”
A season ago, the Giants’ use of three safeties at once frustrated offenses because of the group’s speed and athleticism. Yet, it was not until recently that the secondary has resembled the unit that had the Giants ranked ninth in passing defense last season.
The Giants have been particularly susceptible to big plays. The 60 passing plays of 20 yards or more they have allowed are fourth most in the N.F.L., according to the league. But only four of those plays came in the final three games of the regular season. With the Giants set to face the Atlanta Falcons and their talented receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones in the N.F.C. playoffs Sunday, their secondary is peaking at the right time.
“It was just minor mistakes,” Phillips said. “The big thing was communication and doing what they’re supposed to do. It was easy to fix, and I think we got that accomplished. We weren’t getting beat physically; it was basically knowing the call.”
Part of the explanation for the secondary’s relative resurgence might also trace back to the improved pass rush of the defensive line, which has been able to get such a push toward the quarterback that the Giants have not had to rely on blitzes, allowing for more help in coverage. The pressure on quarterbacks like Rex Grossman of the Washington Redskins or Mark Sanchez of the Jets has also forced poor throws.
Additionally, the rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara has played a reduced role in recent weeks. Amukamara, the Giants’ first-round draft pick last year, has struggled to catch up to the speed of the N.F.L. after missing the first nine games, and most of training camp, because of a broken foot. He has been beaten on several big plays this season.
Yet the renewed focus on individual responsibility and better communication among the defensive backs has had an impact on some of the unit’s leaders, especially Rolle, who had bemoaned being unable to be the ball-hawking player he was before joining the Giants.
The turning point for Rolle, who has been used as a nickel back and at linebacker to give him less of a roving deep presence on the field, came before the Giants’ win against the Jets on Dec. 24. That was when the veteran safety Deon Grant sat him down for a long conversation because he noticed that Rolle was trying to do too much.
“Bro, I understand what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Rolle recalled Grant saying. “But be you. Let your play do the talking for you. That’s what you are. That’s what we know you as.”
So Rolle stopped talking too loudly in the locker room. He stopped trying to get all of his teammates lined up before the snap. He stopped barking out routes in the middle of the play. He just played.
The results showed. Rolle recorded , and afterward he told Grant that he “owed him” for their conversation. of Tony Romo against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday.
The past two weeks could not have been more different from some of the weeks that came before. In fact, in a win over the Cowboys on Dec. 11, the Giants allowed five passing plays of 20 yards or more, and a 50-yard touchdown reception that left two players involved in the play claiming their innocence for the terrible breakdown.
There has been little reason for finger pointing lately. With the postseason only a few days away, the Giants have started to shed the labels that previously defined their struggles this season.
Grant said the Giants were getting back to basics. He said the players had been “out there trying to do too much as individuals. Now we’re back to taking care of our business.”
Jake Ballard was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice. He missed the last two games after partly tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Giants’ loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 18. He said that he hoped to play Sunday.