Sullivan: New-look Giants defense impressive so far

August 16, 2016 GMT

EAST RUTHERFORD – Giants rookie safety Darian Thompson has navigated the learning curve of his first NFL training camp like a seasoned vet, moving into a starting position before camp even opened and leaving little doubt he could handle it through last weekend’s initial preseason game.

Fear not he might forget what’s keeping it that way, either. Because any time that’s even close to happening, he can just close his eyes and envision the image his defensive boss keeps in the defense’s meeting room.

“Coach Spags [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] has a picture of a buffalo with a bunch of lions attacking it,” Thompson said Monday, shortly after the Giants wrapped up a sweltering training camp practice. “He says that’s how he wants us to play. If you want to be great on defense, all 11 have to get to the ball. That’s something he’s been emphasizing.”

The Giants did precious little of that last season, when a franchise built on its defensive foundation was embarrassed to finish last among all NFL units. Management quickly went about fixing those problems, dropping boatloads of cash on off-season free agents and spending valuable first- and third-round picks on defense in the subsequent draft. As the team prepares for its second preseason game Saturday in Buffalo, it’s still basking in the best news out of last Friday’s loss to Miami: On defense, so far so good.

The starters may have played only two series, but they amounted to an impressive eight snaps. New defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison combined with Jason Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins to completely stuff any running plays, and they pressured Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill enough that second-year safety Landon Collins would later joke, “It got kind of boring back there [in the secondary].”

Not that Collins was complaining. This is what the Giants envisioned when they brought the former Super Bowl champion coordinator Spagnuolo back last season, only to realize they didn’t have the personnel for him to re-create past success. Now with Collins a year better, with first-round pick Eli Apple learning from veteran corner Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, with Thompson learning from Collins, with the restocked defensive line, there’s a growing belief in what’s happening.

“When you have a line like that, your job’s easy,” Collins said. “All you really do is look for the pass. Let them try to make plays.”

When Miami did try, the Giants found some answers there, too, getting an interception from linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who might have had two had he stayed inbounds. From the lack of big plays a year ago, the playbook is shifting to the way it used to be, the way it seems it had always been around here.

“I think we have some guys that have good instincts,” McAdoo said. “They can pull the trigger quickly, and [Casillas] is one of them.”

As McAdoo inches closer to his debut game as an NFL coach, he does so with an offense that’s had three years to be built in his image. The former Green Bay offensive coordinator was instrumental in retooling some of Eli Manning’s footwork and mechanics, and with the emergence of Odell Beckham Jr., the arrival of rookie receiver Sterling Shepard and the inclusion of a play-action short passing game that had disappeared from the playbook, the Giants’ offense has been very good, and at times great.

Though the offense could surely improve on a leaguewide No. 8 finish a season ago, that’s not what this team truly needs to get back to the playoffs for the first time since winning it all in 2011.

“We came to prove a point,” Collins said of the defense. “We have a chip on our shoulders, so by doing so, we came to shut down whoever we played against. That’s our move, that’s our aggression, and that’s what we’re going to put on the field.”

And if that’s the lesson they’re out to teach the rookies, Thompson is listening. From the early off-season minicamp, when he ascended to the top of the depth chart, to the first preseason game, when he played 25 snaps on defense and another 10 on special teams, he’s ready to join the pack.

“The history of the Giants has a lot of times been known for great defenses in the past,” Thompson said. “They were a bunch of guys that were hungry, and I think that’s what we’re trying to get back to the program now. … The first couple of series [against Miami] I felt we did a good job with that.”

It was only the first step on what has to be a long journey, but as starts go, it was a good one.

“It was good to get them out there playing together,” McAdoo said. “It’s not just verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s how they fit off of each other and how they play off of each other, and you can only get that from full-speed reps.”

Email: sullivan@northjersey.com