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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Patrick Graham dove right in front of his players on Thursday, to take all the shots that have been fired in their direction. He wanted the world to know that the most disappointing thing about the Giants defense has nothing to do with the players. So far this season, it’s been all about him.
“The main person I’m going to blame is myself,” Graham said on Thursday morning. “I’ve got to do a better job. It comes down to that. These guys, they work their butts off out there on the field so the key is for me to get it right first. Get it coached right, get them in the right spots. That’s my job.”
He’s right. But of course Graham isn’t the one who missed tackles, blew coverages or failed to get pressure on the quarterback at an alarming rate during the first two games. He does have a point, though, since he was the one credited with being a genius for turning the Giants defense into a Top 12 unit last season.
Now it’s his responsibility to fix it. And he needs to do it fast, before it’s too late.
That may not be so easy either, since this early-season collapse of the defense shouldn’t have happened, theoretically. This defense is largely the same as the one that surprised everyone by finishing ranked 12th in the NFL last year, with what looked like one of the better young secondaries in the league.
The only changes they made were supposed to be improvements. They gave Adoree’ Jackson a three-year, $39 million deal to upgrade the cornerback spot opposite Pro Bowler James Bradberry. Safety Xavier McKinney, their second-round pick in 2020, was back after missing much of his rookie season with a foot injury. Young edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines were back healthy, too. And they signed veteran Danny Shelton to fill the hole at defensive tackle left by Dalvin Tomlinson.
Tomlinson, by the way, was their only significant offseason loss. But as good as he was, the former second-rounder was never the kind of difference-making player that could explain a fall like this. The Giants’ defense, through two games, has given up 827 yards, including 575 passing yards to Teddy Bridgewater and Taylor Heinicke. They’ve also surrendered 57 points and are statistically the sixth-worst defense in the league.
On Thursday night, after just a terrible performance by his defense in a 30-29 loss in Washington, Graham and Giants head coach Joe Judge spent most of the train ride back to New Jersey watching film and talking about what went wrong. Whatever they discussed, though, Graham didn’t want to discuss it. In fact, he was desperately trying to avoid any discussion about the first two games.
The message he wanted to get across was simple: The only thing that went wrong was him.
“I need to do a better job of coaching. That’s my job,” Graham said. “You’re all not worried about me fathering or being a husband. For you guys and the people listening, I’ve got to do a better job of coaching. … I’ve got do a better job teaching, coaching, and putting them in the right spot. I think clearly, that’s my job, so I’ve got do a better job. That’s it.”
Obviously, that’s not really it. It’s not all on Graham that the Giants’ pass rush, which was so surprisingly strong last season, has disappeared in the first two games. He’s not to blame for the players who were in the right positions but missed too many tackles. He wasn’t the cause of the rough first game for Bradberry, whom Graham said is actually playing “at a high level,” or the fact that most of the rest of the secondary has played at a much lower level so far.
The more important question now is: What is Graham going to do about it? He really has only a couple of choices. He can stay the course, stick with the players he trusts and the scheme he knows can work, and hope it all starts working better in what might just be a must-win game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Or he can shake things up somehow.
Of course, he wouldn’t say what he plans to do. But he did hint that he believes, deep down, that his defense as is will eventually be just fine.
“Thankfully, again, we’ve got another opportunity this week,” he said. “Out of 17 games, you want to use two games (to judge the defense), that’s fine. I still think if you do the math you’ve still got a chance to be OK.
“The good thing about my job is you get another test the next week and that’s the best part about it. Whether I failed the test last week, I get another crack at it, so I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s not the worst approach, really. In fact, it has famously worked for the Giants before. Way back in 2007, their defense got off to an even worse start, giving up 846 yards and 80 points in the first two games. Back then, first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo resisted any urges to blow everything up and told his players that if they stayed the course, it would all come together.
It did, starting the next week, with a famous, game-winning, goal-line stand in Washington. That defense then carried the Giants on a remarkable Super Bowl run.
No one is suggesting that’s what’s about to happen here. This is a team that will be lucky to make the playoffs at all.
But one thing is certain: They have zero chance of making the playoffs if Graham’s defense continues to be as bad as it’s been the first two weeks. Th Giants’ offense, with all its flaws, can’t be the thing that carries them. They just aren’t good enough to do that. So it’s up to the defense. And yes, it’s up to Graham.
It may not be all his fault, despite what he says, but he’s the one that has to fix this mess. And in many ways, this entire season is riding on him and how quickly he can figure it all out.