The trick play thwarted by the Giants defense for a turning point in their comeback victory Sunday at Tennessee wasn’t part of any film package that players studied last week.
Nick Williams was acting on instinct when he fought through his block and crashed the backfield after reading a sweep hand-off to Titans third-string tight end Chig Okonkwo. Austin Calitro and Adoree’ Jackson swarmed to the ball, and Tae Crowder provided the finishing hit to turn a third-and-1 into a fourth-and-5.
Coaches and staffers log long hours preparing, but the awareness and execution the Giants showed on that play is an example of what head coach Brian Daboll means when he says “it’s a player’s game.”
“Two of the biggest plays of the game were those third-down stops,” Daboll said, including Okonkwo’s 4-yard loss in two second-half defensive stands that forced punts and preceded touchdown drives by the Giants. “They were pretty good heads-up plays by our defense. It gave us a chance to get the ball back.”
All the focus on Saquon Barkley’s renaissance, Daboll’s aggressive decision-making and a Titans’ missed field goal overshadowed a strong performance by a defense with more journeyman starters (three) than cumulative Pro Bowl selections (one). The Giants scored the second-highest tackling grade (five missed tackles) among all 32 teams by Pro Football Focus.
Two-time NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry was held to 3.9 yards per carry, which was his 13th-lowest average over his last 40 games. Only one of his 21 carries (for 82 yards) went for longer than seven yards as defensive tackle Leonard Williams and outside linebacker Jihad Ward carried big workloads, with 82 and 88 percent of the defensive snaps, respectively.
“When you have a target like that — one of the best backs in the league — you’re going to sleep at night thinking, ‘What are we going to do to stop him?’ ” safety Julian Love said. “We were just running to the ball and getting after him.”
Henry fumbled a direct snap on a third-and-1 early in the third quarter and was tackled by Calitro and Crowder before he could recover. That’s an inside linebacker duo of a six-year veteran who has changed teams 10 times and the last pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“Our defense played lights-out,” Barkley said after the Giants overcame a 13-point deficit. “Especially in the beginning when we weren’t worth a thing. We were in the red the whole time.”
Crowder also delivered another hit that doesn’t stand out in the boxscore (noted as a 3-yard gain), but sent a message of physicality to his teammates and became impossible to miss on social media: He lowered his shoulder and de-cleated Henry, just as the 247-pound power back has done to so many would-be tacklers during his career.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to it,” Crowder said of the video and memes shared thousands of times on Twitter. “I just try to prepare the right way, and it ended up being a good play. Everybody did a good job around me of flying to the ball.”
The Giants blitzed on 17 of 35 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference, but rarely sent more than one extra rusher so as to avoid getting caught shorthanded at the second- and third-levels if the Titans had a run play called.
It was a testament to restraint and opponent-specific game-planning shown by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who loaded up on heavy bodies for Henry, but recently suggested there could be game plans designed entirely with extra defensive backs in place of inside linebackers.
“Part of the plan was to go in there and to try to eliminate the big, big runs,” Daboll said. “They did a really good job of stopping the run against a very talented player and good scheme. He had a couple of them, but we ended up managing to not give him those 60-yarders.”
The defensive challenge will take a new turn Sunday, when the Giants face an equally explosive, but different style of back in the Panthers’ shifty Christian McCaffrey. The biggest potential mismatch for the Giants — an elite quarterback against their vulnerable secondary — won’t appear until Week 5 against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in London.
“Obviously it will be very different,” Crowder said of the game plan for Week 2, “but it’s not really about what they’re going to do. It’s about what we’re going to do.”