Last year, New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had no idea just what he was getting when management presented him with a revamped defensive lineup.
Of sure, he knew of the names and what the individuals like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and defensive end Olivier Vernon had done with previous teams.
What Spagnuolo didn’t know though was how well—if at all—those new faces would mesh with those returning to produce the results the team desperately needed on the field.
By now we know how everything worked out—the Giants defense rose from the ashes of the cellar to finish as a top-10 unit and a top 5 unit against the run and in points allowed.
Because of that, Spagnuolo has apparently loosened the reins a bit for this year by allowing his players to have a bit more say in the design of certain packages and scenarios.
“Spags, I think since his first year to now, I think he’s let his guard down a little bit,” said linebacker and last year’s defensive captain Jonathan Casillas. “He’s let us, as the players, kind of dictate to him in what we like to do and what we’re comfortable with.”
Casillas noted that Spagnuolo wasn’t quite as receptive to player suggestions earlier in his second tour of duty with the Giants, which is somewhat understandable given the revolving door he had on his unit due to injuries, not to mention the lack of quality talent at some spots that he has today.
“This offseason, I’ve seen it happen more times than not, especially in training camp,” Casillas said of Spagnuolo’s willingness to listen to his players’ suggestions. “Spags is definitely a guy that, he’s willing to listen to players and even the coaches underneath him to get certain things ironed out.”
The coaches and players will often say that it’s important not to cling to the past and think that they can simply pick up where they left off. However, there are certain things such as the camaraderie and the confidence that the players worked on building last season that can carry over and be used as a foundation for the coming season.
But more importantly, by getting the players more involved with making tweaks to certain plays and packages, Spagnuolo is instituting a greater sense of ownership among the players, a motivational tactic that theoretically should yield even greater results since the players know just how much their fingerprints are all over the product put on the field.
Casillas, who declined to offer up any specific examples of the suggestions made by the players that Spagnuolo incorporated, said the change in the defensive coordinator is all about the players having earned his trust.
“Just like any relationship that you have, over time you allow more things to happen because the trust factor’s there,” he said.
With that trust factor there, the Giants defense, if healthy, has the potential to be even scarier than last season.
“I think we can be as good as we want to,” Casillas said, echoing a sentiment expressed by cornerback Janoris Jenkins Saturday. “And I say that because you can’t go from what we did last year. It’s a new year – similar guys, but not the same.
“We lost a big piece in [former defensive tackle Johnathan] Hankins and we’ve got to have a guy step up with him gone. We’ve got to play really solid on the backend. Our linebackers have to really step up this year and play, if not better, but bigger than we’ve ever played since I’ve been here. That’s just to keep account with all the guys on the frontend.
“You’ve got JPP [defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul], OV [defensive end Olivier Vernon] and Snacks [defensive tackle Damon Harrison]. Those guys are feared around the league and we’re just trying to play up to their tempo.”
Then there is also the matter of the young players fully understanding and embracing the Giants tradition of playing greet defense, as was the case during the days of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew and, more recently, during Spagnuolo’s first tenure with the Giants in 2007 and 2008.
“You know what? It’s still early. I don’t think they have a full grasp of it yet,” Casillas said when asked if the young players understand that history.
“But I think the coaches and ourselves, as the older guys in the room, we try to show them an example. But I don’t think they truly know. Even when I was first here, being a seven-year guy, a Jersey guy, I didn’t really know the tradition and how strong it was.
“I think it’s our job and the coaches’ job to not only show them the history, but establishing them in what we have going on right now.”
If they can do that, there just might be no stopping the Giants 2017 defense.