1 New York GIANTS

Resuscitating a once dominant defense? Looks like a job for Superman
September 05, 2010

WHEN THE details of his recent medical history are accounted for, strong safety Kenny Phillips's nickname sounds almost cruel. Superman shouldn't fall victim to a degenerative knee condition called patellofemoral arthritis; shouldn't slip off in the middle of autumn to visit noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews for microfracture surgery; shouldn't miss the final 14 games of his sophomore NFL season. So consider it a credit to the 23-year-old Phillips—the player the Giants arguably missed most amid their embarrassing, anticlimactic, injury-marred 2009 campaign—that when his teammates yell, "Superman is back!" on a practice field in Albany one summer day, it doesn't sound like taunting but rather hope.

That was the last emotion the Giants' 2009 season inspired. New York got off to a 5--0 start but collapsed after that as the nicked-up defense—six key contributors missed at least three games; defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Rocky Bernard played the whole season with shoulder injuries—yielded 427 points, second most in team history and the third most in the league. Notably, the Giants also gave up the second-most touchdown passes in the NFL. As if an exclamation point were needed, New York closed the season with a 41--9 blowout loss to the Panthers, who rushed for 247 yards in the Giants' final game at their eponymous stadium, and a 44--7 thrashing by the Vikings, who threw for 358 yards. It left the kind of stink that lingers. "It stays with you pretty good," coach Tom Coughlin said at the start of camp. "It kind of eats away at you."

While it may seem impossible to identify any one turning point, the loss of the √ºbertalented Phillips, who had two interceptions in his only two games, certainly contributed. "The way Kenny started off last year, there were no limitations to how far he could go," Coughlin says. Drafted 31st overall out of Miami two years ago, the 6'2", 210-pound Phillips had already developed a reputation, in the words of cornerback Terrell Thomas, for "moving us corners out of the way to take our fade routes." Phillips's nickname derives from his ability to sprint from sideline to sideline and instinctively fly in to shatter a play from out of nowhere—a trait a recovered Phillips featured during 2010 camp. "If Kenny stays healthy," defensive end Justin Tuck says, "in 10 years you'll be talking about one of the top five safeties in the league. He doesn't even know how good he can be."

But Coughlin, who identified safety as the primary position "that needed to be corrected" this off-season, wasn't simply banking on one man's convalescence. Out went defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan after a year, replaced by the loud, attack-oriented Perry Fewell (the Bills' interim coach last season). General manager Jerry Reese then went shopping for veteran swagger, inking former Cardinals free safety Antrel Rolle to a massive, five-year, $37 million deal, and former Seahawks strong safety Deon Grant, who's already taken to motivating teammates with postpractice phone calls. The outspoken Rolle has declared himself and Phillips the best safety pair in the league. "You feel comfortable knowing there are guys back there that got your back," says Tuck. "We can take a lot of risks up front in terms of stunting, blitzes, things that we couldn't have done last year."

Under Fewell, in fact, that front line—arguably the best eight-man rotation in the league—will be doing quite a bit that's seldom been seen before. Fewell has unveiled a turbo quadruple-end pass rush (dubbed NASCAR) featuring Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and two 6'5" monsters, rookie Jason Pierre-Paul and veteran Mathias Kiwanuka, as well as an anti-run formation (Big Base) that moves 6'7", 304-pound Chris Canty to end and Kiwanuka to linebacker. Tellingly, Tuck himself has practiced at every line spot, while absurd depth has nudged Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl player, to the second team.

The overarching goal is to leverage a wealth of talent while keeping legs fresh and warding off injury across the board. And though the upside of this defense may be unrivaled in the NFL, Superman's backstory is a reminder of how suddenly things can unravel. "We have all the pieces to the puzzle now," Phillips says, grinning. "And it's been a while, but I'm ready to put on that cape."

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH TOM COUGHLIN

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 8

QB ELI MANNING

G 16

ATT 509

COMP 317

PCT 62.3

YARDS 4,021

TD 27

INT 14

RATING 93.1

RB BRANDON JACOBS

G 15

ATT 224

YARDS 835

AVG 3.7

REC 18

YARDS 184

AVG 10.2

TTD 6

FB MADISON HEDGECOCK

G 16

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 4

YARDS 23

AVG 5.8

TTD 1

WR STEVE SMITH

G 16

REC 107

YARDS 1,220

TTD 7

WR HAKEEM NICKS

G 14

REC 47

YARDS 790

TTD 6

TE KEVIN BOSS

G 15

REC 42

YARDS 567

TTD 5

LT DAVID DIEHL

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 319

LG RICH SEUBERT

G 14

HT 6'3"

WT 310

C SHAUN O'HARA

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 303

RG CHRIS SNEE

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 317

RT KAREEM MCKENZIE

G 12

HT 6'6"

WT 327

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 13

DE JUSTIN TUCK

G 16

TACKLES 59

SACKS 6

INT 0

DT BARRY COFIELD

G 16

TACKLES 35

SACKS 1

INT 0

DT JAY ALFORD*

G 16

TACKLES 15

SACKS 2½

INT 0

DE MATHIAS KIWANUKA

G 16

TACKLES 61

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB MICHAEL BOLEY

G 11

TACKLES 84

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB KEITH BULLUCK

G 14

TACKLES 108

SACKS 0

INT 3

LB CLINT SINTIM

G 11

TACKLES 20

SACKS 1

INT 0

CB COREY WEBSTER

G 13

TACKLES 51

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS ANTREL ROLLE

G 15

TACKLES 72

SACKS 1½

INT 4

SS KENNY PHILLIPS

G 2

TACKLES 13

SACKS 0

INT 2

CB TERRELL THOMAS

G 16

TACKLES 85

SACKS 1

INT 5

SPECIAL TEAMS

P MATT DODGE (R)

PUNTS 67

AVG 45.8

NET 39.6

K LAWRENCE TYNES

FG 27--32

XP 45--45

POINTS 126

PR AARON ROSS

RET 0

AVG —

TD 0

KR DANNY WARE

RET 2

AVG 18.5

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

*2008 stats

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 8--8

September

12 Carolina

19 at Indianapolis

26 Tennessee

October

3 Chicago

10 at Houston

17 Detroit

25 at Dallas (M)

31 BYE

November

7 at Seattle

14 Dallas

21 at Philadelphia

28 Jacksonville

December

5 Washington

12 at Minnesota

19 Philadelphia

26 at Green Bay

January

2 at Washington

(M) Monday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 7

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .527

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 7

ANALYSIS

The opener at the New Meadowlands offers a chance to avenge last year's demolition by the Panthers in the Giants' closing game at the old place. Like 2009, when New York started 5--0, the easiest part of the schedule comes in the first half of the season—except for Indy in prime time in Week 2. Eli and Peyton Manning have faced each other only once, a 26--21 Colts win in Jersey in 2006.

SPOTLIGHT

Steve Smith, Wide receiver

SMITH isn't sure when the metamorphosis happened. Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, who also played with Smith at USC, likes to point to the win over the Cowboys early last season: a 10-catch, 134-yard opus by the 5'11" Smith, highlighted by a double move out of the slot that put defender Orlando Scandrick on his butt and set Smith dancing in the end zone. "Then people were like, O.K., this guy's for real," Thomas recalls. Smith himself mostly remembers what people recently started telling him: "You're the Steve Smith now."

After toiling for several years as the Other Steve Smith—a lesser version of the 31-year-old Panthers star, another sub-six-foot wideout—the Giants' Smith, 25, has made a name for himself. In his second season, 2008, Smith served as the Giants' third-down receiver, but he exploded last year, catching 107 passes for 1,220 yards and earning his first Pro Bowl nod. (The new Other Steve Smith dropped off to 65 for 982.) "Steve works his tail off," says coach Tom Coughlin, who estimates that Smith catches 100 to 125 balls a day in practice. "And what Steve has always done is catch it. No matter the circumstance, not always the best of throws, but he always finds a way."

But Smith is just one in a homegrown, high-ceiling corps. Hakeem Nicks, 22, and Mario Manningham, 24, combined for 11 scores last year, while 6'6" Ramses Barden, 24, and undrafted camp surprise Victor Cruz, 23, were impressive in August. "It happened real fast," Smith says. "Now I'm also one of the old guys."

PHOTODAVID BERGMANFULL COVERAGE Phillips, who missed 14 games in '09, adds a jolt to the secondary. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)