- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The question was about the New York Giants' sparkling 4-0 record at Cowboys Stadium, which is now called AT&T Stadium and is where the Giants will open their regular season Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys. It was a leading question, about a point of Giants pride, and its author was asking it of almost everyone in the room. But the answer from Justin Tuck, captain of the Giants' defense, may have transcended the topic.
"I've never left from Jerry's World feeling good about our performance on defense," Tuck said. "Obviously, you feel good about the win, but we don't like to put the pressure on Eli [Manning] and the offense to have to score 30 points to win a game. I hope they only have to score 10. We have to play a great game."
Such this the state of the Giants' defense at the dawn of the 2013 season. They intend to be great. They believe they can be great. But when you get right down to it ... they haven't really been great for some time. Oh, there are spurts, sure. They were unquestionably great for a six-week stretch from late December 2011 to early February 2012, and that stretch helped deliver the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title. They were great last year in San Francisco, when they dominated the eventual NFC champs in a game that seemed to stamp them as a serious threat to defend their title.
But in the big picture ... not great. The Giants ranked 27th in the 32-team National Football League in total defense in the 2011 regular season. They dropped to 31st last year, when they finished with an identical 9-7 record that this time wasn't good enough to get them into the playoffs. Blame to go around, for sure, but one can't help but think fielding a top-30 defense might have meant the one more win they needed, right?
"It is quite motivating," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said of that No. 31 ranking from a year ago. "It never goes out of my mind. You never want to be ranked last, or near last, in anything you compete at as a professional. So we are very motivated to erase that number and be a top defense in the league."
It's a long way back to anything resembling the top for these Giants, who as part of the plan to jump as many of those 30 spots as possible are counting on players like Tuck and cornerback Corey Webster to simply play better than they did in 2012. Both players say they're sure they can do it, but August talk is the cheapest talk and we'll start actually finding out tonight. Other parts of the improvement plan, Fewell said, include (a) supplementing the front four's pass rush with increased help from blitzing linebackers and (b) using players with larger backsides.
He laughed, as we all did, but he wasn't really kidding. Adding size at defensive tackle, as they did by bringing in Rogers, Jenkins, Mike Patterson and second-round pick Johnathan Hankins, was part of the Giants' offseason plan to beef up the middle of their defensive line and be tougher against the run.
"It's a huge factor is helping us be a better run defense," Fewell said. "The mass, the size, the strength is noticeably different for us."
All right. We can give him that. Defensive tackle appears to be the one spot at which the Giants clearly upgraded on defense this offseason. But questions remain in the secondary, where Webster is a mystery and Prince Amukamara is still emerging and safety is all kinds of banged up with Kenny Phillips gone and Stevie Brown out for the season with a torn ACL. They have their usual patchwork at linebacker, a position at which the plan appears to be for Fewell to rotate players in and out of the lineup depending on how their individual strengths and weaknesses mesh with the situation. And in the end, it all likely comes down to whether their pass-rushing defensive ends can be dominant, and whether they can be that way every week.
"We know what it's about for us," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "The reason it's frustrating is because one week we can look like the best defense in the league and then the next week, we go out and we don't. If you want to be one of the best defenses in the league, you have to do it week in and week out. And that's what we haven't done."
That's the mission for the Giants' defense as 2013 dawns -- to play back up to its old reputation and keep it there. If it doesn't, then things could start to look a lot different on that side of the ball starting next year. Tuck could be gone. Fewell could be gone. Webster and Antrel Rolle and who knows who else could be gone. The Giants may consider themselves underachievers, but one more year near the bottom of the league would make it hard for anyone else to believe they're not just a bad defensive team.