- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a defensive drill Perry Fewell likes to employ in which a defensive back intercepts the ball around the 30-yard-line and the whole defense immediately forms a convoy and sprints toward the back of the end zone. If one player so much as slows down even a step or two before crossing the back line of the end zone, Fewell goes ballistic and unleashes a profanity-laced tirade.
Last weekend at Giants rookie minicamp, the team's new defensive coordinator made his presence known by lacing into a couple of rookies and undrafted free agents.
London Fletcher remembers this drill all too well. He played just one season under Fewell with the Buffalo Bills in 2006, but the Washington Redskins middle linebacker credits Fewell with making him a better player. Fletcher flourished under Fewell's direction and he thinks the Giants defense will do the same this season.
"Some coaches will be laid back," Fletcher said by telephone. "He is not like that at all. He doesn't care where you are from as far as a status standpoint, or how many Pro Bowls you have been to. He is going to challenge you every day to practice harder than before. Every day he is going to be out there coaching, yelling, screaming and encouraging."
After an abysmal 8-8 season in which an injury-ravaged Giants defense surrendered 427 points -- the third-highest total in the NFL last season behind the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams -- the Giants hired Fewell to replace Bill Sheridan and restore the defense.
Fewell, 47, served as defensive coordinator for the Bills from 2006-09. After Dick Jauron was fired during the season, Fewell took over and went 3-4 as the interim head coach. Similar to replacing Jauron, Fewell has his work cut out for him with the Giants. He must revitalize a dormant pass rush that produced just 32 sacks last season, down from 42 and 53 sacks registered in the previous two seasons. He has to find a starting middle linebacker to replace Antonio Pierce, and he likely has to find one from a collection of young and inexperienced players.
More importantly, Fewell has to earn the trust and devotion of a defense that all but gave up on its last coordinator.
"He has a lot of fire and energy and he is good at communicating with people," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said last month. "He listens. I think [Fewell's scheme] will be a better fit. I don't think anybody will have a problem buying into the system. We didn't believe in the system that we had [last year] and people didn't trust that the positions that we were put in were always going to work."
General manager Jerry Reese made sure Fewell had some parts to work with, adding defensive pieces via free agency (safety Antrel Rolle) and the draft (Reese used five of his first seven draft picks on defensive players). In fact, Reese's first four choices were defensive players. In taking defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, safety Chad Jones and middle linebacker Phillip Dillard, Reese delivered a clear message that a repeat performance of last year's debacle will not be tolerated.
Fletcher knows the Giants' defensive personnel and says Fewell will turn the unit into ballhawks. He said Fewell emphasizes techniques, fundamentals and forcing turnovers. He said the Giants' pass rush of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul will only help one of Fewell's strengths, which is his pass defense.
Fewell cut his teeth as a defensive backs coach, serving under Tom Coughlin with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Lovie Smith with the Chicago Bears. The Bills finished second behind the New York Jets in pass defense and second in interceptions with 28 behind the Green Bay Packers last season. While the Bills had their struggles stopping the run -- Buffalo finished 30th against the run last season -- Fewell grew as a coach. He said serving as interim head coach for seven games gave him a different perspective of what it takes to lead an entire team.
"I see the big picture more," Fewell said. "When I was just the defensive coordinator, I was definitely just concerned about the defense but I didn't see the big picture. So I'm able to see, 'Hey, stay off the receiver [in practice] because that guy is really important.' I used to just bang him and run into him and say, 'Hey, it's a defensive mentality.' I look at special teams and I see guys in special teams roles that can help our football team and I fight for those guys."
During his one season with Fewell, Fletcher was able to see the bigger picture better, too. The linebacker read the run, the pass and learned route combinations better and posted a career-high four interceptions to go with 146 tackles, his highest total in the past four seasons. At 5-10, 245-pounds, Fletcher shined in Fewell's defense despite his size, giving the Giants hope that perhaps the 6-foot, 245-pound Dillard can perform in Fewell's scheme as well.
Fletcher knows exactly what Fewell will be looking for in his new starting middle linebacker and his weakside linebacker as well.
"There are tons of responsibilities on you in his defense in terms of communicating to all 10 guys on the field and knowing what you need to do and making adjustments," Fletcher said. "And be a playmaker yourself because the defense is set where the middle linebacker will make a lot of tackles. Between the Will linebacker and middle linebacker, those are the two glory positions in that defense. They will be the guys making all the plays."
Judging by the sound of Fewell's voice echoing throughout last weekend's rookie minicamp, Reese may have found the right man to mold his linebackers.
If Fewell has his way, he'll not only find a middle linebacker but he'll have the Giants playing defense the way they used to when they, and not the Jets, were the nastiest defense in New York.
"While I would like to make guarantees, I can't," Fewell said last weekend at rookie minicamp. "[But] I'm going to demand that we be physical and play physical. The Giants defense is a physical defense, and we know that from history. I want to return to that defense."
The Giants defense has a new man in charge, with a new game plan.