Eli Apple has had a challenging first half to his second pro season

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Apple shook his head Thursday in disbelief. It was as if the question about whether his emotions got the better of him at times early this season didn’t even need to be asked. It was a no-brainer.

Apple had an up-and-down first seven weeks filled with drama, arguments, fines, a benching (even if the Giants still refuse to call it that), uneven play and a resurgence that reminded everyone why he was the ninth overall pick in last year's draft out of Ohio State.

“Pssst, it’s even hard right now continuing to go about my day and my profession,” Apple said of keeping his emotions in check. “That’s why I love my teammates. I do it for the guys next to me, the [Darian Thompsons], the Donte Deayons, the Nat Berhes, the Landon Collinses. I do it for them. We’re going out there and trying to do our best for each other. That’s how I’ve got to be.”

It has been a trying sophomore season for Apple that began with such high expectations, for him and the Giants' defense. Both have experienced some unexpected struggles.

Apple stumbled in the opener against the Dallas Cowboys and was exposed on Monday Night Football the following week against the Detroit Lions. Marvin Jones caught a long touchdown pass over his head in that contest. Coach Ben McAdoo conceded Apple had a slow start to the season.

It reached the point where Apple was benched for the start of the Giants’ Week 5 matchup with the San Diego Chargers. He was reinserted into the lineup after three series and played perhaps his best games as a pro the following weeks leading into the bye.

There were 10 passes thrown in Apple’s direction that resulted in just 38 yards in a Week 6 victory in Denver. He allowed just two receptions on six balls thrown in his area the following week against the Seahawks.

There were lessons learned through this seven-week roller coaster.

“You have to stay even-keeled,” Apple said. “You can’t get too mad. You can’t let your emotions get the best of you sometimes. Nobody expected this.”

This is the Giants’ 1-6 record and all that has come with it, including injuries to key players and plenty of discipline in the defensive backs room. Apple is far from the only cornerback who has run into trouble.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins is suspended for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, which makes the need for Apple to continue his strong play that much more important. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was suspended for the win over the Broncos, and Apple was benched for his actions earlier in the year.

Coincidence or not, he has played better since then.

“If that was the reason, then we did the right thing,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Thursday.

Apple denied the suspension helped. He said he didn’t need it as motivation. He’s always self-motivated.

But he did take away something from the experience.

“I just wanted to learn how to play angry and how to learn to play controlled. And that is what you’ve been seeing,” said Apple, who often has been seen dancing and celebrating after plays. “That is probably why maybe there has been a couple things you’ve seen like, ‘Wow, Eli with the swag. When he gets up, he shows emotion.’ That’s how I’ve always been playing. And now when I do make a play, you see it.”

Apple says some of the success is because he’s more comfortable. Several players feel the Giants have used more zone rather than man-to-man coverages this season, and it has led to more confusion and breakdowns. It led to a bevy of miscommunications early this season that were a problem.

It was especially difficult for Apple because he had played man-to-man almost exclusively prior to joining the Giants.

“Definitely been a challenge. It was easier last year I think because it was a little bit more simple last year,” said Apple, who had a promising rookie year on a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the league. This year the Giants are 17th, allowing 22.3 points per game.

Nothing has gone quite as smoothly.

“This year it has become a little more difficult with the defense, and why this year you’ve seen more miscommunication problems out there,” Apple said.

But as the second-year cornerback’s confidence has grown, so has his game. It has been noticeable to his teammates.

“His attitude. His attitude toward the game,” All-Pro safety Landon Collins said when asked what has changed the past few weeks. “His ability and just growing up. That’s the biggest thing. That is what I see.”

Rodgers-Cromartie said this is part of being a cornerback in the NFL. There are going to be down moments. Every week they’re matched against quality receivers who can make plays. It’s about how they handle those down moments and what they do to improve moving forward that determines their overall success.

Rodgers-Cromartie has been impressed with how Apple hasn’t gotten down and has battled. Apple seems to have brushed off all the drama and criticism as par for the course.

“It’s a part of being a football player. It’s a part of growing,” he said. “Everybody goes through something. Not everybody’s career can just be you come in and everything is smooth. It doesn’t happen for everybody.”

It certainly hasn’t happened for him this season.