The last time the New York Giants prepared to face Michael Vick he was coming off one of the greatest performances in league history. The Giants were attempting to bounce back from an embarrassing home loss to the 1-7 Dallas Cowboys that revealed some flaws in Perry Fewell's defense.
The Eagles punched the Giants in the gut early -- as they almost always do -- and then had to survive a second-half scare in a 27-17 win in Week 11. The Giants fell to 6-4 with that loss, but I still think it was the impetus for their current three-game winning streak. Fewell, the team's new defensive coordinator, didn't treat Vick with the same reverence the Redskins had shown the previous week. He brought safety Antrel Rolle on the blitz several times and Vick looked human for nearly three quarters. The Giants caused a couple of Vick fumbles, and it was really the first time I'd seen him rattled during the season. (Yes, I realize the Redskins injured his ribs early in the season, but you get the picture).
The Chicago Bears provided a blueprint for beating Vick the following week when they played their safeties at a suitable distance for a Hail Mary and relied on their front four to create pressure. The mighty Vick lost for the first time this season in a game in which he started and completed. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck told me via text Wedneday that he's spent a lot of time with that Bears film this week. Fewell will certainly blitz more than the Bears, but he'll borrow a few elements from that game.
I think the Giants' defense found its identity against the Eagles. New York's known for knocking out quarterbacks (Tony Romo comes to mind) and in the first matchup, they seemed to feed off the fact that Vick was having a hard time getting up after some of the hits. Soon, Eagles coach Andy Reid would cry out to the heavens (and the league office) for help in protecting his brilliant quarterback. I believe the Giants' defense planted the seeds of Reid's discontent.
"I think the Eagles game in general gave us a lot of confidence," Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield told me Thursday morning before practice. "We had already done some good things, but that game validated the work we had put in."
Cofield has quietly put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season for the Giants. He's part of a defensive line rotation that has started to flourish about a year later than general manager Jerry Reese had hoped. We knew that Cofield, Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard were talented defensive tackles, but they encountered too many injuries in '09. With the help of Fewell, the Giants are creating a lot of mismatches along the line of scrimmage.
"Fewell is like a mad scientist," said Cofield. "He uses guys all over the field and dials up creative blitzes. The success we've had lately has helped make the trust level grow."
Like pretty much any other defense that faces Vick, the Giants will try to make him roll to his right. The Giants are the No. 1 third-down defense in the league, and the Eagles were 3-of-14 against them in those situations in the teams' last meeting. Of course, none of that mattered when Eagles running back LeSean McCoy took a dangerous toss from Vick on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter and raced 50 yards for the winning touchdown. Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have so many weapons at their disposal that it's almost overwhelming for opposing coaches. But Reid has tremendous respect for Fewell.
"You know, they have a great defensive coordinator now," said Reid on Wednesday. "This guy, he has a great feel for things. ... he puts together some good stuff for each team. He’s able to decipher your weakness, what he considers your weakness, and then go after it. So he comes in with a well-thought out plan, and I think his players believe in it and they do a good job with executing it."
Fewell knows the Eagles' offensive linemen have issues protecting against stunts. Fewell might have Tuck line up at defensive tackle and then have him run a twist with rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, who has come on strong in recent weeks. The Giants will let Vick dink and dunk his way down the field, but they will do everything in their power to keep DeSean Jackson from using one of his double moves to break open the game. Tuck's pretty pragmatic about what happened in that first game against the Eagles.
"Against Vick, you have to stick to your guns, and we did that," said Tuck. "In the first half, they really had great field position and that results in points. In the second half, we made them earn everything they got."
Now the stakes have been raised. A division title's on the line at New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday. And the Giants feel like they're in position to end this five-game losing streak to the Eagles.