EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The thing about the season opener, even though it was a 36-31 loss, is that the New York Giants' defense didn't think it played all that badly. The defensive players wouldn't come right out and say it for fear of making the offense look bad, but two of the Cowboys' four touchdowns in that game were scored by Dallas defensive players off turnovers. And the six turnovers the Giants committed overall had a lot more to do with the outcome than did the performance of the defense. The 331 yards of offense the Cowboys amassed in that game represent the fourth-lowest number the Giants have allowed in a game so far this season.
So while the Giants' offensive coaches have been showing the horror-film tape of that game and preaching all week about the importance of limiting turnovers, the defensive coaches have focused on some things the Giants did well in that game. Holding Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant to 22 yards on four catches with double coverage. Tackling Miles Austin in the slot to limit the damage he could do after the catch. Holding Dallas to a field goal after the first interception gave Tony Romo the ball on the Giants' 15-yard line.
"It was a loss, and then we lost five more in a row, so it's probably hard for people to remember, but there were a lot of positives for us to take out of that game," cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "There's a lot we can work on, too, but we have things from that game that I think we can definitely build on."
The Giants also feel they have more tools with which to do the building. Middle linebacker Jon Beason wasn't there for that game, since he didn't arrive until late September in a trade with the Panthers. Spry safety Will Hill missed that game and the next three due to his drug suspension. And defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul played that night, but it was his first game action since June back surgery, as he'd sat out all of training camp and the preseason while recovering.
"We definitely feel more confident," said cornerback Terrell Thomas, who's likely to reprise his Week 1 role as the slot corner in charge of keeping Austin in front of him. "I thought we played a great game that night, given the circumstances, and obviously now we have some great additions. More than anything, we have confidence as a defense. Everybody's on the same page. We have an identity. We know who we are. We're going to go in there, stop the run, force Romo to throw the ball and hopefully limit the big plays and get some turnovers."
Pierre-Paul's presence up front as a disruptive force behind the line of scrimmage would help with that. He showed the impact he could have on a game Sunday, when he jumped at the line to intercept a Scott Tolzien pass and ran it back for a touchdown that swung the game in the Giants' favor for good. Pierre-Paul didn't look like that same old game-changer in Week 1, or for most of this season, but if Sunday was a sign that he's back, then that sets the Giants up to do a lot more against Dallas than they could the first time.
Beason's presence as both a leader and a physical player in the linebacking corps should help the Giants find an answer to Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who had 70 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches in the opener. Romo threw 49 passes in that game and only averaged 5.4 yards per completion, throwing short over and over again to Witten and Austin in an attempt to attack the Giants' defense at its weakest point. The linebacking corps is strong now.
And Hill has been an all-over-the-field safety who has enabled defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to be more flexible with his coverage schemes. They rolled a safety to Bryant's side all night in the opener and likely will double him again, but Hill, Antrel Rolle and Amukamara have all shown an ability to come up and play the run and operate in blitz packages as well. This Giants' defense is better equipped to confuse Romo than the Week 1 version was.
"When you're playing against Dallas and their receivers, you have to get a feel for what challenges they don't like," Fewell said. "If you're physical with them and they don't like it, then you'll press a lot. If you're playing off and they don't understand what you're doing, then you'll play off. You have to give them a number of different combinations, because you want to try to feel them out a little bit."
Now, the disclaimer on all of this is that the current four-game winning streak in which the Giants' defense has been so strong has been built against unprepared and/or inexperienced quarterbacks Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Tolzien. So with Romo coming to town, the defense is getting a test more difficult than any it's faced since the team was still winless. The Giants believe the confidence they have built up during the streak will translate as the schedule toughens.
"Jon Beason and Terrell Thomas and Antrel Rolle have really taken control of our defense and they’re the voices of our defense and they’re demanding from their teammates the execution of the things that we’ve game-planned each week," Fewell said. "That’s the confidence that I’m seeing in our people, because they are really putting pressure on themselves to perform. I just think those guys are doing a great job of leading us to where we need to be."
Sunday will offer a fresh test of how good this new and improved Giants defense really is.