Giants' D will buy the offense time to grow

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dressed in a pink golf shirt and brown linen pants, Justin Tuck stood in front of his locker Sunday evening and proclaimed that teammate Osi Umenyiora is "the prettiest defensive lineman ever."

Tuck said he based his comment on the fact that Umenyiora keeps his uniform clean no matter the conditions, pointing to the 2007 London Bowl as Exhibit A. On Sunday at Giants Stadium, Umenyiora used his knack for rarely ending up on the ground to tip the ball away from Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, scoop it off the ground and race 37 yards for a touchdown. The score put the Giants up 17-0 and sent a clear signal that this defensive line is poised to return to its past glory -- otherwise known as the 2007 postseason.

"He's the best in the league at getting sacks without going to the ground," Tuck said of Umenyiora following the Giants' 23-17 win. "Now, I'm hoping people watch this film and focus on No. 72 and just leave me alone."

After the game, a few members of the Giants' defense dumped cold water on new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, the same man whose criticism of Umenyiora caused the player to stage a brief but costly preseason walkout. Some wondered how the transition from the exuberant Steve Spagnuolo to the taskmaster Sheridan would go, but for one afternoon this defense looked pretty familiar.

"It's tough to succeed a guy like Spags," Tuck said. "He was a crowd favorite and the leader of a Super Bowl championship defense, but [Sheridan's] doing a nice job."

Redskins running back Clinton Portis broke off a 34-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage, but the Giants' defense made sure that wasn't going to set the tone. The Redskins only managed 51 yards rushing on their next 20 carries. And without the help of a running game, quarterback Jason Campbell was under siege the rest of the day. Late in the third quarter, Redskins safety LaRon Landry made a diving play to tip a pass away from Steve Smith, and DeAngelo Hall made the interception and returned it to the Giants' 12-yard line.

That's when the Giants' defensive line flexed its muscles. On first down, Tuck dropped Portis for a 6-yard loss. And on third-and-6 at the 7-yard line, Tuck used an outside move to sack Campbell and force a short field goal. Defensive tackle Chris Canty, who had missed all four preseason games with a torn hamstring, came flying up the middle to help collapse the pocket on the play.

It was obvious the Giants had too much firepower up front for the Redskins' offensive line to handle. Canty and another defensive tackle signed in free agency, Rocky Bernard, controlled the running game in the second half. And those fresh bodies across the defensive line had a lot to do with Tuck and Umenyiora combining for 2.5 sacks. Late in the 2008 season, I remember seeing Tuck and his teammates down on one knee between plays. On Sunday, some of the linemen were hopping around between plays, trying to whip up the crowd noise. Umenyiora said he had missed the competition.

"I can't even explain it to you," he said. "Sometimes when you're out there all the time, you kind of forget what it feels like to not be out there. Last year, I missed it and I'm happy I was able to come back this year."

As I've written several times, too many people tried to blame last season's December and January collapse on the absence of Plaxico Burress. He was certainly a vital part of the offense, but the lifeblood of this team is its defensive line. Quarterback Eli Manning fumbled once and threw an interception Sunday, but the Giants' defense gives him more margin for error than most quarterbacks. That will allow young playmakers such as Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks time to develop without feeling like the whole season hinges on them. Third-year wide receiver Steve Smith made several clutch plays Sunday, including an acrobatic 26-yard grab on third-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter.The Giants had a 20-10 lead at the time, and the catch by Smith pretty much ended any hopes of a Redskins comeback.

Manningham scored the first touchdown of his NFL career early in the second quarter when he took a short pass from Manning and then made three players miss on his way to a 30-yard touchdown. It has to give Manning confidence that his receivers made plays against a pretty talented secondary.

"Really, the touchdown pass was all him," Manning said of Manningham. "I checked to the play, it didn't work as planned, but he improvised and it turned out well. He made a guy miss and got the touchdown. I thought all the receivers played really well."

In what seemed like a head-scratching move, Tom Coughlin suited up six wide receivers and only three cornerbacks. But perhaps it was his confidence in the defensive front that made him comfortable with that decision. For the Giants to have a chance of returning to the Super Bowl, the defense will have to lead the way. On Sunday, that unit was up to the task.

Now, let's take a look at some of the other major storylines from Sunday's game:

Campbell was particularly upset about his fumble late in the first half: I spoke to Campbell for a few minutes after the game and there were two plays he definitely wanted back. On the fumble that Umenyiora returned for a touchdown, Campbell said he was in the process of checking down to one of his running backs when he felt the ball poked away. He said he was upset because he didn't sense that anyone was around him.

"It was a play where we were trying to get a down-the-field shot and the defense took it away, so by the time I'm trying to wait for my pass and get out so I can hit my check-down, they made a great play on the ball," Campbell said. "I guess as the quarterback, you just have to feel it a little bit more and slide up in the pocket and prevent that."

Campbell also was upset with himself that he checked into a running play on a third-and-8 in the second half. He said he lost track of how many yards the Redskins needed and that he should have checked into a pass play.

Is it just me or was Albert Haynesworth not that impressive? He was officially credited with four tackles, but I didn't feel like Haynesworth had a major impact. Manning had a lot of time in the pocket, and I didn't see Haynesworth getting a ton of penetration against the run. He also got dinged up a couple times and had to leave the field. He looked like a player who was not in great condition. Maybe it had a lot to do with the Giants double-teaming him, but for $41 million guaranteed, I wouldn't mind seeing a little more production. The Giants converted way too many third-and-longs. The Redskins caused turnovers and had a tremendous goal-line stand in the first half, but you have to seize those momentum plays and the Redskins didn't. I thought London Fletcher was outstanding.

Brandon Jacobs doesn't see the wisdom in the Cowboys wanting to host the Giants in the first regular-season game at Cowboys Stadium: "They should've put Detriot in there instead of us," Jacobs told me as he left the stadium Sunday evening.