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Giants’ unheralded rookies standing up to big-time pressure

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It was such a good line it was repeated, over and again, by Butch Cassidy and also by the Sundance Kid, in the movie that bears their names. 

They could not escape their pursuers. They always could shake their followers, but not this time, not these pursuers. More than once, this left Butch and Sundance incredulous. More than once, they wondered, “Who are those guys?’’

 It is a legitimate question for these Giants. Especially these Giants on defense.

There is the requisite guidance and playmaking out of those with the greatest pedigree, those who command the most money. James Bradberry. Leonard Williams. Blake Martinez. There is the emergence of Jabrill Peppers, a first-round pick of the Browns, who is only 24 years old. There is leadership on the back end from Logan Ryan, one of the NFL’s smartest players, a veteran stabilizer.

The Giants would not be where they are, though, without the players who bring us back to our initial question: Who are those guys?

There would not have been a 17-12 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle without them. Carter Coughlin. Cam Brown. Tae Crowder. Darnay Holmes. And Niko Lalos, undrafted out of Dartmouth. In his first two NFL games, Lalos has an interception in a victory in Cincinnati and a fumble recovery in a victory in Seattle.

 “He’s like two for two now,” Williams said, smiling. “Two games, two takeaways.”

Five rookies getting reps on defense. This was not necessarily the design but it is the reality, and somehow, the Giants are 5-7 and riding a four-game winning streak, alone in first place in the NFC East. And these are not typical rookies, in that none were taken before the fourth round (Holmes) of the NFL Draft and four of them were taken in the sixth round, or later, or not at all.

These guys will not show up on the radar around the NFL but the Giants certainly know where they are and what they mean.

Coughlin played 62 percent of the snaps on defense (45 of 72), a season-high total based out of necessity. The Giants lost three outside linebackers to injury – Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines and Kyler Fackrell – and traded away Markus Golden. They had nowhere else to turn. Coughlin was a pass rusher at Minnesota and at 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds is more a speed rusher than anything else. Well, his speed showed up, as he was able to keep Russell Wilson from turning the corner and finished with two tackles and one quarterback hit.

There were other contributions, often subtle in nature, from the other unheralded rookies. Holmes (56 snaps), now a mainstay in the secondary, corralled a deflection out of the air for his first NFL interception. Crowder (39 snaps) notched his first NFL sack and later, showing off his speed, made a leg tackle to limit a Wilson scramble to only three yards. Brown (10 snaps), long and lanky, set the edge on an outside run by Chris Carson, allowing Williams to clean up with a key third-down stop for no gain. Lalos (26 snaps) alertly pounced on a loose ball after Peppers crashed the party to make sure Wilson would not recover his own fumble.

darnay holmes giants rookies seahawks upset
Darnay Holmes #30 of the New York Giants celebrates his interception.
Getty Images

Plenty of defensive coordinators would get squeamish putting so many rookies on the field. Part of this is because there is no one else. Part of this is because Patrick Graham and head coach Joe Judge believe in development up and down the roster. If the players get a uniform, it is up to the coaching staff to find a way to use them.

“I was actually talking about that to Carter on the sideline,’’ Williams said. “I was giving props to [Graham] about how good he’s been doing with the guys that he has. We have such young guys on defense like Carter and Cam. We have some undrafted guys and I feel like they’ve been stepping up big time. Once again, Niko had another turnover on his side. Tae came back and got a sack, he’s been doing great. And Carter and Cam have been doing great on special teams and on defense. I feel like a lot of these young guys have been stepping up big for us.’’

The rookie brigade on defense is now in an honest-to-goodness playoff chase and the intensity and pressure grows each week. They will need the veterans around them to show the way. The veterans, in return, will need the youngsters to continue to grow and make plays. 

More that came out of the upset victory in Seattle:

— Remember the offensive line rotation that included Andrew Thomas, the rookie left tackle who struggled early this season? Thomas is no longer part of that rotation. Thomas played all 56 snaps on offense. Matt Peart, another rookie, got in for 15 snaps, but all at right tackle, where he replaced starter Cam Fleming for two series. Thomas, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, has stabilized his performance after a rough stretch to begin his career. This bodes well for the present and also the future.

— How significant was the Giants victory over the Seahawks? They became the first team in the NFC East to beat a team with a winning record. The division had been 0-17 when facing a winning team. The Giants finally got the breakthrough.

— The Giants allowed fewer than 21 points for the fourth consecutive game, their longest stretch of defensive excellence since 2011, when they limited opponents to fewer than 21 points in six straight games (the final two regular season games and all four post-season games).

— The last time the Giants ran for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games? When they did it nine straight games in 2010. That they are doing this without Saquon Barkley is astounding.

— The last time for Alfred Morris? Never. Morris, 31, played 109 NFL games prior to suiting up for the Giants in Seattle. In those 109 games, Morris never had a receiving touchdown. In his 110th career game, he finally got one, reaching down – and nearly dropping – a floater from Colt McCoy for a 4-yard scoring hookup. Morris was wide open on the right side and nearly blew his big chance. “I definitely double-caught it,’’ Morris said. “I was just so wide-open I just assumed somebody was going to be there. I think they were planning for us to run a gap run again, which I think that drew them in and normally I don’t do those type of plays. So I think it just made it work that much more and I was able to just creep out into the flat and I was so open that’s why I kind of double-caught it.’’

Giants Jabrill Peppers
Jabrill Peppers

— Jabrill Peppers is another player this coaching staff is getting more out of than previous staffs. Peppers had one career sack in his first three seasons. He has 2.5 sacks this season. Here is one to wonder about: All three of the sacks Peppers has been involved with resulted in 8-yard losses.

— Ball security and this current Giants winning streak go hand-in-hand. Prior to the first-quarter deflection off the hands of Evan Engram that fell into the hands of safety Quandre Diggs for an interception on Colt McCoy’s stat line, the Giants had gone 38 consecutive offensive possessions with throwing an interception.

— Wayne Gallman’s production (career-high 135 rushing yards) is even more impressive when you realize he was on the field for only 50 percent (26 of 56) of the snaps on offense. The Giants ran it 31 times but did not overuse anyone. Gallman got 16 attempts, followed by Morris (8), Dion Lewis (3) and fullback Eli Penny (2) and McCoy (2).

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