With the game on the line Sunday against the Washington Football Team, quarterback Daniel Jones and the New York Giants' offense failed to close. They needed the team's surprisingly better unit to make sure they didn't blow this game.
The Giants' defense intercepted Washington quarterback Alex Smith not once, but twice, in the final 2:27 to close out the 23-20 victory. The second was by veteran safety Logan Ryan on a defensive adjustment that was installed by coordinator Patrick Graham late on Saturday. It was indicative of the progress the once-maligned Giants defense has made this season.
"It's a play we didn't practice once all week," Ryan said. "But we drew it up, and we executed it when it mattered."
It seems appropriate that the defense saved the day. The offense is near the bottom of almost all the most important categories, including yards (31st), points (31st) and efficiency (30th). That's down from last season when the offense ranked 23rd in yards and tied for 18th in points.
New York's defense is headed in the other direction. Last season, it ranked 25 in total defense and 30 in points allowed (28.2 per game). Through nine games this season it ranks 15th in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed (24.3).
To be fair, last season's defensive coordinator James Bettcher never stood a chance with the talent at his disposal. He didn't have defensive lineman Leonard Williams for a full season, run-stopping lineman Dexter Lawrence was a rookie, cornerback Janoris Jenkins was released during the season, a fading Alex Ogletree was at middle linebacker, DeAndre Baker started at cornerback and Antoine Bethea started 16 games at safety. None of those final three listed are currently on an NFL roster.
Two offseason signings have helped Graham, who has a steadying force at middle linebacker with Blake Martinez, the NFL's leading tackler. And James Bradberry has played at a Pro Bowl level at cornerback. Lawrence has taken the next step in his progression as a first-round pick, Williams is playing better than ever, Ryan has proved to be a massive upgrade from Bethea and outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell has been an important addition to the front seven.
The talent upgrade has allowed Graham to field one of the most versatile defenses in the league.
"I'll tell you what, this is a real pain to get ready for this defense," Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said before the teams met in Week 4, a 17-9 Rams victory. "They do a great job of activating a handful of different personnel groupings. They are huge inside and they do a great job of really limiting the space that you can create."
The defensive line is the strength of the Giants' defense. Williams, Lawrence and Dalvin Tomlinson are a big reason they are tied for fifth in the NFL allowing 94.8 rushing yards per game.
It's in the pass game where Graham has needed to be more creative, both to create a rush and camouflage coverage warts. The Giants are bringing pressure from everywhere this season. Already they have at least half a sack from 14 different players. Only 14 had at least half a sack all of last season.
They're doing it out of several different looks, including quarters defense with more than seven defensive backs. Graham is running quarters 4.5% of the defensive snaps, second most in the NFL only to the New England Patriots, where he has roots. They're working out of a nickel defense (five defensive backs) more than 50% of the plays.
Each week it seems like Graham is adding something new. And they're battling even if they are allowing a substantial amount of yards.
"You can see the players able to handle more right now," Giants coach Joe Judge said last week. "Not because they couldn't handle it mentally before. It just was a new system. There are a lot of details in terms of how you want to do things. When I turned the tape on from the [Tampa Bay game in Week 8], I saw our defense doing a lot of things that we've been working on one way or another over the last, call it a month or so, that are really starting to take shape in the way that we really pictured with the details, the understanding, the adjustments, the communication. That's moving in the right direction."
This past Sunday that included a Cover 2 look where Graham rolled the coverage in their two-minute defense. Ryan, the safety, would drop into the underneath zone while Bradberry rolled to protect the deep half of the field where Ryan was originally stationed.
Ryan said they ran the exact coverage late in the first half and he didn't get to the right spot. It allowed Washington receiver Steve Sims Jr. to get a catch-and-run that went for 32 yards.
But Graham felt confident enough to call it again with the game on the line. Ryan slid underneath receiver Terry McLaurin this time and made the game-clinching interception.
"The play that we ran is something that I talked to Pat Graham about doing and putting me in that position to make that play," Ryan said. "In two-minute, we'd been struggling all year, and it was just a play that we put in, I think, Saturday night, like hours before the game. Last night, we said we were going to try something new and try that. In the first half, I messed up, I wasn't there, they ran a 32-yard in-cut in the two-minute and that was my fault, that was my job there. I told Pat, I said, 'Hey, that's on me. Call it again, and I'll be there. I'll make it right.'
"So he called it again, and the next time we ran it was at the end of the game, and I was able to make the play."
The Giants' defense finally made the play. A sign of more progress from this group.