By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Seeing Leonard Williams being helped off the field had to be deflating for the Giants‘ already undermanned defense. Sunday’s game was tied, with 23 minutes still to play. No one would’ve blinked if the defense played cautiously after that.
But that’s just not Wink Martindale’s style.
Instead, the Giants defensive coordinator did what he told his players he would always do from his first day: He turned up the heat.
“Wink’s going to call what he’s going to call,” said Giants safety Xavier McKinney. “He’s going to stay aggressive. That’s who he is. And we know that.”
The results have been impressive so far. One week after they put a beating on Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans, they basically shut down the Carolina Panthers over the final 23 minutes of a 19-16 win on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers were just starting to find their groove when Williams went down. They had scored on three of their previous four possessions.
But with Williams out, they gained just 72 yards on 17 plays the rest of the way — and 49 of those came on one Christian McCaffrey run.
The Giants are now 2-0 and it really is because of their defense. They’ve done it by not backing down from anyone or anything — because Martindale won’t let them.
“His personality, whether you’re golfing with him, whether you’re playing pickup hoops or whether you’re out there on the football field, this guy’s personality is he wants to win,” linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said last week. “And he wants to win by attacking you and by imposing on you.”
“Wink always said from Day 1,” defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson added, “he’s building a bully here.”
That’s exactly what they were at the end of this game. Granted, Baker Mayfield and the Panthers aren’t exactly Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Giants were playing not just without Williams, but without edge rushers Kayvon Thibodeaux (their first-round pick) and Azeez Ojulari (their sack leader last season). Yet they still had the Panthers on their heels with the game on the line. And they sure seemed to have Mayfield rattled. He completed just one of his next seven passes after Williams went down and went 3-of-10 for 16 yards the rest of the game.
And he was constantly on the run. With blitzes coming from every angle — and different angles every play — Mayfield had no time to get settled in the pocket. And it all came together for the Giants with about 2 ½ minutes remaining, as the Panthers faced a third-and-6 from their own 46. Martindale lined up seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Oshane Ximines dropped into coverage from the right edge, but sold it just enough to make Panthers rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu flinch.
That opened up room between Ekwonu and guard Brady Christensen for safety Julian Love to fly through and hit Mayfield before he could get set. And if Love hadn’t sacked him, McKinney would’ve closed on the QB, because he was blitzing from the other side.
That double blitz with both his safeties was a gutsy call in that situation, with the Panthers only needing another 25 yards or so to be set up for a game-tying field goal. If Mayfield had another second in the pocket, he might’ve seen his tight end wide open streaking down the middle of the field. And again, with Williams in the locker room with a knee injury, that’s a heck of a leap of faith from the Giants’ defensive coordinator.
“Wink’s done this a long time,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said. “Wink’s not afraid of failure.”
In fact, he’s told his players he doesn’t care if they fail. That’s one of the things they love about playing for him.
“It’s fun as hell, because you know that no matter what, he’s going to keep calling it,” McKinney said. “It don’t matter if we make a mistake. He don’t really care. He lets us know, ‘Hey, I’m coming back to it.’ And we know that.
“It’s fun to play for a guy who doesn’t care if we make mistakes and lets you just go out there and play freely and keep playing and not worry about the mistake that you made.”
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The results have been easy to see the first two weeks, as the defense has carried the Giants’ very low-powered offensive attack. In Week 1, they put a licking on Titans running back Derrick Henry and held him to 82 yards, keeping the game close enough for the Giants offense to finally get in gear and pull out a miracle, 21-20 win. And they had to do it again this week. As the Giants managed just 256 offensive yards, the New York defense held the Panthers in check long enough for the offense to squeeze out two 50-plus-yard field goals by kicker Graham Gano in the fourth quarter to pull out the game.
No, they probably can’t sustain that if the offense continues to stink. Their tests will become much more difficult, possibly as soon as they face the Dak Prescott-less Dallas Cowboys next Monday night. They’ve got the Packers, Ravens and the revived Jaguars still to come in the next five weeks. And eventually they’ll see a couple of pretty good offenses in Washington and Philadelphia that they still have to face twice.
It won’t be easy, and it won’t always work out. Things will be even tougher if Williams is out long-term, even if Thibodeaux and Ojulari are back sooner than later. But this Giants defense is starting to believe in itself and they really believe in their defensive coordinator.
“I have a lot of confidence in Wink,” Daboll said. “And I think the players have a lot of confidence (in him).”
They also know that Martindale has confidence in them. That’s why, if they do have to carry the offense, they just see that as a challenge.
And just like Martindale has taught them, they don’t intend to back down from that.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent 22 years covering the Giants, Jets and NFL at large for SNY and the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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