EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Giants didn’t have an answer for Justin Jefferson when they squared off just three weeks ago, and Wink Martindale doesn’t imagine they have one now. So he’s not going to focus his game plan on stopping the Vikings‘ All-Pro receiver.
He’ll just turn his defense loose on their quarterback instead.
That’s what these Giants do best anyway, because that’s what their defensive coordinator does best. There is no coach as blitz-happy and hyper-aggressive as Martindale, and he’s built this Giants defense in his crazy image. No matter what the problem is, his solution is to pummel the opposing quarterback, to try to knock him off his rhythm, and throw him off his game.
That’s what has carried the Giants defense all season, so he’s certainly not going to stop now.
“Our personality as a defense is to attack,” Martindale said on Thursday afternoon. “If you’ve got an ‘NY’ on your helmet, you’re going to attack.”
The Giants had mixed success with that strategy in their first meeting with the Vikings, when they lost 27-24 on Christmas Eve on a 61-yard field goal — “a buzzer-beater from half court,” as Martindale described it. They were all over Vikings QB Kirk Cousins that game, sacking him four times, hitting him 11 times, and rushing his throws so much that seven of his 48 passes ended up getting deflected.
Of course, Cousins still threw for 299 yards and three touchdown passes without being picked off once. And Jefferson caught 12 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown, while tight end T.J. Hockenson caught 13 for 109 yards and two touchdowns, too. The Giants even got caught in a blitz on a 17-yard catch-and-run by Jefferson in the final seconds that set up Greg Joseph’s game-winning kick.
But anyone who thinks those numbers might scare Martindale off, or make him reign in his defense, doesn’t know the 59-year-old very well. He did not inherit a strong defense when he was hired by new Giants coach Brian Daboll, especially after cap troubles prompted them to release their top corner, James Bradberry, last spring. He’s been playing mix-and-match with linebackers all season. When he lost Adoree’ Jackson for two months with a knee injury, his best corners were two guys who have each been on three teams in the last two seasons — Nick McCloud and Fabian Moreau. He even lost safety Xavier McKinney when he broke his hand in an ATV accident during the bye week and then missed two months, too.
So Martindale knew his defense wasn’t going to beat teams on talent alone. He knew he had to turn his players loose.
And from what he’s seen, it’s worked.
“I said something to them during the loss [in Minnesota] that, ‘We’re building a playoff defense here, guys, make no mistake about it.’” Martindale said. “And I feel that way. That’s guys that can just play it one play at a time and they don’t flinch. They’re never flinching. If there’s a mistake, we correct it. If there’s a play, we celebrate it, and then we get ready to go play the next play.”
Whether the Giants really do have a playoff defense remains to be seen. The unit ranks 25th in the NFL yet was often the reason New York was close in so many fourth quarters. Sometimes it felt like the defense was just trying to hang on as long as possible, dragging games to the end, hoping the offense would find a way to make a play.
Generating pressure was always the key. The Giants had 41 sacks on the season, good for 13th in the league. But 19 different players had at least a half sack — a stat Martindale called “crazy.” It was a sign of what his defense does. The pressure can come from anywhere and anyone at any time.
And doesn’t it feel like that’s the way it should be in New York? Martindale knows that all four of this franchise’s Super Bowl championship teams were powered by the defense. He remembers guys like Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul terrorizing quarterbacks for the 2007 and 2011 championship teams.
“Definitely inspired,” Martindale said. “We know where the standard is, and we want to keep raising the bar. That’s why I keep referring to the fans. I think they like seeing it. They like seeing an attacking style defense and ones that can hit the quarterback.”
But yes, he understands the risk, and that sometimes it doesn’t work. Too many of Jefferson’s catches in that first game in Minnesota came when the Giants were blitzing, including the one that set up the buzzer-beating field goal. It’s a risk he’s willing to take — and one he probably has to take knowing his team probably couldn’t stop Jefferson anyway.
“Great players make great plays,” Martindale said. “Let’s make no mistake about it: You can’t take away 18 [Jefferson]. You try to limit him, but you can’t take him away. I said it the last time: He’s one of the top two receivers and he’s not No. 2 in this league.”
He can’t do it alone, though, which is why Martindale will unleash the fury of the defense on Cousins, hoping to disrupt the plays before Jefferson even gets the ball. That’s Martindale’s way. It’s now the Giants’ way, too. And he’s not going to shy away from that now, certainly not in the playoffs, not even if he has to take a big risk with a big blitz with their playoff lives on the line.
As Martindale said, “I just look at it as, for myself personally when I’m calling the game, is it time for us to win it?”
When it is, that’s when he really turns up the pressure.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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