Giants Return as Defense Forces Two late turnovers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — For four seasons, Don Martindale was the only NFL defensive coordinator who never had to bother stopping Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in a game. He was their defensive coordinator from 2018 to 2021 and saw Jackson go from shaky quarterback to league most valuable player in 2019.

Martindale watched from the touchline as Jackson made opposing defenders look inept by constantly dodging them in a manner akin to a running back or wide receiver. Often the only person to stop Jackson was Jackson himself, with late-game turnovers.

While Martindale never had to face Jackson’s offense during the regular season, he did see him in practice every day. He devised defensive schemes to stop him in tussles between the team’s offensive and defensive units out of sheer pride.

Now that Martindale is the Giants’ defensive coordinator, did that give him an advantage against the Ravens on Sunday? It seemed so late in the game, as two defensive plays gave the Giants a 24-20 win, improving their record to 5-1 and dwarfing their overall wins from last season.

“He was on top of the world,” said Giants defenseman Julian Love. “You have to fool yourself if you don’t want to beat your former team in any way.”

The Giants overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, their second straight game with a second-half comeback. Four of their five wins came with 5 points or less. Often they needed a game-winning drive or a defensive stop to end the win.

“This is the ‘Don’t Fold’ team,” said Giants linebacker Jihad Ward.

While preseason favorites like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams have struggled, the Giants, one of the most surprising teams in the NFL, have clinched wins week in and week out. They were taken at every turn by running back Saquon Barkley, who was lined up everywhere from receiver to quarterback and led the league in yards from entering scrimmage on Sunday. He finished Sunday’s game for 95 yards and a touchdown.

This team has had its best start since 2009, in large part due to Martindale’s defense. He’s an aggressive play-caller who isn’t afraid to send blitzes on key downs, even with quarterbacks who have been known to make defense pay for sending heavy rushes.

The Giants are blitzing 40 percent of the time this season, which ranks second in the league according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In the Giants’ thrilling Week 5 win over Green Bay, they blitzed quarterback Aaron Rodgers with a fourth-down play that would have sent the game into overtime had the Packers scored. But the pass was knocked down by defender Xavier McKinney.

With just under two minutes remaining Sunday and the Giants holding on to a 4-point lead, Martindale set up a blitz. Linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux found his way to Jackson, fired him and slapped the ball loose. The Giants recovered from the fumble, effectively ending the game. Thibodeaux recorded a video as he struggled in tears after the win: “Man you can all see my feelings going crazy,” Thibodeaux said. “We did it man.”

At times, Martindale’s approach on Sunday seemed unsuccessful and it didn’t always look like Thibodeaux shed tears of joy after the game. The Ravens (3-3) used the Giants’ run defense, who conceded the second most yards in the league prior to Sunday, to make big gains at every turn. Jackson, Kenyan Drake and JK Dobbins combined for 211 rushing yards. Drake, who had 119 yards on 10 carries, surpassed 100 yards for the first time since November 2020 when he played for the Arizona Cardinals.

There were times when the Giants’ pressure shifted to Jackson in the backfield, like in the second quarter when the Ravens were at their 10-yard line and Demarcus Lawrence flew past an offensive lineman and got his hands on Jackson. But Jackson shrugged off Lawrence and sprinted 14 yards. As the Ravens found success on the ground, the passing game began to free up as Giants defenders got too involved in slowing down the rushing attack.

But in the fourth quarter, the Giants got stops when they needed them and capitalized. First, Love Jackson intercepted while the Giants were 3 points behind with just three minutes left. Love carried the ball around the dressing room like a trophy and to his post-match press conference.

“This is a future Hall of Famer quarterback; When you pick up someone like that, you have to keep the ball,” Love said, adding that he also appreciates an interception ball from Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes last season.

Then there was the fumbling that sealed the game, prompting deafening roars. It was louder than Giants fans had been all game. The Giants’ offense followed, dragging down the rest of the game clock. Barkley slipped even before a simple touchdown to ensure the Ravens never got another offensive opportunity.

And while it looked like they were going to lose many times Sunday, the Giants ended in victory, as they have in all but one game this season.

“You can really feel the energy from the fans, and it wasn’t necessarily like that for the first few years,” Barkley said, looking back on his last four seasons with New York. “And we didn’t do really well going out there and winning games.”

He continued, “I wanted to go out there and give them something to be proud of. And I feel like this team is doing that.”