EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - If one thing bugged New York Giants defensive players the past nine months, it was the constant questions about finishing next to last in the NFL rankings last season.
It was embarrassing for a group that led the team to a Super Bowl the previous season, and management made moves to offset it.
Linebacker Michael Boley and defensive tackle Chris Canty were let go and middle linebacker Chase Blackburn was not re-signed.
And now, as a new season nears, it's all about moving forward for the players.
The season begins Sunday at Dallas against a potent Cowboys offense, and the Giants defenders believe they are better prepared for it now.
``With this team, with this defense, we have one of the greatest defenses,'' defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said Wednesday. ``We play hard. We know we are good. We proved it two years ago. This is a whole new year. We have new guys and hopefully they step up to the table, and the (rookies) step up to the table. We need them just as much. From there you never know.''
The Giants finished 31st in defense last season, giving up an average 383.4 yards. Dallas averaged 433.5 against New York in two meetings, and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten had a franchise day in Big D in October, catching 18 passes for 167 yards. The receptions total was a league record for a tight end.
That is a day that Giants safety Antrel Rolle has not forgotten, despite New York winning, 29-24. In fact, when asked about Witten, the veteran said he doesn't focus on one player.
``Witten is definitely one of their key weapons,'' Rolle said. ``He had that miraculous game. He hurt us. That's not going to happen again. I can assure that he is not going to have 17, 18 catches.''
The confidence isn't anything new for Rolle. And many of his fellow defenders believe last year's problems resulted from a lack of communication and injuries, the significant one being a lower back injury to Pierre-Paul. It slowed him down and his sack total went from 16 1/2 to 6 1/2.
The defense was never the same.
Pierre-Paul had surgery in June and his status for Sunday is a question mark. He only started practicing a couple of weeks ago and he said he won't know until Friday if he will be able to play.
With Pierre-Paul limited last season, the Giants' pass rush was ineffective, allowing opposing quarterbacks that extra, split second to make plays.
``I have had the opportunity to watch him up close and personal in practice, and I don't see him missing much right now,'' defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "With him, you have to take into account consistent reps.
``But I think he is good to go.''
The Giants, 9-7 last season, weren't as bad as the statistics suggest. They allowed 344 points, which was tied for 12th fewest in the league.
``After this game, we will have a great idea of where we are at as a defense,'' said Prince Amukamara, the Giants' best cover cornerback. ``We're just trying to play consistent. Last year, we showed a lot of flashes that we were a pretty good defense, and last year, we showed we were a last-ranked defense.
``Our job is to stay consistent as much as we can.''
The Cowboys, who are loaded on offense with Tony Romo at quarterback and Dez Bryant and Miles Austin at the wide receivers to go along with Witten, will see changes in the defense. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins was signed as a free agent and is starting in the middle, and former linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka is back to be as a lineman. Former Cowboy Dan Connor started the final preseason game at middle linebacker, and the secondary has several new faces with former Steeler Ryan Mundy starting at free safety, and cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Terrell Thomas back with the team. Ross spent last season in Jacksonville, while Thomas is back after missing his second straight season with an ACL injury.
``These are the guys you want to face,'' said third-year linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who has replaced Boley. ``It's in our division, one of our rivals and you have to bring your `A' game when you play Dallas, because they will expose you if you are not.''
Don't be surprised though is this one is high scoring. It's the norm for these teams in Dallas.
A videotape reversal nullified an apparent game-winning touchdown pass from Romo to Bryant in the Giants' 29-24 win last year. Pierre-Paul blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt with one second to play to preserve a 37-34 win in 2011. Two years earlier, Lawrence Tynes kicked a field goal on the final play to give New York a 33-31 win.
And the Giants won 41-35 in 2010 in a game Romo was injured in.
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