EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning has shown the New York Giants can score with anybody.
It’s the defending Super Bowl champions’ defense that is playing catch-up heading into Sunday’s NFL championship rematch against the San Francisco 49ers (4-1).
Perry Fewell’s unit has been inconsistent at best, allowing 111 points and way too many big plays.
Take Sunday’s 41-27 win over the Cleveland Browns. The defense allowed touchdowns on the Browns’ first two series. Granted the first one was set up by an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble at his own 22. But it only took two Trent Richardson runs to get the score
The second was a 65-yard pass play from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon, the fifth score of 29 yards or longer this season against New York (3-2).
That’s a no-no for any defense, particularly one with Tom Coughlin as coach.
“Defensively we have had spurts where we have played really well, and then we give up some things,” middle linebacker Chase Blackburn said. “We’ve definitely got to continue to get better as a unit. There is no doubt we have to be better this week. We have a challenge.”
The 49ers (4-1) seem to be hitting on all cylinders after being surprised by Minnesota on Sept. 23. They crushed the Jets 34-0 on Sept. 30 and followed that with a 45-3 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
San Francisco’s total of 68 points allowed is the fewest in the NFC, while its total of 149 on offense is second only to the Giants (152) in conference. Put simply, there is no comparison between the two defenses.
Whereas Manning and the offense have overcome injuries to Bradshaw, tackle David Diehl and receivers Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden and Domenik Hixon, the defense has not shown the dominance it exhibited at the end of last season.
Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck have struggled getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Cleveland QB Brandon Weeden was not sacked and only hit twice while throwing the ball 35 times Sunday. And in the past two weeks, Eagles RB LeSean McCoy and Richardson have found holes aplenty vs. New York.
“We’ve been inconsistent,” defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. “At times we have been pretty good and all on the same page and other times we haven’t. That’s what we try to fight for, to just try to all be on the same page more often than not.”
While reluctant to make excuses, the Giants have battled injuries this season. Veteran cornerback Terrell Thomas was lost for the season in training camp and his backup, Prince Amukamara, missed the first two games with a sprained ankle. Michael Coe, who stepped in after Amukamara later went down with a hamstring injury.
The linebacking corps has been without Keith Rivers for three games. Bernard missed Sunday’s contest with an arm injury, while safety Kenny Phillips was out with a knee injury.
“We don’t hang our head on injuries,” said safety Antrel Rolle, who has played the past two games with a sore knee. “It’s just as far as execution. We’ve been an up and down team, it’s not something that we’re proud of, but we’re 3-2 and looking to get better each and every week.”
The one area that needs immediate improvement is the pass rush. It is the anchor of the defense, and it dominated in the late-season run to a second title in five years.
Opponents are not letting the Giants take free runs at their quarterbacks. Dallas showed the way in the season opener with shorter patterns, quick releases and maximum protections or chip blocking. Everyone else has learned from them.
“Teams are always going to try to take away your strengths,” Bernard said. “When they come into the meeting on Wednesdays, that’s probably the first thing the (opposing) offense talks about: ‘Hey we have to find a way to control their defensive line.’ That’s part of the game. We have to find a way to counteract that. Like I said, it’s early in the season, it will come along.”
Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell plan to discuss changes this week. But for the most part, the linemen are frustrated.
Maybe getting defensive tackle Chris Canty (knee) back in the middle will help after this week.
“We just haven’t had the opportunity to have continuity,” said Canty, who will be eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list after the 49ers’ game. “We’ve had a lot of guys playing and shuffling guys in and out. I think once you start to get that continuity and that rapport so to speak and we continue to work like we have been working, I think we will start to see some of the benefits and results of that effort.”
The bottom line is the Giants need to be better. This is a game that the 49ers probably have had circled on their calendars since New York beat them 20-17 in overtime for the NFC title.
“They’re a very talented group,” Rolle said. “They came down to the wire with us. I only expect them to get better. I think under Jim Harbaugh, I don’t think that team is going to be allowed to slack off, especially after the performance they put on last year.
“I think they can only get better and continue to get better from this point on.”