Watching the New York Giants over the past month, there has been a common theme on defense.
No, not the blitz. It's been something defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would like to forget — his defenders chasing an opponent down the field.
Seven times in the past four games, Brian Westbrook, Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams or someone else has left the defense in the dust on a play that covered 30 or more yards for a touchdown.
"I'm just telling you it has to stop," coach Tom Coughlin said. "That is basically the way I say it."
The big play was one of the key components Spagnuolo and Coughlin hit on as the Giants (12-4) went through a major self-scouting session during the bye week. If the Giants are going to repeat as Super Bowl champs, they have to cut out the opponent's big plays.
Why is it so important? Philadelphia, Dallas and Minnesota each had two big-play scores this past month in wins over the NFC's top-seeded team.
"We just have to get back to the basics," safety James Butler said. "Everyone has to run to the ball and make a play when it's time to make a play. In the NFL, the name of the game is make big plays and not giving up big plays. In the playoffs, one big play can be the difference."
Of the seven big plays, four have been runs and three were passes.
Westbrook started the onslaught with a 30-yard touchdown run against a blitz and a 40-yard touchdown catch on a little crossing pattern in which he beat linebacker Antonio Pierce in the Eagles' 20-14 win on Dec. 7.
Tony Romo threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton and Tashard Choice added a late, game-icing 38-yard run in Dallas' 20-8 victory the following week.
Williams capped a four-TD rushing performance with a 30-yard touchdown run in the Giants 34-28 overtime victory over the Carolina Panthers in the penultimate game.
The Minnesota Vikings captured with NFC North last weekend as Peterson scored on a 67-yard run, and Tarvaris Jackson threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian to ignite a fourth-quarter comeback.
In the first 12 games, the defense had allowed only four TDs of 30 yards or more.
"We're not down," said defensive tackle Fred Robbins, limited by shoulder injury the past month. "A lot of the big plays that we had against us are things that we messed up, our mishaps. We need to get those straightened out and do a better job of tackling."
Robbins noted that on Peterson's long touchdown run, backup tackle Jay Alford, who was starting for the injured Barry Cofield, jumped offside.
Some players expected the officials to blow the play dead and didn't react, he added.
The touchdown pass to Berrian resulted when rookie cornerback Terrell Thomas fell, leaving the Vikings' wide receiver wide open. Compounding the problem was that none of the defensive backs got over to help.
Some of the long runs have come on plays in which the Giants seemed to have the play stopped at the line of scrimmage. The most notable was Westbrook's 30-yarder in early December.
New York came with a maximum blitz and Westbrook seemed to come to a dead stop behind a wall of players. A split second later, he was in the open and running for a touchdown.
"That's what it is like in the NFL," linebacker Chase Blackburn said. "That's what the good backs do. They have good vision in this league, they see the hole and get through it."
Cofield said he would be more concerned if the running backs were consistently hitting holes.
"To me it's easier to clean up a long touchdown, because you know it is going to involve a missed tackle," Cofield said.
"If you're literally giving up 5 yards every time they touch the ball, that's more concerning. That means every play everyone is getting beat. A long run is a product of a good running back and a missed tackle or two in the back half."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun