EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was another afternoon that could have ended poorly for the New York Giants defense, and the unit was desperate for a big play.
Then Quincy Roche called game.
The rookie outside linebacker contorted his body as low as it would allow while still running at full speed and slipped under Las Vegas Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller coming off the edge. Roche, a late-summer addition off waivers, hit quarterback Derek Carr from behind and knocked the ball loose with 37 seconds remaining. Leonard Williams recovered and the Giants secured the 23-16 victory Sunday.
It was the latest reminder that the Giants defense is back playing at a high level, resembling the unit from last year that offered so much promise heading into this season. It was the Giants' third straight game allowing 20 points or fewer.
"I think it feels similar," cornerback James Bradberry said.
The defense struggled badly under coordinator Patrick Graham the first six weeks of the season, when it was allowing 29.5 points per game and ranked 20th in defensive efficiency (26.51). The unit has allowed just 13.0 ppg and is fourth in defensive efficiency (77.71) over the past three weeks, which has resulted in two wins and a close loss last Monday night against Kansas City.
The players insist there hasn't been any drastic change. In fact, the Giants (3-6) might have actually cut back on what they were doing.
"To me, you just keep it simple," coach Joe Judge said. "You go back to what is real important in this game. It's fundamentals. You go back to playing with good zone vision, good man leverage. Good breaks on the ball, good footing, good anticipation, not having bad penalties in the game."
A bad penalty -- an offside by outside linebacker Oshane Ximines that negated a fourth-quarter interception -- cost the Giants a chance to win in Week 8 against the Chiefs. Ximines was benched against the Raiders, the first time this season he was a healthy scratch.
The message was clear, and it seemed to get through.
Second-year safety Xavier McKinney had perhaps the best game of his career Sunday, days after he missed most of the week's practices as he dealt with a false positive COVID-19 test. Judge called it "his best Ferris Bueller" after not having to show up to work and having that type of game.
McKinney intercepted a pair of passes Sunday, including one that he diagnosed early and returned for a touchdown. It was the first defensive points the Giants had produced this season. Forget for a moment that it took nine weeks.
"We're just making plays when it's time for us to make plays, you know?" Bradberry said. "[McKinney] had a pick-six and then he made a game-changing play at the end on a double move, so we're just making plays when the opportunity presents itself and we're coming down with the ball."
The Giants weren't making those plays earlier in the season, especially in Week 3 when the ball clanked off cornerback Adoree' Jackson's hands on what should have been a game-clinching interception against the Falcons. But it has been more than that.
With their inconsistent pass rush, the Giants allowed a league-worst 68.8 QBR against over the first six weeks. They have allowed the second-lowest QBR (18.6) over the past three weeks despite playing against Patrick Mahomes and Carr the past two games.
"To me it comes back to how they stay committed to working every day," Judge said of the defense. "One thing I've seen is a lot of situational improvements of red zone defense improving throughout the season, two-minute defense improving throughout the season, finding different ways of creating pressure or if we're not creating a lot of pressure having coverage combinations to change it up."
The Giants are second in red zone defense (23.1%) and fourth in third-down defense (28.2%) over the past three games. Despite allowing yards -- including 403 on Sunday to Las Vegas -- they are not permitting points.
Judge noted Graham drew up some plays in the dirt in the fourth quarter that allowed the Giants to put Sunday's game away. On the final two plays, he had inside linebacker Reggie Ragland uncharacteristically on the field in that situation rushing the passer -- an eye-opener to say the least.
It's what needs to be done with this group. Graham is, again, doing it without the dominant pass rush that traditionally drives some of the league's best defenses. Roche's sack was the Giants' only one in the contest, and they finished with just nine pressures on 47 dropbacks.
It was Roche's first career sack that preserved Sunday's win.
"I'm not surprised when anybody on our defense makes plays, because ... like I've said before, we go out there and execute," McKinney said. "We get the job done."