He made 86 tackles, picked off four passes, and helped knock away that oh-so-critical Hail Mary game-ending Hail Mary pass to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in Super Bowl XLVI.
But fifth-year safety Kenny Phillips thinks he can do even better this season, if only the Giants would let him finally play a more aggressive role.
“I had four interceptions last year,” Phillips said Monday. “I feel like this year, if I’m more involved in the defense, that number can go up. That’s really my goal.
“For the most part, I’m usually always back deep, it looks like I’m catching punts. I would like for that to change, to be more involved in the defense, in the box, just around the ball more.”
No, this has nothing to do with the fact that Phillips is entering a contract year. He’s hardly worried about money, said “money’s not an issue to me right now.” If the Giants approached him about a new deal, he’d simply tell them to “talk to the agent.”
“I don’t want nothing to do with that,” he said. “I just want to play football.”
And he’s hoping to be more than the “security blanket” he says he felt like in 2011. Last year’s camp opened with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell asking Phillips to take a “quantum leap” forward and the safety talked excitedly of being a more ball-hawking presence.
But then preseason injuries to star corner Terrell Thomas and 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara decimated the cornerback pool. Suddenly, a less aggressive approach in the secondary called for Phillips to play deep centerfield, protecting against long passes.
Phillips played the role willingly, and his presence and good positioning deep routinely dissuaded quarterbacks from stretching the Giants ‘D’. But Phillips’ absence in the box hurt the run defense, and it bored the former first-round pick.
At times last season, Phillips was visibly frustrated in the locker room, desperately wanting to get closer to the action.
“It was tough,” he said. “I mean, you never want to go through a game and (be) like ‘What happened?’ Just hoping someone breaks, just so you can make a tackle. That’s pretty bad.”
Phillips stressed that he’s a team player, and by season’s end he had “just accepted the role” and “I just bought into it.” The Giants saw little reason to move him out of the slot, too, because, as safeties coach Dave Merritt said, Phillips is “really good, we all know, back in the back end.”
“How many balls do you see thrown back there?” Merritt asked. “Because 21 is that good. At the same time, would you like to have Kenny down low? Yes, because he’s a big man, and he understands run-fits. But you also like to have him in that post.”
Phillips could finally get his wish this season. The Giants are largely healthy in the secondary – although Thomas still seems to be working his way back from last year’s ACL injury – and fellow safety Antrel Rolle is no longer doubling as a nickel corner thanks to the added depth.
That’s allowing Fewell to give Phillips more freedom to roam. Phillips says that in defensive meetings, neither he nor Rolle has a “strong” or “free” safety designation; both players have the latitude to blitz or drop back at any time.
“We’re both, I believe, playmakers,” Phillips said of himself and Rolle. “Especially when the ball’s in the air. Just half the time, we don’t get that opportunity, just because of the position we’re playing in. I think him going back to safety, and coach Perry’s gonna draw some defenses to get us more involved. I think our interceptions will go up.”
“No doubt about that,” Fewell added. “Kenny’s a guy with excellent athletic ability.”
And Phillips can’t wait.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “Just having (Rolle), another playmaker, out there, it’s gonna put me in a better position to make plays and not always be the deep safety and try to play hero.”