Dane Belton recovered a fumble on his first career NFL play. What he did for the Giants on 46 others might have been just as important.
In his return from a broken collarbone suffered early in training camp, Belton patrolled the deep part of the field Sunday and freed up starting safeties Julian Love and Xavier McKinney for unique assignments. Suddenly, the Giants were back to counting on three safeties like when it was Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers and Love or McKinney in 2020 — or, dare to say, Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant in the 2011 heyday.
“At the end of the day, you just want your best players on the field,” said Love, who looks reborn as more than a utility player under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. “Wink does a great job of playing to players’ strengths, which not every coach does. So we have the freedom to know that we’re getting put in the situations where we can succeed.”
Love moved into the box on 38 of his 58 defensive snaps to essentially replace inside linebacker Austin Calitro (five snaps, down from 44 in Week 1) and was used seven times as a pass rusher, including on a blitz resulting in the third-down sack that ended the Panthers’ final possession. McKinney shadowed All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey’s every move in a one-on-one matchup and thought he “did a pretty good job of taking him out of the game.”
But Belton’s seamless debut made it all possible. The rookie fourth-round pick announced his arrival by falling on the ball when the Panthers fumbled the opening kickoff — setting up an easy three points — and totaled 12 plays on special teams and 46 on defense.
“Oh my gosh, that’s quite the start to a career,” Love said. “I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s going to do a lot for us. He needs to do a lot for us, quite frankly. That’s what is expected of him, and he knows that. The future is bright for him.”
Belton spent his six-plus weeks on the sideline watching extra film and compiling scouting reports on tight ends and quarterback mannerisms for preseason games at the instruction of defensive back coaches Jerome Henderson’s and Mike Treier. Still, Henderson expected Belton’s “eyes to be big” early in the game as he was introduced with nerves to the NFL.
Maybe the improved vision helped him find the ball as well as calm any jitters.
“When he was not able to practice, he was right behind the starting safety every time like a shadow, making the calls and adjustments when we were doing our walk-throughs,” Henderson said recently. “He gave himself the best chance to play fast. I expect after the first few plays he’ll settle down and be the player we drafted him to be.”
Belton made four tackles and didn’t allow a reception. He was the third-highest-graded rookie safety in Week 2 by Pro Football Focus, though he took a bad tackling angle on a 49-yard run by McCaffrey.
“I have to trust that I’m ready, and go play the style of football I know — being physical, being intelligent and being able to play fast,” Belton said recently. “Once I got back on the [practice] field, I feel like it wasn’t a hiccup of being scared to hit.”
Six defensive backs played more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps in what Love described as the “Christian McCaffrey Effect” and the need to get “speed on the field to account for what he can do with the ball in his hands.” No wonder the Panthers didn’t account for Love — who played Belton’s high-safety spot for 37 snaps in a Week 1 tape that proved useless for scouting purposes — on the decisive blitz.
“That [could be] anybody,” McKinney said. “He was the one to get the job done and I’m glad he got that sh– done because we got off the field. That’s not a design for anybody. We’re just trying to create some pressure.”
Consider Belton another chess piece that makes versatile looks possible.
“You can tell his preparation paid off,” head coach Brian Daboll said. “It was good to have him out there in terms of the defensive packages.”