Linebacker Markus Golden this year joined the Giants after four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and on Sunday in MetLife Stadium, he will face his former team for the first time.
“It makes me excited,” Golden said. “I’m excited just to be able to go out there and compete against some of my old teammates.”
They should have no trouble recognizing him, because Golden is doing a terrific impersonation of when he was at his best with the Cardinals. He leads the Giants with 5.0 sacks and has registered at least a half-sack in each of the last five games. That matches the career-long streak he had in the first five games of the 2016 season when he tied for third in the NFL and led the Cardinals with a career-high 12.5 sacks (and 19 tackles for loss) His defensive coordinator then was James Bettcher, who is now in his second season in the same position with the Giants.
The following year, Golden started the first four games but did not record a sack before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in overtime of a victory against San Francisco. He returned in 2018 to play in a new system and had 2.5 sacks while starting all 11 games in which he played.
The Cardinals brought in a new coaching staff and declined to re-sign Golden, whom they selected in the second round (No. 58 overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. When Golden re-joined Bettcher and signed with the Giants on March 15, he said, “I’m more motivated now to get out there and prove to everyone in New York I can still ball.”
So far, so good. Golden also leads the team with 11 quarterback hits (five more than runner-up Lorenzo Carter) and is tied for the lead with three tackles for loss. Last week, he scored his first career touchdown on a 42-yard fumble return vs. the Patriots. He has also impressed everyone with his upbeat attitude, relentless play and friendly demeanor off the field.
“He’s one of my favorite guys in a lot of ways because he’s so into it, he plays hard,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think he’s very disruptive. We are starting to see, well we sort of saw it, but I think people who don’t know Markus are starting to see what he did a couple years ago when he had a lot of impact sacking the quarterback. He’s doing a good job, he’s playing hard, and he’s a really valuable member of our team.”
Golden is asked often if he is again the dominant player he was in 2016. He’s not yet ready to go there.
“What I say is, I see myself working every day to get better,” he said. “Back then, that was the player I was. Before I got hurt, I could seriously say I worked every day to get better. Last year, I was kind of nervous about my leg, wearing a big brace every day, every game. It’s you getting better, but not as better as you can. I wasn’t able to zone in and really focus like I am now and focus on football and the game because I don’t have to worry about my knee.”
This year, he has shed the brace and become one of the Giants’ most important defenders.
“Anytime you’re on the field and you have a big brace on your leg, and then you get out there and you have nothing on there, you feel clear,” he said. “I feel good.”
Bettcher also said the 2019 Golden is not identical to the 2016 model, but…
“I think he is really close to being that same guy,” Bettcher said. “He is out here working to try and get better and he’s felt better and better with his health. I think that was obviously the first thing. Markus and I talked at the beginning of the year and the goal wasn’t to get back to that guy, it was to be better than that guy. I think if you have gotten to know Markus, you’ve gotten to see how he works, how he plays the game. I think if there is anybody that’s going to come off of an injury like he had and be able to become a better player, it’s this guy. He loves the game, he works tirelessly. A lot of the plays that he makes are just second-effort plays, are just beyond skills, talent. It’s just mindset and purpose. That’s one of the reasons I have always loved him.
“I remember his first game as a rookie, we are playing the Saints at our place. They are on the 15-yard line and he’s aligned to the field, they run a screen into the back in the boundary, he’s to the field and … he makes a tackle at the seven. I see that play and you see him work in practice and that’s just his identity, that’s who he is.”
Bettcher’s presence was a major factor in Golden choosing to relocate to New Jersey. Golden is also playing with three former Cardinals teammates. Linebacker Kareem Martin, currently on injured reserve, joined the Giants last year and safety Antoine Bethea and defensive tackle Olsen Pierre signed the same week this offseason that Golden did.
“Bettch was a big part of it,” Golden said of his move east. “Just knowing Bettch, talking with Kareem a lot, and him telling me there was great people up here and everything. So, that played a big part of it. Then, I know the defense and knew the defense a lot. Of course, I had to learn more when I got here. Really that, and then when I came here, I was glad that I made the decision. I’m excited because there are a lot of good people here that are here to help you.”
But it’s the 6-3, 259-pound Golden who is leading the Giants’ pass rush. The team did not have a sack in the season opener in Dallas but have had three in each of the five games since. Golden had a season-high 2.0 sacks at Tampa Bay in the Giants’ first victory, full sacks vs. Buffalo and Minnesota and half-sacks against Washington and New England. His 5.0 sacks leave him tied for eighth in the league.
“I’m in a good groove, I feel good, and I’m going to attack it,” Golden said. “You have to attack. I’ve been in attack mode every day, as far as taking care of my body, as far as going hard at practice, and doing everything I can do so that when game day comes, I don’t have anything in my head. I’m clear and I’m ready to go. That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing. Being able to be out there healthy, I’ve been able to learn a lot about myself each week watching film. So, that’s been helping, too. The mindset is to keep attacking.”
On Sunday, he will apply what he has learned against some of his closest friends, notably Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries.
“Me and him went at it (in practice),” Golden said. “He went first round and I went second, so we’ve been going at it since day one. It’s going to be exciting to get out there and go against him.”