By Larry Fine
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday with word that cornerback Aaron Ross was cleared to practice for this weekend's National Football League (NFL) playoff tilt against the Green Bay Packers.
Ross came out of Sunday's playoff win against the Atlanta Falcons with a concussion suffered after colliding with a team mate but has been cleared by team doctors.
Coughlin said finally getting all the pieces of the defensive puzzle together was critical to New York's charge to the playoffs and their next challenge against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Super Bowl champion Packers (15-1).
Getting injured pass rushers Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, linebacker Michael Boley and safety Kenny Phillips healthy and back on the field helped New York halt a four-game losing streak and build confidence at the right time.
"Persistence, number one, and the ability to ride the ups and the downs and stay together," Coughlin told reporters before the team's practice about the keys to New York's transformation. "And the confidence that grows from a little bit of success.
"The ability to put some of the pieces to the puzzle together that haven't been together, that weren't there. The growth of the confidence that comes from the pass rush, to the ability to go against some very good running teams and stop the run."
Coughlin said he has also seen improvement in the secondary, which had been victimized by big plays earlier in the season.
The secondary figures to be thoroughly tested by Rodgers, who this season set a NFL record for highest average quarterback rating, throwing 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
Coughlin praised the athleticism and skill of Rodgers.
"He moves well, you can see the rhythm with which he operates. He is very accurate and he has great velocity on the ball. He has accuracy, he has good vision," said Coughlin.
"He sees people just out of the corner of his eye, he moves the ball around, he has large contributions from a whole bunch of players, so the distribution of the ball has been handled very well."
"He's able to avoid (the pass rush). He ran out of the pocket against us here twice for big runs in our first game," Coughlin added about Green Bay's 38-35 road victory over the Giants last month.
"You got to try to keep him contained, keep him from bouncing out to the outside. He makes many plays after extending."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)