If not for the dominant play they got from their pass rush, the New York Giants wouldn't be reigning Super Bowl champions.
The Giants started 7-7, averaging 2.6 sacks per game during those first 14 games. But they won six straight to finish the year, with the final victory coming against New England in Super Bowl XLVI. During that stretch, Big Blue averaged 3.7 sacks per game.
They also didn't have Osi Umenyiora for seven games during the regular season. Without Umenyiora, they still managed to average 2.7 sacks a game, but with him they had 3.1 sacks per outing.
That's why it's surprising that, with Umenyiora and Justin Tuck healthy and Jason Pierre-Paul continuing to be a huge presence, the Giants have just four sacks in two games this season.
Only 12 teams have taken down opposing quarterbacks less often. And the pass rush as a whole, which received a 17.4 rating (seventh in the league) from Pro Football Focus last season, is ranked 18th early on this year by PFF with a minus-1.4 rating.
The problem certainly hasn't been Pierre-Paul, who's rated as the second-best 4-3 defensive end in football by PFF. He only has one sack thus far, but JPP has nine hurries.
But Tuck and Umenyiora have been ghosts early on. Neither of those players has hit the quarterback once, and Tuck has yet to register a single hurry. Tuck is ranked dead last among 41 eligible 4-3 ends in terms of pass-rushing productivity, per PFF.
Against the Bucs Sunday, they hit Josh Freeman five times, registered just two sacks and had only eight hurries. From that perspective, it was their worst showing since they were held without a sack against New Orleans in Week 12 last season.
It seemed like all day long Josh Freeman was getting clean pockets like this one, which he enjoyed on a third down on the Bucs' very first drive. I've highlighted Tuck and Umenyiora, who are both being manhandled:
That allowed Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 41-yard deep ball.
On the next Tampa Bay drive, same deal. Again, Tuck and Umenyiora are highlighted:
The Giants did have two sacks in the first half, but neither came as a result of sheer pressure from the team's world-famous four-man rush. The first came as a result of a a heavy blitz. On that play, Perry Fewell's defense sent six, overloading the weak side and getting to Freeman on his blind side. Linebacker Chase Blackburn was credited with the takedown.
And the only sack a defensive end has registered all season came in the second quarter, but it was arguably more of a coverage sack for Jason Pierre-Paul. As you can see below, the Bucs did a good job against a four-man rush, but New York's coverage was fantastic and Freeman's drop was shallow.
It took JPP nearly five seconds to get through, and Freeman—for whatever reason—had yet to take action one way or the other. He should have taken off or gotten rid of it already, but Pierre-Paul finally did take him down.
But after that, the Giants wouldn't record a sack for the final 40 minutes of the game.
Time and again, Tuck was handled easily by a single blocker. Here, he's being dominated by Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson. (Also, Pierre-Paul can't bust through a one-on-one matchup in blue).
And when they did blitz, they rarely executed. Here, Jacquian Williams was too early. Freeman identified it, the offensive line held up and he found single coverage. This would result in a touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson, who's beating his man at the bottom of the shot.
What had to be most disappointing was the rush's failure to get heat on third downs. The Bucs were only 2-for-10 in those situations, but that had more to do with offensive inadequacy and decent coverage from New York than it did the pass rush.
Take a look at Freeman's pocket on a 3rd-and-8 early in the third quarter. Umenyiora's in black, Tuck's in blue.
The only reason that didn't go for six points was because Antrel Rolle had good coverage in the end zone.
Fourth quarter now. Game on the line and a 3rd-and-7. Freeman has all day.
The problem is that he again didn't have much to work with down the field. This shot of him finally releasing comes a full six seconds after the snap:
A few seconds prior, Freeman was surveying the field in a fairly comfortable pocket. Pierre-Paul (red) was recovering after being chipped off the line of scrimmage. Tuck (blue) was getting roughed up by Carl Nicks. Umenyiora (black) was being handled easily by Donald Penn.
Here's another angle of Tuck and JPP getting taken care of on that play:
The Giants again had good coverage there, but they couldn't hold on forever. It would lead to a first-down completion.
Usually, though, the offensive line was giving Freeman tons of time, even on blitzes. He simply failed to take advantage, and New York's pass coverage appeared to be much better than it was against Dallas. Corey Webster and Justin Tryon had some issues, but Michael Coe, Rolle and rookie Jayron Hosley held up well.
Even late, when clutch defensive players like these guys usually step up, they let Freeman have far too many opportunities.
Down by seven in the final few minutes, this is what Freeman dealt with on back-to-back snaps:
That second shot was taken a full four seconds after the snap. That protection gave Freeman enough time to throw a game-tying touchdown pass to Mike Williams.
This is another look at Freeman's sweet pocket, with JPP (red) rolling off a chip and about to hit more obstacles and Umenyiora being locked down in blue.
I actually have about 15 more screen shots just like those. It was laughable.
The question is whether the three-headed monster is simply off to a slow start or if they're beginning to slow in general. JPP's a stud, but he's much less effective when Tuck and Umenyiora are struggling. Those guys are 29 and 30, respectively, and might be beginning to decline.
If that's the case, the Giants will be in big trouble.