One of the biggest mysteries around the Meadowlands these days is what has happened to the New York Giants' pass rush.
The questions have been asked repeatedly of head coach Tom Coughlin, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and the players, many of whom have simply repeated what everyone has seen: They’re not getting home with their pressure as much as they used to.
Prior to the Giants’ Monday night game against the Vikings, in which the defense played well enough to generate pressure against quarterback Josh Freeman, Fewell was again asked why the Giants’ pass rush hasn't been as successful as it was in 2011 when it was tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks.
"It just comes down to you've got to win an individual battle," Fewell said. "Sometimes you've got to beat two people, and if the ball is coming out quick, sometimes you've just got to will yourself to get there and even if the ball comes out quick, knock it down."
While Fewell’s belief that winning individual battles will help things, it’s not all on the players.
Here’s a look at several factors that were regular staples in the Giants defense during 2011, their Super Bowl season, but which have either diminished or disappeared from the 2013 defensive scheme.
During the Week 2 broadcast of the Giants' 2011 Monday night game against the St. Louis Rams, color analyst Jon Gruden noted that in 2010, the Giants defense led the league in perimeter blitzes, which consist of a cornerback or safety getting sent on a blitz.
According to data compiled from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Giants ran a perimeter sack on 7.4 percent of their pass-rushing attempts.
The following table summarizes that production:
In their first seven games of 2013, the Giants have only sent a perimeter blitz on 3.2 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, a significant drop from that 2010 season when they led the NFL.
Further, out of the 39 times the members of the Giants’ defensive secondary have been sent at the quarterback, they've managed just three pressures, two hurries, one quarterback hit and no sacks.
Let’s look at an example of what a successful perimeter blitz can do for a pass rush. This example is from the Giants’ Week 2 game in 2011 against the St. Louis Rams.
The following play breakdown takes place on a second-quarter Rams possession. St. Louis has a 2nd-and-8 at the Giants’ 25-yard line with 11:18 left.
On this play, the Giants blitz safety Antrel Rolle, who initially looks like he has responsibility for the slot receiver. Instead, the back safety (Deon Grant) is going to end up covering the slot receiver. This leaves Rolle, who times the snap perfectly, free to blitz.
In this frame, you can see that as the play develops, Rolle is now past the line of scrimmage and is coming in untouched with a clear shot at quarterback Sam Bradford.
Meanwhile, note how the Rams receivers, all circled in yellow, are still in the process of running their routes—no one has yet turned around to look for the ball.
Bradford can either take a sack or throw the ball away. He chooses the latter. While the Giants don’t get credit for a sack—Rolle was credited for a quarterback hurry on the play—the play’s outcome resulted in a 3rd-and-long, which the Giants stopped.
This past winter, the Giants and defensive end Osi Umenyiora went their separate ways after the two sides failed to agree on how much the soon-to-be 32-year-old pass-rusher was actually worth.
It turns out a lot more than the Giants were willing to admit.
From 2010 through 2012, Umenyiora’s 10 forced fumbles stood far above the individual totals logged by his former teammates. Per Pro Football Reference, over the course of that three-season period, Umenyiora accounted for 14 of the Giants' 61 forced fumbles, or 23 percent.
Although Umenyiora saw his forced fumble total drop significantly from 10 in 2010 to two apiece in 2011 and 2012, through six games of the 2013 season, Umenyiora is leading the Atlanta Falcons with two forced fumbles, one less than the three the entire Giants defense currently has.
Here is an example of one of Umenyiora’s many forced fumble specialties, the “strip sack,” from the 2011 Week 4 game vs. Arizona.
In frame A, Umenyiora is lined up wide against the Cardinals’ left tackle. This gives Umenyiora the advantage in that when the ball is snapped, the left tackle now has to turn sideways (frame B) to try to pick up the charging defensive end.
When an offensive blocker turns sideways, he’s generally unable to establish a strong base.
In frame C, Umenyiora has beaten the left tackle, who, at this point, can only try to hold the defensive end. However, it’s too late.
As the quarterback goes to cock his arm back to pass, Umenyiora, in frame D, is about to hit the quarterback’s arm.
By the way, notice how the nose of the ball is pointed down to the ground and that the quarterback’s hand is on the top part of the ball. Exposing the nose of the ball like the quarterback is doing in frame D is usually a fumble waiting to happen.
More Press Coverage
The concept of press coverage is simple enough. Jam a receiver and throw off his timing just by a second or two, and usually the quarterback will be forced to hold the ball longer.
Another benefit of press coverage? It can limit the damage done by a receiver because, again, his timing is interrupted to where his quarterback either has to look elsewhere or put the ball up and hope for the best.
In this frame, taken from the Giants' 2011 Week 3 game at Philadelphia, you can see at the top of the screen that the Giants cornerback is in the face of the Eagles receiver (DeSean Jackson). Because Jackson was mostly denied a free release off the line, he was held to two receptions (out of six targets) for 30 yards in this game.
What about the pass rush? In this game, the Giants' pass rush finished with two sacks, five quarterback hits, three interceptions and six passes defensed in the 29-16 win.
Here’s another example. Cornerback Corey Webster, who has usually done well when asked to play press coverage, can be seen in this frame jamming the Miami Dolphins’ receiver from their 2011 game.
Due in part to the press coverage, quarterback Matt Moore ended up throwing the ball away for the incomplete pass.
Batted Balls by the Defensive Front
Members of the Giants defense like to talk about how they seem to hit a brick wall when facing quarterbacks who get rid of the ball quickly.
There's a study that backs up their claim.
According to information assembled by the Star-Ledger, a team study focusing on the team’s first six games this season has shown that 78 percent of the passes against the Giants have been released in 2.8 seconds or less.
The article also estimates that the average time to sack the quarterback this year “is between 3.33 and 4.64 seconds,” and the result is a bunch of conditions that don’t favor the Giants' pass rush.
To understand why teams have been able to get the ball to come out so quickly, one need only look at how many yards the Giants defense is allowing its opponents on first- and second-down situations.
The following numbers are from raw data provided by Pro Football Reference and show the average yardage the 2013 Giants defense has allowed opponents this year on first, second and third downs.
Based on these statistics and using five yards or fewer to define “short yardage,” the Giants are not helping themselves forcing more 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations.
When an offense needs five or fewer yards for a first down, its options increase. Thus what opponents have been doing in order to neutralize the Giants’ pass rush is to run more quick-developing plays such as slants, hitches and curls underneath—all pass plays that do not require anything more than a three-step drop to complete.
This strategy then ties into the statistics in the Giants’ findings as cited in the Star-Ledger article. Teams are able to get rid of the ball faster, and the Giants are virtually left helpless to do anything about it.
Or are they?
If one prescribes to the theory that an incomplete pass is just as good as a sack, then perhaps the Giants might consider returning to a strategy that worked so well for them in 2011: Getting their hands up to knock passes down.
Consider the following data as pulled from Pro Football Reference, which shows an alarming drop-off in the number of passes defensed (through six games) by the Giants’ defensive front since 2010.
While a sack is certainly preferred, the reality is that not every pass rush is going to result in lost yardage—just look at the NFL-leading Kansas City Chiefs (30.0 sacks).
Per Pro Football Reference, the Chiefs' defensive front, through six weeks, is averaging one sack per 7.5 opponent passing attempts and has recorded 11 pass breakups.
Fixing the Pass Rush
So how do the Giants fix their lethargic pass rush?
“There’s no magical formula. There’s no scheme or anything like that,” Fewell said. “Sometimes you've just got to whip somebody’s [butt] and you've got to get to the quarterback.”
He’s obviously correct in that it does start with the one-on-one battles. However, there are things that he can do to put the players in a better position to enable them to win their one-on-one battles.
Here are a few ideas.
The first thing is to remember that not all quarterbacks are created equal. There are some who can throw the deep ball and who have the receivers to do the damage, and then there are other teams, such as the Eagles, who have maybe one legitimate deep threat (DeSean Jackson).
With this in mind, Fewell needs to ask himself if it’s necessary to play his safeties and corners 10 to 15 yards deep on every play.
If the answer is no, then it’s time to adjust and tighten things up a bit.
The second thing is to adjust the philosophy to fit the talent. As mentioned previously, Tuck and Pierre-Paul are, at least through the first few weeks of the season, nowhere near the forces they were in their primes.
If they’re going to be stymied at the point of the attack, maybe it would behoove Fewell to consider having them try to get their hands up to knock some passes down rather than to keep on trying to win a battle that appears to have no possible favorable outcome for the Giants.
Lastly, stop giving the receivers and tight ends free releases off the line of scrimmage. As noted in a previous study that focused on the success tight ends have had against the Giants defense this year, if a receiver’s route is disrupted, it doesn't matter if the plan is to have the quarterback drop back three steps and then get rid of the ball.
Disrupting the pattern will force the quarterback to hold the ball a second or two longer, thus increasing the amount of seconds the pass rush has to get him.
If the defensive front is successful in collapsing the pocket around the quarterback, that will also take away the deep ball and thus eliminate the need to play the defensive secondary so far off the receivers.
So no, it doesn't take a magic formula, as Fewell put it, to solve what currently ails the Giants' pass rush.
What it does take, though, is a collaborative effort—both from the players and the coaches—to make sure that any weaknesses in the current personnel are minimized.