A year ago, the New York Giants thought they had pinned the root of their pass-rush problems.
It wasn't that New York's high-profile pass-rushers weren't playing up to their potential—it was the run defense. Without 3rd-and-long situations, created by stuffed rushing attempts on early downs, how were we ever to expect the Giants' premier athletes on the edge to reach the quarterback?
Head coach Tom Coughlin pointed the finger at his run-stuffers, even calling them soft after a 24-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9. Now, those big men in the middle are pointing the finger right back.
Through all seven games and only one win, the Giants run defense has been a lone bright spot. Restocked with talent, the Giants' interior defensive line has allowed opposing running backs an average of less than four yards per carry in 2013.
This is despite the fact that teams are normally ramming the ball down their throats late in games in an attempt to sit on a lead and run out the clock.
The run defense is, undoubtedly, built around fourth-year defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who, in the final year of his rookie deal, is playing his way into a mega-deal—whether it's with the Giants or one of the NFL's other 31 teams. Joseph weighs in at 323 pounds, and he possesses the nasty attitude needed for a player to thrive in the trenches.
Last year, Joseph was asked to do it all on his own, but this year has been different. The Giants clearly addressed what they saw as the team's biggest deficiency, surrounding him with other space-eaters of behemoth stature.
Shaun Rogers, a 350-pound former Pro Bowler who missed the 2012 season with a blood clot in his leg, is one example. New York also swept up the Philadelphia Eagles' trash in Cullen Jenkins (305 lbs) and Mike Patterson (300 lbs), turning them into man-eating monsters who swallow opposing running backs whole.
With such a stacked interior, the Giants have hardly had a chance to work in 2013 second-round selection Johnathan Hankins (320 lbs), who is robust and round in all the right places.
It's a similar situation when it comes to 2012 seventh-round selection Markus Kuhn (299 lbs), who has yet to have been activated from the physically unable to perform list, despite showing some serious promise as a rookie.
For the Giants, who have so little going for them right now, excessive depth at defensive tackle is not a bad problem to have. If you look at what they've been able to do versus some of the league's top talent, despite being on one of the NFL's worst teams, it's really quite remarkable.
Carolina's DeAngelo Williams is the only running back to have exceeded 100 yards rushing versus the Giants this season, as his Carolina Panthers pounded New York into shutout-induced submission in Week 3.
Knowshon Moreno's 93-yard outing in Week 2 is the only other standout performance, and 45 of his yards came on sweeping touchdown runs to the outside—away from New York's hungry tackles—in which the Giants' outside contain broke down.
Other than that, the Giants' defensive front has held its own against the league's top running back talent. Dallas' DeMarco Murray was held under 90 yards in Week 1, and neither Kansas City's Jamaal Charles nor Chicago's Matt Forte was able to crack 70 yards rushing in Weeks 4 and 6, respectively.
Even the shifty LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia was limited to just 46 yards on 20 carries in Week 5. The most impressive performance, however, was New York's smothering of Minnesota's reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, who gained just 28 yards on the ground in Week 7.
Despite this stifling run defense, New York has not yet seen the payoff in the form of sacks. Through seven games, they have only six.
Once feared QB-chasers like Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka have become mere afterthoughts, as passers have enjoyed ample time in the pocket to locate an open target. Maybe it wasn't the lousy run defense after all...
No player on the Giants roster has recorded two full sacks.
After his fourth-quarter sack of Minnesota's Josh Freeman in Week 7, Tuck is now tied with Kiwanuka for the team lead with 1.5 sacks. One-time All-Pro Pierre-Paul is not far behind with only one—the same amount that former undrafted linebacker Spencer Paysinger has to his name in 2013. Joseph and Jenkins have gotten into the mix sparingly from the tackle position, adding a half-sack each to the pitiful pass rush.
Long gone, it seems, are the days of the vaunted pass rush. The Giants won two Super Bowls, thanks to their cast of trusty quarterback-catchers, but that's a distant memory at this point. If the Giants can force Freeman, who spent all of two weeks soaking up the Minnesota Vikings offense, to drop back 54 times and only sack him once, who can they sack?
The now-stout defensive front—which turned Peterson, arguably the NFL's best player, into a non-factor in Week 7—must be wondering the same thing.