You're familiar with the popular adage about not being able to win in the modern-day NFL without a good quarterback, but the same philosophy basically holds true with pass-rushers. Without a topnotch rush, your odds of winning the Super Bowl are extremely slim.
The Broncos and Seahawks were both above the league average with 40 or more sacks in 2013. And when Seattle took Denver out in the Super Bowl, pressure spurred by Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons was a vital factor.
After recording just 13 sacks during the first eight games of the 2012 season, the Ravens had 33 sacks during the final 12 games (including playoffs) of what wound up being a Super Bowl-winning campaign.
When the Steelers and Packers met in Super Bowl XLV, Pittsburgh led the AFC with 48 sacks, while Green Bay led the NFC with 47. Pittsburgh also had an AFC-high 51 sacks when it won the Super Bowl in 2008.
And all five Super Bowl winners between 2007 and 2011 had at least one player with 13 or more sacks, which says a lot considering only 28 players in total were able to hit that mark during that half-decade span.
|Sack leaders from Super Bowl teams|
|Year||Winner||Sack leader||Sacks||NFL rank|
|Credit: Pro Football Reference|
The New York Giants are well aware of this trend. They won two of the five championships during that stretch. In 2007, they led the league with 53 team sacks, and in 2011, they finished third with 48. In both cases, superhero pass-rushers carried the team on improbable Super Bowl runs, and it was the pass rush that twice broke the great Tom Brady in order to secure a pair of Lombardi Trophies.
|Super Bowl winners know how to sack the quarterback|
|Credit: Pro Football Reference|
That's why the Giants need Jason Pierre-Paul more than ever in 2014. Because you can't win without a top-tier edge-rusher and a top-flight rush, and that's something the G-Men have lacked ever since an electric JPP led the team to its Super Bowl victory in 2011.
The Giants have invested deeply in the defensive backfield, but a revamped secondary will go to waste if the rush can't get significantly better. It's too much to overcome.
Last year, the Giants had only 34 sacks, which was seven below the league average. Their team sack rate of 5.4 ranked 29th in football. And that occurred despite the fact veteran defensive end Justin Tuck got strangely hot during the second half of the year.
In the offseason, the Giants let Tuck walk to Oakland while failing to retain starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Those two generated 41 percent of the team's sack total in 2013, and neither was replaced in a satisfactory way on the open market.
That leaves Pierre-Paul to work with a borderline starter in Robert Ayers as well as 2013 third-round wild-card Damontre Moore, who has yet to record a sack in his NFL career. He's also got Mathias Kiwanuka, but Kiwi is also aging and hasn't had more than six sacks in a season since 2008.
Last year, Osi Umenyiora escaped the cap-strapped Giants after a six-sack campaign. Tuck and Umenyiora both currently rank in the top six on the franchise's all-time sack list. That three-headed monster of Tuck, Osi and JPP was nearly unstoppable down the stretch in 2011.
So now, it's basically just Pierre-Paul, who was supposed to become a monster after that 16.5-sack 2011 campaign. That sack total shrunk to 6.5 in 2012, but most of us chalked that up to extra attention after a breakout season. After all, his pressure numbers remained about the same.
But it all hit the fan in 2013. Offseason back surgery severely limited his production early, and a nagging shoulder injury shut him down late. The season was a write-off, and a lack of support from his fellow pass-rushers didn't help.
|Jason Pierre-Paul off a cliff|
|Week 1, 2011 - Week 9, 2012||25||23|
|Week 1, 2012 - Week 17, 2013||18||2|
|Credit: Pro Football Reference|
And now, with his support waning instead of gaining steam, it's all on Pierre-Paul to somehow rise above. That's a big reason Mike Tanier from Sports On Earth named JPP to his "All-Hinge Team," which is compromised of players who have their team's entire season riding on them.
All of the familiar faces are gone from the Giants' defensive line. All that is left is JPP, JPP's expectations, JPP's injuries and JPP's disappointments, which makes for a troubling front four. OK, that's not quite true: Damontre Moore and Johnathan Hankins have upside, Cullen Jenkins is disruptive in spurts and Mathias Kiwanuka is still in the Kennedy rocker telling "how our front four single-handedly beat the undefeated Patriots" stories none of the youngsters believe. Without something close to the 2011 version of JPP, the Giants will have more trouble rushing the passer than the Cowboys.
It's usually not a bad thing to have your season hinge on a 25-year-old with a 16.5-sack season under his belt, but so much has changed since 2011 that nobody knows what to expect from Pierre-Paul entering 2014. Maybe his sophomore season was an anomaly because his pressure numbers continue to hold relatively steady...
|Jason Pierre-Paul: Pressure stats since 2011|
|PFF pass-rushing productivity rating||8.2||8.4||6.7|
|Credit: Pro Football Focus|
There's been a drop-off, but the decline doesn't mirror his plummeting sack totals. He just can't get to the quarterback anymore.
We saw a ton of this in 2011 and, to a lesser degree, in 2012...
But even when Pierre-Paul was on his game, he was constantly falling short in 2013...
He hasn't been a finisher for some time. Call it Anthony Spencer Syndrome. All we know is it has to change and fast.
Pierre-Paul is now entering the final year of his rookie deal. Playing for a lucrative contract could inspire him, but there's a real risk he becomes the next Hakeem Nicks by flaming out as quickly as he flourished.
The good news is he appears to be fired up, he's healthy this offseason and he's even shed 15 pounds.
"I am lighter, I'm 270 pounds," he said last month, per Conor Orr of The Newark Star-Ledger. "I came in last year at 285 pounds and now I'm 270 pounds. I feel good with the way I am."
The thing about Pierre-Paul is he never had superbly sound technique, and opposing offenses are now able to focus on him more than before. So he's left with the tall task of having to be an athletic freak of nature who beats you regardless of the fact you know what's coming.
If that doesn't happen, the Giants won't be a Super Bowl-caliber team in 2014.
Sure, they got better elsewhere by bringing in upgrades like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond, Rashad Jennings, Geoff Schwartz and top pick Odell Beckham, but none of that will matter if Pierre-Paul can't be this team's version of Umenyiora circa 2007, Harrison circa 2008, Smith circa 2009 or Matthews circa 2010.
For all the focus on who is new and what is improved, the fate of the Giants defense hinges on which JPP hits the field.
If he is the menace of 2011, everything should fit neatly together and this could be a top-10 unit. If he is the mediocrity of 2013, everything could fall apart and this could be a bottom-10 defense.
"I'm going to go out there and play like I was 21 again," said Pierre-Paul earlier this spring, per Orr. "This whole offseason, I've just been training—it's coming."
Giants fans had better hope so.