5 Simple Steps to Get New York Giants Pass Rush Back on Track in 2014
Pundits will tell you the NFL is a passer's league.
If that's the case, then the next most important player—after the quarterback—is the one directly trying to stop him: the pass-rusher.
In 2007, the New York Giants led the league with 53 sacks in the regular season on the way to a Super Bowl win. Then, in 2011, the Giants finished third in the league with 48 sacks in the regular season en route to another Super Bowl victory.
From 2007-2011, New York averaged 44.2 sacks per season, finishing outside the NFL's top six in that category just once (2009).
Since then, however, Big Blue's sack totals have shrunk.
If New York wishes to return to the playoffs in 2014, it should do so by revamping its pass rush.
But how should the Giants go about doing that?
This simple five-step plan will lay out what's needed to get the Giants' pass rush—and, ultimately, the team—back on track in 2014.
The Giants officially lost their reputation as a premier pass-rushing ball club last season, and it was the individual performances of New York's once-reliable rushers that fueled this downturn.
After a pair of poor seasons in which he totaled just nine regular-season sacks, Justin Tuck led the team with 11 sacks in 2013. Note that 9.5 of those sacks came after New York's Week 12 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. This was when the team was virtually eliminated from the playoffs, and all Tuck had left to play for was pride and a new contract, which was ultimately provided by the Oakland Raiders last March.
Mathias Kiwanuka was New York's second-leading sacker with only six QB takedowns to his name in 2013. Kiwanuka has been a versatile defender throughout his days with the Giants, but last season, he rarely accomplished what the Giants needed him to do most: bring down the passer. Kiwi has never recorded a double-digit sack total through eight NFL seasons.
Then there's Jason Pierre-Paul, who once struck fear in the eyes of even the most mammoth left tackles. In 2013, Pierre-Paul was a tasty, bite-sized snack for most blind-side protectors, who swallowed the former All-Pro with relative ease and consistency. JPP finished the season with just two measly sacks, fewer than the 4.5 he had as a raw rookie who did not start a single game back in 2010.
Tuck is no longer with the team, and the names Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul carry only a fraction of the weight they once did. They will not get their 2014 snaps based on their reputation alone; they will have to earn them over several hungry youngsters, one of whom is featured on the following slide.
Use Damontre Moore in an Osi-Type Role
Osi Umenyiora, now with the Atlanta Falcons, played defensive end for the Giants from 2003 to 2012. He recorded 75 sacks during that stretch; Michael Strahan (141.5), Lawrence Taylor (132.5) and Leonard Marshall (79.5) are the only players with more sacks as a Giant (sacks did not become an official stat until 1982).
Most of those sacks came from the right side of the defensive line, where right-handed quarterbacks could not see Umenyiora coming. The 2003 second-round selection out of Troy had an arsenal of pass-rush moves, but his most effective was the speed rush. Often, he'd cap off the move by stripping the quarterback (32 forced fumbles).
Second-year man Damontre Moore can be New York's reincarnation of Umenyiora.
Some are talking about Moore as a potential 2014 starter. I think that's only a good idea if Moore proves more capable than Jason Pierre-Paul on the right side, where he can play as a pass-rush specialist, like Umenyiora did for most of his career. If the Giants try to make Moore Justin Tuck's replacement on the left side, then they'll be in trouble.
Umenyiora's playing weight with the Giants was 255 pounds, five pounds heavier than Moore. Umenyiora was not a strong run defender, so Moore would need to be truly exceptional for his size to hold his own on the strong side in place of Tuck.
If Moore becomes the sack-master he was in college, it will be as a starter on the right side with Pierre-Paul shifted to the left end. The other option is to keep Pierre-Paul on the right, while either Mathias Kiwanuka (267 lbs.) or Robert Ayers (275 lbs.) starts on the left. In this scenario, Moore would be reduced to a situational pass-rusher.
Utilize Press Coverage
The pass-rushers aren't the only players responsible for New York's dipping sack numbers; the members of the defensive backfield were partially to blame, as well.
On many pass plays, the rushers had no chance to get the sack because the opposing quarterback utilized a three-step drop and got the ball out of his hands quickly. The corners, more often than not, failed to break up these short pass routes, making for easy completions and plenty of first downs.
The Giants secondary can do the pass-rush a huge favor by stepping up its game in 2014.
New York appears primed to do so, too. In addition to a steadily improving Prince Amukamara at cornerback, the Giants will also feature Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and superb slot performer Walter Thurmond III.
Fast-rising safety Will Hill was released after receiving a six-game suspension, but New York will still field returning All-Pro Antrel Rolle (second team) and ball hawk Stevie Brown, who missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL.
The corners must play stauncher press coverage in 2014, and the safeties must provide a reliable blanket of coverage behind them. This will force the opposing receivers to work harder to get open, which should give the pass-rushers an extra second or two to reach the quarterback.
Sometimes, sacking the quarterback is a team effort.
When someone tells defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to get creative, he does not need to be told twice.
Fewell is imaginative when it comes to formulating his defensive schemes. Some of Fewell's ideas are implemented more successfully than others, but his most popular innovation, by far, is the NASCAR package, which features four pass-rushing ends across the defensive front when the opposing offense is in a sure passing situation.
The Giants should continue to use the NASCAR package, but they should branch out with some new ideas, too.
I'm no defensive mastermind, but tackle Cullen Jenkins strikes me as someone who can be utilized in a multitude of ways. He is a big man (305 lbs) with the speed of most men half his size.
A heady veteran, Jenkins has experience playing both end and tackle in 3-4 fronts, 4-3 fronts and even the Wide 9. He has 43.5 career sacks—impressive for an interior D-lineman—and the Giants would be smart to line him up all over the defensive front in 2014.
Mathias Kiwanuka's versatility is well-documented, but we have not yet seen the "joker" role Damontre Moore is apparently capable of playing. Both of these players, especially if they are not starters, could be asked to play unconventional roles, requiring both defensive line and linebacker skills.
The Giants have blitzed members of the secondary with some success in recent years, but linebackers have rarely gotten home on the blitz. This is an area of the game in which speedy Jacquian Williams or former Baltimore Raven Jameel McClain could excel moving forward, if Fewell can design an effective blitz.
Rediscover JPP of Old
I've called out the pass rush. I've called out the secondary. I've called out the coaching staff.
In the end, it really comes down to one player reigniting the beast that dwells within his pass-rushing soul.
The league knows—and fears—what defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is capable of doing when healthy and on his game. Giants fans witnessed it during one spectacular season. Just ask Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett; no scheme known to man could have slowed the freak of nature JPP was on the evening of December 11, 2011.
It was fleeting, though.
After the 16.5 sacks Pierre-Paul recorded in 2011, he recorded 10 fewer in 2012, followed by just two total sacks in 2013. The draft-bust conversation has not yet reached New York's first-round pick of 2010 (15 overall) due to his contributions during the 2011 Super Bowl season, but JPP is beginning to look like a one-hit wonder.
It's not like Pierre-Paul has lost any of his unique athleticism, he's only 25 years old. And it's not like he suddenly forgot how to play the game, he only learned it a few years ago.
It's injuries that plague JPP.
Pierre-Paul, more than any other Giant, needs to thrive in order for the Giants' pass rush to reach full strength in 2014.
He can only do that if healthy.
*All statistical information courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.