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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Pass rush struggles may be larger problem

By Kieran Darcy

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Through three weeks, the New York Giants are at or near the cellar in a number of statistical categories.

Perhaps the most alarming one -- other than their 0-3 record, of course -- is sacks. In three games, the Giants have just three of them -- tied for the worst total in the league, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers (who are also 0-3).

Two years ago, the Giants finished tied for third in the NFL with 48 regular-season sacks, and won the Super Bowl. Last season that total dropped to 33 (22nd in league), and they missed the playoffs. And they're off to an even worse start this year.

The center of attention is defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who burst onto the scene in 2011, with 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. But he had only 6.5 sacks in 2012, and then underwent offseason back surgery. Pierre-Paul didn't come off the physically unable to perform list until late August, and didn't play in any of the team's preseason games, before suiting up in Week 1 against the Cowboys.

The biggest playmaker on the Giants' defensive line, Pierre-Paul has just one sack in three games. But defensive coordinator Perry Fewell sees progress.

"Over the last couple of weeks I’ve observed that he’s getting in better condition," Fewell said Thursday. "This was his third contest, and so you can see his conditioning level getting better and better. He’s taking more reps in practice each day, and so he’s starting to get into his groove a little bit."

Pierre-Paul's lone sack came in the season opener. But his playing time has increased. After playing 65 percent of the Giants' defensive snaps against both the Cowboys and Broncos, that number rose to 86 percent against the Panthers (which led the team).

Pierre-Paul admitted Wednesday that he hasn't seen his "regular self" on film this year, but repeatedly declined to make excuses.

"Each and every day I’m always getting better," he said. "I’m not trying to make any excuses for my game play. I’m getting better each and every day and I think I had a great practice out there today and I was moving pretty fast. I wasn’t tired."

The Giants were also hoping for big outputs from Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, who was converted back to his natural position of defensive end this year. But Kiwanuka has just one sack thus far, and Tuck just half a sack.

Tuck hasn't posted a double-digit sack total since 2010, and has endured numerous injuries. With both Tuck and Kiwanuka turning 30 this year, some have speculated that their highly productive days are behind them.

Fewell, however, thinks the issue goes deeper than the defensive line.

"I think we can do some things secondary-wise to help our pass rush, I think we can do some things linebacker-wise to help our pass rush, I think we can do some things down and distance-wise to help our pass rush, being more successful on first and second downs," Fewell said. "I look at it as a whole, the whole group is really involved in that."

Rookie defensive end Damontre Moore made a big splash in his first preseason game, with a blocked punt and some quarterback pressures, but he suffered an injured shoulder. Moore sat out Week 1, played just one defensive snap in Week 2, and nine snaps in Week 3.

"With his preseason injury, it kind of put him behind a little bit," Fewell said. "We’re trying to slowly integrate him back into the fold."

So, will the Giants' pass rush improve going forward? There are reasons for optimism, and pessimism, here.

On the positive side, Pierre-Paul may still be working his way back into playing shape, Tuck and Kiwanuka have impressive track records at least, and Moore could make an impact once he gets up to speed.

On the negative side, if the Giants are counting on their linebackers and secondary to help the pass rush out, beware. The linebackers are young and unproven, and the secondary is inconsistent and depleted by injury -- safety Stevie Brown has already been lost for the season, and cornerback Corey Webster may miss his second game in a row Sunday.

One thing's for sure -- if the Giants continue averaging one sack per game, they won't win many of them.