Thursday, April 10, 2014
Five lingering questions: The pass rush
By Dan Graziano ESPN.com
The New York Giants have been the NFL's most active team so far this offseason, adding 14 free agents from outside their organization and re-signing 10 of their own. But free agency is no cure-all, as we've all heard countless times. So each day this week, we'll take a look at one question that still remains following the Giants' spring splurge. Today we ask:
Can the pass rush bounce back?
Only five teams in the NFL had fewer sacks than the 34 the Giants had in 2013, and 14 of those 34 walked out the door with the free-agent departures of Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph. The only addition they have made to the defensive line is former Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers, who's known as a strong edge defender against the run but has only 12 sacks in five NFL seasons so far and was mainly a part-time player in Denver in spite of having been a first-round pick in 2009.
The Giants did beef up on the back end of the defense, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman and bringing back Trumaine McBride to go with Prince Amukamara. The hope there is that better coverage down the field will help enable their pass-rushers to get to the quarterback more quickly. That could represent a big philosophy shift for an organization that's always believed in building a defense front to back, but the Giants have spent a fair amount of time over the past two years lamenting teams' ability to get the ball out quickly against them and neutralize their pass rush.
The Giants need a healthy and productive Jason Pierre-Paul.
Anyway, that's all just the setup. Only one player matters in regard to today's question, and he's not a cornerback. Nor is he Ayers or Mathias Kiwanuka or Damontre Moore, whichever of those guys claims Tuck's starting spot at left defensive end. The player on whom the Giants' 2014 pass rush will rise and fall is Jason Pierre-Paul, who is far from new but is capable of transforming the pass rush all by himself.
Pierre-Paul followed up his 16.5-sack 2011 season with a hot start in 2012, but back problems plagued him throughout the second half of that season. He had surgery on his back last June, and the effects of that surgery slowed him significantly in the first half of 2013. Once he was finally feeling like himself again, he hurt his shoulder and was unable to play in the final month. He ended up with two sacks for the season -- the only two he's had since the first week of November 2012.
So this is your answer, folks. The Giants' plan for the pass rush is to hope Pierre-Paul is as healthy as he says he feels and that he returns to the monster form he flashed during that last Super Bowl season in 2011. Everything rides on this. If he can do it, it's going to make the whole defensive line look good, not to mention that rebuilt secondary.
Moore looks like a big-time athletic talent, but the Giants can't know when or if he'll be reliable enough to be counted on as a starter. Kiwanuka is what he is -- a reliable veteran who does everything he's asked, but not a big-time playmaker at the defensive end position. Ayers cold be a late bloomer about to pop, but he also could just continue to be what he was in Denver, which would make him a helpful rotational piece and nothing more.
But Pierre-Paul, as we all know, can be a dominating player when he's on his game. Just two years ago, following that 2011 season, he was in the conversation about the best defensive players in the entire league. He is still only 25 years old and surely capable of doing what he did in 2011 or more. If he does, he's the kind of player who can elevate a defense from good to great. He could make those defensive ends on the other side of the line look better just by drawing blocking attention away from them. Pierre-Paul is the player in whom the Giants are putting their faith this year on defense. They believe he will justify it.
It's a big year for Pierre-Paul personally, as he's eligible for free agency when it's over. So he has that added incentive along with his built-in motivation to show the world he's still the player he was in his breakout second season. The Giants are counting on him to be that player. If he is, that's a bigger "addition" than any they made in free agency, by far.