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Sunday, January 29, 2012
The D-line is the Giants' heart

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Back in early September, after the New York Giants had finished a brisk Friday afternoon practice, general manager Jerry Reese reclined in the chair behind his spacious desk while fielding questions from a reporter. The discussion focused on the prolific passing numbers generated by offenses around the league and how defensive backfields might handle the barrage.

Reese kept shaking his head in amazement while lamenting how dangerous the league's quarterbacks had become. It was hard enough to deal with the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Give them a league filled with defenses hamstrung by rules favoring the offense and a prolonged lockout and it was likely that their productivity would reach stupid levels.

The only aspect of the conversation that kept Reese routinely grinning was the equalizer he had on his own roster. Four years earlier, the Giants had won a Super Bowl with a defensive line that had rattled Brady and the New England Patriots' record-setting offense. Ever since then, the Giants had believed so much in applying pressure through their front four that Reese had added another first-round pick to his defense (end Jason Pierre-Paul) and doubled-down on his belief that the best way to contend for championships is through relentless, unforgiving pressure. "That," Reese said, "is why we have our dawgs up front."

 Jason Pierre-Paul
Jason Pierre-Paul had 16.5 sacks in only his second season.
Of course, Reese had no way of knowing how this year would play out at that early stage. He also couldn't have predicted that a team hit with so many injuries would go on a five-game winning streak after being saddled with a 7-7 record with two weeks left in the regular season. What Reese does know today is that his Giants are back in their second Super Bowl in four seasons, where they'll once again face the Patriots. The Giants are here mainly because of their resolve, the brilliance of Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning and -- yes -- a front four that has turned dominant at exactly the right time.

The storylines in Super Bowl XLVI aren't hard to determine. This game is about: New York versus Boston; Brady versus Eli and Tom Coughlin versus Bill Belichick. It's a rematch of arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever.

More than anything, though, it's a testament to how the Giants do business. If their defensive line goes off, the Giants go home with another Lombardi trophy.

"That's where our energy comes from," said Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, whose unit tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks. "That's where our confidence comes from. That's where our swagger comes from. Those guys, unlike most teams that you associate with, they set the tone for us. They are the catalysts for what we do and how we do it."

"They can rush the passer," said Brady. "There's no doubt about that. In playing them before, you understand that they can -- they strip-sacked us on our own 10-yard line or something like that when we played them last. They get a lot of turnovers. They put a lot of pressure on you with their front four."

Brady knows first-hand how difficult the Giants' pass rush can be to handle. He was sacked twice in the Giants' 24-20 win over New England on Nov. 6 and five times in New York's upset win in Super Bowl XLII. As Reese said, "We hit Tom Brady on the first play of that [Super Bowl] and we kept hitting him. That was a big factor."

That approach also has helped the Giants advance throughout the postseason after they locked up the NFC East title with a season-ending win over Dallas.

The Giants' defense may have had lousy regular-season statistics -- they ranked 25th in points allowed and 27th in total yards -- but the line has been a work in progress all year.

Defensive end Osi Umenyiora managed nine sacks despite missing the first nine games after arthroscopic knee surgery. Fellow end Justin Tuck has battled through neck, groin and toe injuries.

However, Pierre-Paul had a career-high 16.5 sacks in only his second year. The Giants also counted on three other key defenders -- tackles Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and outside linebacker/end Mathias Kiwanuka -- to be steady performers.

They bring such an impressive combination of quickness, strength and savvy that it's difficult for any offensive line to feel comfortable double-teaming only one. When Fewell routinely lines up four defensive ends on passing downs, the problems mount for opponents.

"You have to know that every one of those guys has different elements of their game," said Patriots Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters. "From JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul] and his long arms and his super athletic ability to a guy like [Justin] Tuck who is a veteran, a guy who is always going to give you one look and do something different, to the bigger guys in the middle, the guys who are real physical. It's a lot different. You have to know from guy to guy who you're going against."

"We have about three or four defensive ends, and then the two tackles that really set the tone in the middle for you," Fewell said. "You have three or four defensive ends who can change the complexion of the ballgame on any given play. A lot of teams I've been associated with in the past, you have one, possibly two. If you had two, you felt like you were great up front. If you have three or four, at any point in time, one of those guys can make a game-changing play."

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan felt that pressure in New York's 24-2 wild-card win. Though the Giants sacked him only twice, their constant pass rush helped hold the Falcons to only 183 passing yards. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers was just as frustrated a week later in the Giants' 37-20 divisional playoff victory. The Giants sacked him four times, and Umenyiora stripped the ball on a huge third-quarter play.

By the time the Giants picked up three more sacks in their 20-17 overtime win over San Francisco in the NFC title game, the message had been driven home. As Tuck kneeled on the sideline and pointed to the heavens just seconds after Lawrence Tynes hit the game-winning field goal, the Giants felt very much like a team of destiny again.

"Any time a defense can create pressure with just their front four, that can make things very difficult," said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. "That means they have seven guys back there focusing on coverage. And that's as good as it gets for a defensive coordinator."

One reason for the group's success is its competitiveness. Pierre-Paul recently said, "If Justin gets a sack, I want two. If I want two, then Osi wants three. Basically you can say that we are greedy but in a good way, to help our team out."

Osi Umenyiora
The Giants' pass-rushers, including Osi Umenyiora, left, and Justin Tuck, make up an especially tight-knit unit.
There's also camaraderie and chemistry. Whether they're clowning around in meeting rooms or pushing each other in a tight game, they've never allowed inflated egos to corrupt their environment.

That isn't an easy task. Three members of the group -- Tuck, Umenyiora and now Pierre-Paul -- are Pro Bowlers.

Umenyiora has downplayed the notion that his return to the lineup re-energized a slumping team. "They were playing better when I wasn't there, so I can't attribute that success to me," he said. He also didn't let his frustrations about his contract situation affect his play.

Meanwhile, Tuck has blossomed into a more vocal leader this season. He may have missed four games and garnered only five sacks, his lowest production since he was a backup in 2006, but his teammates still valued his guidance.

"The one thing that I learned this year is the guys respect what you've done," Tuck said. "A lot of times I wouldn't say anything and guys came up to me and said, 'Why are you so quiet?' or 'Why do you do this or do that?' And I would tell them why. They came to me and [said], 'You know what? You don't have to worry about that. We know you're not 100 percent; we know that doesn't stop you from being a leader.' "

Tuck acknowledged that this Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots will be different. New England isn't an undefeated juggernaut looking to go down in history as the greatest team ever. The Giants aren't overlooked. They've won the past two meetings, and they're as hot as New England is.

The one thing that won't be different is the most important matchup of the game -- the one in the trenches. Tuck was just an unheralded reserve back in 2007, one who wound up with six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in that breakout performance. Now he finds himself in the leadership role that former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan held that year, when Strahan was about to finish a 15-year career with a Super Bowl win. Fittingly, Strahan, now a Fox broadcaster, was on the sideline with the Giants when they won the NFC Championship last Sunday.

When the game ended, he jumped into the arms of fellow teammates, hugged Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on his way off the field and stood next to Umenyiora while reporters crowded in for interviews. Strahan beamed like a proud big brother.

The whole scene felt vaguely familiar. As Brady said, "Every time we play them, you talk about their defense [and] their pass rush. It's going to be a good game. We have our work cut out for us."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.