- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They spoke about starting this season as devastatingly effective as they ended last season -- back when the three of them were finally healthy, just in time, and they became the most awesome thing about the Giants' startling Super Bowl run besides Eli Manning. But now, with two weeks already gone in this new NFL season and elusive Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looming next on Thursday, the Giants' defense is stuck asking itself the last question it expected to have to confront: Where in the world has their pass rush been?
"It usually doesn't favor us when that sort of thing happens," Giants coach Tom Coughlin allowed before the trio registered just one sack Sunday against Tampa Bay. "Whoever gets the sacks or pressures, I don't really care. But we need it. We need more of it."
Tuck, Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul are acutely aware they've accounted for just one of the Giants' pedestrian team total of four sacks thus far.
The fact that two teams have now skunked the three of them -- against Dallas, the defensive ends didn't even register a single hit on Tony Romo -- is the biggest surprise of the Giants' season so far.
It's also their most worrisome concern, given the short week they have to prepare for Newton.
Newton makes plays on the run even better than Romo does. And, at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can stand in the pocket better than Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman did last week while touching up the Giants' defense for 27 points (not counting Eric Wright's 60-yard interception return for yet another Bucs score).
Tuck, Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul have all been frank about what's prevented them from being more effective so far. And not all of it is, as Tuck said Tuesday, "Our reputation is hurting us." Opponents have so much respect for the Giants' pass rush, they're getting the ball out quickly against them with three-step or five-step drops. They're even throwing double- and even triple-teams at them in certain situations. "Camping out" extra blockers, Tuck calls it. "And I guess it's a compliment."
Which is true enough. But none of that is new.
Nor is the sight of opponents trying to establish the run early on, to give the Giants' line something else to worry about. "It does take some sting out of your pass rush," Tuck said.
But there's more to it than that, too.
Against Dallas, the Giants' defensive ends later admitted, they strayed from the plan to keep Romo in the pocket. They too frequently succumbed to frustration and went for what Pierre-Paul has called "home run" plays instead. Too often that meant the Giants' ends rushed inside when they were supposed to stay outside, and then they couldn't prevent Romo from scrambling to his left or right and extending plays. Nor did they adjust well enough, even when Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell kept highlighting the problem during the game.
Fewell, talking later about what happens in the heat of the moment, said, "They come out, they want to make a play, they want to make an impact on the game, they think that they see something that they've seen on film or what have you, and they go for it. [But] they might not make the right decision on those things, that's what happens. And when you try to correct them and tell them on the sideline, sometimes they have something cemented in their mind that they just can't get out."
Tuck said Tuesday that the Giants' defensive line did a better job of staying disciplined against Tampa Bay and "letting the game come to us."
So then why didn't more sacks come against the Bucs?
"I'll just say this: Go back and watch the Tampa Bay game," Tuck said.
Then he fell silent.
Was there more holding? Was it the replacement officials?
Tuck initially said he didn't want to be drawn into either discussion -- "Us as athletes are always figuring out a way to cry and whine about something," he said. Then he eventually relented with a long, calm, but opinionated critique that included this: "I'm not necessarily mad at the replacement officials. I'm more upset with the NFL for not handling this and taking care of this in due time, I guess. ... I think the replacement referee situation is starting to put a damper on the league."
So he did think there was a lot of holding going on.
"Hmm," Tuck said, clamping his mouth shut. Then he laughed a little.
A lot more holding?
"Hmmmmm," he repeated, drawing out the word a little longer now.
"How many 'm's' is that?" Tuck was asked, kiddingly.
"You could add a lot of 'm's'" he said, rolling his eyes.
Tuck knows nobody wants to hear excuses. He and Fewell also know that the danger of the Giants' defensive linemen abandoning their assignments will be even greater against Newton -- because Newton runs a lot of read-option plays, where he can run the ball himself or pitch the ball, or pass.
During their two Super Bowl runs especially, the Giants' best antidote against other great quarterbacks hasn't been just Manning -- it's been getting after them with Tuck, Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul (and Michael Strahan before him), making other quarterbacks' lives miserable. The domino effect on the entire Giants team when they have a great pass rush, and when they don't, is glaring. They've given up 29 points a game so far this season, which is far more than they'd like. When they have a devastating pass rush, it helps the Giants' suspect secondary look better than it is. It helps the Giants' defense get off the field on third down. It allows Fewell to keep more players back in coverage, rather than dialing up blitzes. The list goes on and on.
"There's a lot of pressure on us," Tuck said. "But we like it that way."
The pressure doesn't get any less against Newton.
"He's a phenomenal athlete. ... We have to get our motors running," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "It's going to be a long game. A long 60 minutes."
The Giants' defensive ends are already a long 120 minutes into the season, with just one sack to their credit.
Biggest shock of their season. Bar none.
The pressure's on the Giants' defensive ends to step up against Carolina.