Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Defensive Ends
For better or worse, the mindset of the New York Giants front office, coaches, and players in recent years is that the play of the defensive line will determine the play of the overall defensive unit. When the New York Giants defensive line plays well, the defense plays well; when the defensive line doesn’t, the overall defense can look putrid.
The Giants are the team that first rolled out the 4-3 defense in the 1950s and used the 4-3 as a base defense until 1978. The team went back to its 4-3 roots in 1994. Since that time, the Giants have done a good job of stocking and restocking the defensive line position with players such as Keith Hamilton, Michael Strahan, Robert Harris, Christian Peter, Chad Bratzke, Cornelius Griffin, Kenny Holmes, Fred Robbins, Osi Umenyiora, Barry Cofield, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty, Linval Joseph, and Jason Pierre-Paul.
In nine seasons under Tom Coughlin, the Giants have made the playoffs five times, and have won three NFC East division titles, two NFC championships, and two NFL championships. In those nine seasons, the Giants have finished 13th, 24th, 25th, 7th, 5th, 13th, 7th, 27th, and 31st in overall defense (yards allowed). Obviously, there has not been a lot of defensive consistency on that side of the ball. Yet, for brief and critical moments, the defense has risen up to excel and even dominate explosive offensive opponents. This is especially true of the playoff runs in 2007 and 2011. Indeed, there seems to be a direct correlation with respect to the performance of the defense (defensive line) and the team’s overall success.
Barring significant injuries to key personnel, the Giants’ offense should remain among the NFL’s best. But for the Giants to win the NFC East and win playoff games, the defense must play better. And given the mindset of this team, the greatest onus will be on a defensive line that saw a certain degree of turnover this past offseason. Gone are Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty, and Rocky Bernard. Reinforcements include Mathias Kiwanuka (moved from linebacker), Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers (spent last season on IR), Johnathan Hankins, and Damontre Moore.
“We obviously have a quarterback in place who has won a couple of Super Bowls, who is in his prime,” said Giants’ President/CEO John Mara. “But he needs a little bit of help and we need to play better on defense and we need to play better up front and we think we’ve added some pieces that are going to allow us to do that.”
Much focus has been on the Giants’ pass rush. The Giants only had 33 sacks last season (22nd in the NFL). Teams like the Browns, Titans, Cardinals, and Panthers had more sacks. But more focus should be placed on the shoddy run defense. The Giants’ defense allowed 4.6 yards per rush (28th in the NFL). That means that opposing teams regularly found themselves in very manageable 2nd-down and 3rd-down situations, making it more difficult to rush the passer. Also, Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell did not appear to be able to successfully strategize against teams that got rid of the ball quickly or max-protected. In other words, the Giants’ defense was not only out-muscled, it often appeared out-smarted. That is obviously not a good combination.
“We’ve got to be more physical,” said Defensive Line Coach Robert Nunn. “We’ve talked about that as a unit and, you know, there’s no way to shy away from that. We weren’t as physical as we wanted to be last year…When the pads come on, that’s where you’ve got to evaluate our toughness, the energy, the passion we’re playing with and how physical we are. I think that’s the number one thing that we’ve got to improve on is being more physical, which will in turn stop the run, which will in turn allow for us to rush the passer…We’ve got to get back to playing with an edge and playing with some nastiness…We can’t just talk.”
There are currently eight defensive ends on the 90-man preseason roster. It’s hard to see the team being able to keep more than five on the 53-man regular season roster.
“Honestly, there’s been times this season, times in my career, you look at guys we’ve got in (the defensive line) room and you just say, he shouldn’t be here,” Tuck said. “But out of all the guys we have in that defensive line room, I don’t see anybody that doesn’t have the potential, (doesn’t) have the talent, to make a team somewhere, if it’s not here.”
Jason Pierre-Paul: Pierre-Paul is regarded by most as the best defensive player on the Giants. However, he did not play as well in 2012 as he did in 2011, and more importantly, he had back surgery (microdiscetomy) in early June. His back issues obviously affected his play in 2012. There are questions on not only how soon will he be able to return to the football field, but also how effective will he be once he does return? Bad backs can be tricky. And even if healthy, Pierre-Paul will probably have missed all of training camp and the preseason.
Pierre-Paul was voted to his second Pro Bowl in 2012, but his sack numbers declined from 16.5 in 2011 to 6.5 in 2012. More troubling was that he did not register a sack during the last seven games of the season. Pierre-Paul’s overall tackle total also declined from 86 to 66.
Pierre-Paul has an excellent combination of size (6’5’’, 278 pounds), strength, and athleticism. An explosive and disruptive player, Pierre-Paul is fast, quick, and agile. His tremendous wingspan helps him to bat passes down at the line of scrimmage. Pierre-Paul is also athletic enough to drop into coverage. As a pass rusher, he can beat blockers with both power and movement skills. However, he would become a more productive pass rusher if he would improve his initial quickness off the snap. He’s often the last lineman to move and this hurts his ability to quickly pressure with an outside rush. Pierre-Paul is a very good run defender both at the point-of-attack as well as in backside pursuit. In order for him to reach the next level, Pierre-Paul must learn how to deal with double teams on a consistent basis.
“JPP’s on schedule,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He’s looking good, he’s running around a little bit. He’s going to be out on the field a little more than usual as we move along. We expect him to hopefully be back, ready to go for the (Week 1) Dallas game.”
Pierre-Paul isn’t sure when he will return. “I’m rehabbing, I don’t know when my return will be, but at the end of the day I’m going to go out there when I feel comfortable,” said Pierre-Paul. “I’ve been doing some running lately, and it feels good. Like I said, it’s basically day-by-day.”
“It’s not really the doctor’s decision (on when I return),” said Pierre-Paul. “I say it’s not the doctor’s decision anymore because it’s basically on me. It all depends on my recovery and how my back feels and if I can go out there and practice with the team but I’m going to have to get a couple practices in before, if, I decide to come back before the first game. I already know I’m going to be taking on two guys, double team, triple team maybe so, I’m not in a rush to come back and put myself in that position…And right now I’m still at that stage that I know I can’t go out there and perform. So, I’m not going to try and rush back.”
“At the end of the day, you know that your coaches and general manager and head coach want you out there, to help the team out, but, it’s all on me, like I said,” said Pierre-Paul. “I’m focused on coming back 100%, not being like 85%, you know what I’m saying? And I know I’m going to be a big factor of the defense, so I’d rather come back 100% and that’s it.”
Justin Tuck: It may be an unfair observation, but there appears to be a direct correlation between how well Justin Tuck plays and how the Giants’ overall defense plays. Tuck had double-digit sack totals in 2007 (as a reserve), 2008 (Pro Bowl), and 2010 (Pro Bowl). He was also strong against the run in those seasons. Tuck did not play well for the bulk of 2011 (and neither did the defense), but he came on during the 6-game stretch run (as did the overall defense), resulting in an NFL Championship.
Tuck appears to be a reluctant team leader and somewhat moody. He has had two down seasons in a row, raising questions whether injuries (especially in the shoulder/neck area) have taken their toll on his game or whether his heart is still in football. Tuck started 14 games in 2012 and finished the season with only four sacks, his lowest figure since 2006.
Tuck has an excellent combination of size (6’5’’, 268 pounds), strength, and athleticism. In his prime, when healthy, Tuck was a very good two-way player who could rush the passer and stuff the run.
On the surface, Tuck appears re-energized and re-dedicated this offseason. Of course this being a contract year for Tuck should help to inspire him.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you the last couple years, I’ve had a lot of distractions that draw away from being the dominating player I’ve been, whether it be deaths in the family, newborns, me trying to do too much in the community, charity appearances, whatever,” said Tuck. “You don’t even think of it as a bad thing while you’re doing it, that you can multitask and do it all, but when I get an opportunity to step back, I know it wasn’t the best thing.”
“Justin has probably had his best offseason since I’ve been with him,” said Nunn. “In the fourth year I’ve been with him, he’s probably in the best physical shape, seems to be in a great frame of mind. The injuries were a factor last year. I think if he can keep himself clean with injuries, I am totally confident that Justin will be a big contributor for us and will be a very effective defensive lineman.”
“(Tuck) wasn’t as bad as everyone thought he was, but he wasn’t as good as he usually is so we’ve got to just keep building,” said Nunn. “He’s approached the offseason, I thought it was just outstanding how he approached the OTAs in the offseason, he’s in very, very good shape. I think he’s got to prove it when the pads come on but I think he’s prepared to have an outstanding season.”
“I’ve had two years that were not up to my caliber of play, two years that I’m nowhere pleased with,” Tuck said. “One of them we won a Super Bowl, but last year was a bad year. No one gives a damn what you did three, four, five years ago. I understand that. I’ll be the first one to tell you I have to play better than last year. I understand what I mean to this team and what me playing well can do.”
Tuck is also taking his leadership role even more seriously. “He’s checking up on everybody,” said S Stevie Brown. “He’s holding everybody accountable.”
Mathias Kiwanuka: Since he was drafted in the 1st round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Giants, Mathias Kiwanuka has split his time between defensive end and linebacker. He played primarily defensive end in 2006 and 2008-09, and he played primarily linebacker in 2007 and 2010-12. For the last three seasons, under Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell, Kiwanuka has played a hybrid linebacker/defensive end “joker” role – starting at linebacker but often also being rushed from a down position in obvious pass rushing situations.
Kiwanuka has had two major injuries with the Giants. In November 2007, he suffered a fractured fibula and ligament damaged in an ankle. In September 2010, a potentially career-threatening neck injury (herniated cervical disc) ended his season.
In 2012, Kiwanuka played in all 16 regular-season games, starting five, and finished with 37 tackles and three sacks. Kiwanuka’s tackle number was way down from a career-high 84 in 2011.
With the departure of Osi Umenyiora, the Giants have once again moved Kiwanuka back to his more natural defensive end position. And Kiwanuka seems thrilled with the switch. Kiwanuka combines very good size (6’5’’, 267 pounds) and overall athleticism. Nevertheless, in seven seasons, Kiwanuka has only averaged slightly over four sacks per year, with his career-high being eight in 2008. Obviously, the Giants would like him to set a new career-high in 2013.
“He was off to a great start (in 2010),” said Nunn. “He was really doing a good job and had four or five sacks there before he had the neck issue. And then when he came back we had a logjam there with Osi and Justin and JPP. And so we moved him around a lot. And he came up big down the stretch there when we made the Super Bowl run. Kiwi came up big in San Francisco, and against Atlanta, the roles we asked him to play. But I think it is going to help him and help us to have him in one position, especially with JPP being out.”
“Kiwi and Tuck, since I’ve been with them, have had their best offseason,” said Nunn. “And the OTA work that Kiwi had was outstanding; he’s off to a great start these first few days of (training camp) practice…The toughness he brings, the leadership he brings to that group in that room, I’m looking forward to that. We need some toughness in there…He’s a tough person naturally and I’m excited about it.”
“You see the physicality, he plays with an edge on him,” said Nunn. “When he’s playing confident he’s got an edge on him, which spreads into that room. You talk about toughness, (he) brings toughness to our room. We need that because last year, for whatever reason, whether it be injuries or whatever it was, we didn’t play with that edge at times. At times we did and at times we didn’t. We want to play all 16 games with a little edge and Kiwi brings that to us.”
“It’s great,” said Kiwanuka. “(Defensive end is) the position I was kind of born to play…It’s definitely easier (playing one position) because you’re not worrying about what you’re missing in the other meeting room and what’s being said and trying to track coaches down, in their off time, to get all the rest of the information…Sitting in one room, you can focus on one job and one task. I feel like it puts you in a much better competitive advantage to watch film, to study, to work on your own technique.”
Adrian Tracy: Tracy was drafted by the Giants in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, but missed all of his rookie season due to a preseason elbow injury. In 2011, he was on the team’s Practice Squad. In 2012, Tracy made the 53-man roster and was active for all 16 games. He finished the season with nine tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble.
The Giants have played Tracy both at linebacker and defensive end, but he is back at defensive end in 2013. Tracy lacks size (6’2’’, 245 pounds) for an end, but he is strong for his size and very athletic for the position.
“I’m really pleased with…Adrian Tracy,” said Nunn. “He is further along right now than he has ever been in his career at this time, this point. He has got to keep moving forward…He always takes care of himself…He has got to go out there and be consistent playing the run and pass on Sundays on defense.”
“I’m a smaller guy, so I think one of my best attributes is speed and keying the ball,” said Tracy. “To get off at the snap is one of the best things that I can do. That gives me an advantage over offensive linemen. But then again, being a smaller guy, people think I’m not as stout and strong, and I think putting in the work with the strength and conditioning stuff has allowed me to prove them wrong as far as being a power rusher as well.”
“I do have strength so hopefully that can translate into me being a run stopper as well,” said Tracy. “I know I have to get off the pass rush and when it’s a run, I have to be stout at the point of attack.”
Tracy’s teammates have nicknamed him “Yosi” (for young Osi Umenyiora). “(Tracy is) playing with a lot more confidence, playing with a lot more purpose and it’s very nice to see,” said Fewell. “Osi did a nice job in training him. He was kind of his mentor, so to speak, and he has flashes of Osi in him at times.”
“There are times when you squint and it could be Osi out there,” said TE/FB Bear Pascoe. “Just the speed, the quickness and then the same sort of moves too.”
Damontre Moore: Moore was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Giants. Moore has the frame (6’5’’, 250 pounds) to get bigger and stronger, which he needs to do. His 40-time isn’t great, but Moore is an athletic disruptor who plays hard and makes a lot of plays in the backfield. He has good first-step quickness, agility, and change-of-direction skills.
The scouting report on Moore is that he is a better pass rusher than run defender. He’s relentless at getting after the quarterback, but he can be handled at the point-of-attack on running plays, which is why he needs to get stronger and add some bulk. Moore tested and interviewed very poorly at the NFL Combine, and he has had some drug issues, but he reportedly has been a good soldier thus far with the Giants. He’s very quickly impressed his coaches and teammates with his ability. Moore has already been elevated to the second-team defense.
“He’s handled everything we’ve given him, both in OTAs and starting off training camp,” said Nunn. “I think he’s going to give us a lot of versatility and do some different things for us and I really see him contributing as a rookie. He’s got some growing up to do, he’s got to help us on special teams, he’s got to contribute on special teams when he’s called to do so but the guy is off to an outstanding start and we have to see what happens when the pads come on. He’s off to a pretty good start.”
“(In college), he’s always close to the quarterback, he’s always a physical player, he came in here in the OTAs and minicamp, he showed that again,” said Nunn. “He’s got some rookie in him, there’s no doubt, but it’s the good kind of rookie. He’s someone you have to tell to slow down, you never have to tell him to speed up. He’s off to an outstanding start and, like I said, I really believe the guy is going to contribute early.”
“I think the jury is still out (on Moore),” said Kiwanuka. “I think for a young guy who is physically gifted, he is very talented, he pays attention, and he’s got that drive and that power. You see him flying around the field. For a young guy like that it’s about staying in tune with the material. He’s got all the physical gifts and he’s got to stay healthy.”
“The two rookies we have on our D-Line have stood out,” Tuck said. “Moore has been explosive, he is still very raw. But you can see the talent and the potential there…the potential of Moore is off the radar right now.”
“He’s been a young man that’s gotten our attention,” said Coughlin.
Matt Broha: Adewale Ojomo and Justin Trattou have received more attention from fans and the media, but right now, it’s Broha who is higher on the depth chart. Broha was signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft. He spent the season on the team’s Practice Squad. Broha has a nice combination of size (6’4’’, 255 pounds) and athleticism. He plays hard and flashed during the 2012 preseason as a pass rusher.
Justin Trattou: Trattou was originally signed by the Giants as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2011 NFL Draft. He split his rookie season on the Practice Squad and 53-man roster. Trattou played in six regular season games in 2011, serving mainly on special teams. Trattou was placed on Injured Reserve in August 2012 after he suffered ankle and heel injuries in training camp. He flashed in training camp last year before he got hurt. Trattou has decent size (6’4’’, 255 pounds) and athleticism. H has good quickness but he is not an explosive edge rusher.
Adewale Ojomo: Ojomo was signed as a rookie free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft. Ojomo was the surprise of the preseason as he accrued four sacks and made the 53-man roster. He was only active for one game in 2012. Ojomo has a nice combination of size (6’4’’, 270 pounds) and athletic ability. He is a confident player who seems to have a knack for rushing the passer even though he was not productive in doing so at the collegiate level. There have been some whispers that he has been having a disappointing training camp this year.
Summary: So much at defensive end depends on the health of Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. When will JPP return and how effective will he be when he does, coming off of back surgery and missing the preseason? Tuck has been beat up the last few years and now his back has been bothering him too. Mathias Kiwanuka is a nice replacement for Osi Umenyiora. He should be a better run defender, but he has not proven yet he is in Umenyiora’s league when rushing the passer. Tracy is drawing comparisons to Umenyiora. Those are hard to believe but we shall see. The early news on Moore is exciting, but he’s still growing into his body. The other guys have talent, but there doesn’t seem to be room for any of them unless someone gets hurt or they dramatically out-play Tracy.