Perhaps no unit in the New York Giants' defense gets scrutinized as much as the defensive line, and deservedly do.
In the Giants defense, the defensive line sets the tone for the rest of the unit. The pressure it places on opposing quarterbacks allows the secondary to force turnovers. Its penetration also sets the tone for the run defense.
This season the defensive line continued right where it left off in 2012 -- on a low note. It was a rocky start, to say the least, but as the line has turned things around in recent weeks, it's no coincidence so has the rest of the defense. According to defensive line coach Robert Nunn, the unit has thrived against the run and is beginning to find more ways to get to the quarterback.
"We've done a good job of stopping the run and creating a few more opportunities to try and get after the quarterback a little bit," he said. "We show up a little more when that happens ... Playing the last two running backs (LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson) and being able to stop them the way we did and (getting) the hits on the quarterback, it feels like we're moving in the right direction."
One obvious way to counter the Giants' pass rush is for the quarterback to release the ball quickly, but that's not the only factor in why the defensive line has struggled to get pressure.
With the Giants at 0-6 just two weeks ago and trailing in most of the games, it's more difficult to take risks and blitz opposing quarterbacks. However, in winning the last two games and having the lead more often, more opportunities have been created.
"In those first six games, especially, we just didn't have those situations. And when we did, I thought we did a decent job of taking advantage of those opportunities," Nunn said. "We've created some better pass-rush opportunities for us the last couple weeks and (have) been able to take advantage of them."
The one player that has garnered the most attention is Jason Pierre-Paul, who was supposed to step up as the team's premier pass rusher with Osi Umenyiora now in Atlanta. After a Pro Bowl season in 2011, JPP was slowed down in 2012. And in the offseason he had back surgery, which meant it would take a while before he returned to football shape for the 2013 season.
Pierre-Paul has admitted he's still not himself, that he's still recovering from surgery. According to Nunn, JPP has played well against the run and his attitude is encouraging, and he's one breakout play or game from returning to form.
"He's struggled a little bit, but he's playing solid against the run, and we just have to keep showing up every day and going to work and that's what he's been doing," he said. "He's behind the eight ball. He's an inexperienced player ... That can't mean excuses.
"The season's here now. We've got to keep rolling. His attitude (has) been good and that's what we have to keep building on -- keep building on positives and I still think that can happen for him this year. He needs that breakout play or one breakout game to get him rolling."
Pierre-Paul's counterpart, Justin Tuck, has been stellar of late, especially in run defense. Tuck admitted in the offseason he has been distracted in recent seasons and this year would mark a turnaround for the 30-year-old vet.
Compared to last year, Nunn said, Tuck has really improved.
"He has played much better. He's played healthier," he said. "I really thought (if) he could maintain (his health) he would really show up and he really has. He's played really well and in the last two weeks I think he has nine hits on the quarterback."
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