The New York Giants struggled a lot in 2013. One specific area on the defense that let the team down was the defensive line. Specifically, Mathias Kiwanuka. There's no way around it, he was just bad. So bad, in fact that Pro Football Focus had him down at a grade of -31.5, second-worst among 4-3 defensive ends behind only Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. He was bad in run defense and even worse rushing the passer.
As a consequence of this, the Giants didn't have the pass rush they hoped for opposite Justin Tuck with Jason Pierre-Paul ailing, and Kiwanuka was forced to take a big pay cut. This year, however, he's been better. A lot better. A whole heck of a lot better. Granted, I know it was preseason, but I've been seeing things from Kiwanuka that I didn't see in the past.
In 2013, Pro Football Focus had him down for 43 total pressures in 892 pass rush snaps for a pass rush productivity of 6.7 (third-worst in the league). This year in preseason, he had pressures in 70 pass rush snaps, for a productivity of 9.1.
Why? I've got no idea, but if Kiwanuka is playing like this into the regular season, it can only bode well for the Giants as they form a quartet of pass rushers along with Jason Pierre-Paul, rising star Damontre Moore, and power rusher Robert Ayers. Let's explore just how "Kiwi" has improved:
One area that I feel Kiwanuka has shown improvement over these five games is with his vision. He's done well to locate runners and take good angles on them. That includes quarterbacks, as Michael Vick has all of one yard to get to the first down marker. Kiwanuka doesn't have the initial pressure (that's provided by Jameel McClain and Jason Pierre-Paul), but he's able to locate, disengage from a blocker, and take a nice, solid angle to the QB for the sack. It's not easy to sack Michael Vick.
The biggest area of improvement all around in Kiwi's game is his strength. His leg drive is several times better than what it was last season. It's a bit of a head scratcher considering he is now an LDE taking on beefier right tackles instead of the more lithe left tackles. Perhaps he's more dedicated in the weight room? Who knows. All I know is that he gets a nice first step on this right tackle and drives him backwards into the quarterback. Andrew Luck gets the pass off for a completion, but it shows the power that Kiwanuka is able to generate.
Again, we see the speed to power conversion that Kiwanuka is generating. His initial acceleration off the ball gives him more power when he initially contacts the right tackle. This is so great that it actually knocks the right tackle slightly backwards and gives Kiwanuka inside leverage in a path to the QB. He does his job and forces Luck to move up in the pocket. However, there's nobody there to clean up from the interior.
This final play illustrating Kiwanuka's pass rush prowess is a speed rush. He has a nice arm over move that completely beats the opposing offensive lineman and is on the quarterback in a hurry. He doesn't take the best of angles but puts on enough pressure so quickly that play ends up as an incompletion and the Pittsburgh Steelers are forced to punt.
Remember when I was talking about that speed-to-power conversion that Kiwanuka has, and how much better it's been this year? Take a look at this play. He's not the one making the tackle, but he's the one that absolutely makes this play work. He is the one covered by the linebacker at the bottom of the GIF, and watch that get off. He drives the right tackle completely backwards and into Chris Johnson's lap, forcing him to change direction and by then, it's play over.
Anybody remember Kiwi doing any of that last year?
This isn't so much a "great" play by Kiwanuka (or anybody on the Giant defense) but I wanted to highlight this because it shows the importance of hustle. You see the missed tackle by Jason Pierre-Paul, and when seen live, I'm sure everybody focused on that. What they didn't see is Kiwanuka coming in from the top of their screen, navigating the wash, taking a great angle, and somehow running down Chris Ivory 15 yards down field. I don't know if this a good play by Kiwanuka, an indictment of the Giant defense on this play, or both, but it's something that should be seen and appreciated nonetheless.
Just like in "Play 1" you see Kiwanuka's straight up power blow up this run against Trent Richardson and the Indianapolis Colts. He crushes the offensive lineman, standing him straight up and sending him backwards into Richardson. Kiwanuka creates a lane right behind him for the safety Stevie Brown to clean up the running back. Just wanted to show this type of play again because Kiwi has done this several times through the course of the preseason.
The final play I'm going to highlight for you shows off Kiwi's speed, change of direction, and vision in the run game. He's obviously in a pass rushing set, initially trying to move outside. He quickly recognizes that it's a running play and is able to disengage and leap backwards to make a nice tackle on the running back for a minimal game. You don't see that very often from speed rushers as teams will run on their side.
I'm not saying Kiwanuka is going to be an All-Pro this season. I'm not saying Kiwanuka is going to be a Pro Bowler this season. I'm not even saying Mathias Kiwanuka will end up in the top half of defensive ends this season (although he certainly could).
What I AM saying, however, is that in the small sample size the Giants have of Kiwanuka thus far, he seems like a revitalized presence on the field. Whether or not he keeps it up is anybody's guess, but it's heartening to see for right now. Is he better than Damontre Moore? While we may all think not, the Giants are still playing him ahead of "Damonster," in part because he's been doing well. That may not allay any anxiety from fans eager to see Moore dominate, but know that Kiwi has been holding his own.
That's really all we can hope for from Kiwi this year, right? Holding his own. Certainly has gotten off to a nice start.