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Is Giants’ defensive line on the brink of a breakout?

Sacks haven’t shown up yet, but they could soon

Jason Pierre-Paul

When the Giants shelled out cash to remake the defense this past offseason, most of the resources were spent on the defensive line. It made sense considering how the Giants defenses of the past found their success. It was through a dominant defensive line that consistently pressured quarterbacks and made the job easier for the secondary. So in came Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, and the franchise tag was given to Jason-Pierre Paul.

So far Harrison has been the standout of the bunch. He’s been a force in the middle of the line and the Giants are seventh against the run by DVOA because of it. But through three weeks, the pass rush hasn’t been exactly what was expected. The Giants only have four sacks on the season and the 3.1 percent sack rate is just 26th in the league. Vernon and Pierre-Paul have as many sacks as Landon Collins and Leon Hall. That’s not exactly what the Giants had in mind.

But the reckoning is coming. Plays might not be turning into sacks as much as some would like, but the Giants have been successful getting to the opposing quarterback. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, the Giants have the 15th best pressure rate on defense. Now that still isn’t elite, but it’s much better -- and more indicative of the performance -- than the 26th ranking in sack rate.

Individually Pierre-Paul has been credited with six pressures, which is the third-highest total in the league through three weeks. These numbers can be highly predictive of future sack totals. They mean the player is getting to the quarterback and impacting the play, but for one reason or another, a sack doesn’t take place. Take for instance an extremely recent example of these numbers evening out with Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap. After three weeks, Dunlap was second in the league with seven pressures, but like Pierre-Paul had only one sack. He was unleashed against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night and had two sacks, along with being in on a handful of other plays.

Pierre-Paul isn’t alone on the Giants with pressures. Vernon is tied for ninth with four. Despite the sack totals not being there, the two ends have both been very good players -- before even considering how well they’ve played against the run. Disruption is production.

Let’s first look at Vernon. Here’s a play from Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. It’s a four-man rush and Vernon starts on the right side of the line, but quickly runs a stunt to get inside Damon Harrison and into a one-on-one block with a guard. He’s able to get enough push to get to Drew Brees just after he’s able to get the ball away. But he’s still able to get a legal hit on the quarterback. The play went for a completed pass to Brandon Coleman, but it was a big hit for the defensive end.

Now here’s a play from last week against Washington. Devon Kennard stands up outside Vernon along the line and at the snap, he rushes while Pierre-Paul drops into coverage from the end on the other side of the line. Vernon becomes a de facto defensive tackle on the rush and again goes up against a guard. He’s able to shed the block and run straight in on Kirk Cousins. Cousins braces for the hit as he gets the ball away, but the pass is well off target.

The Giants are clearly working on ways to get their top two pass rushers to the quarterback from the stunts or different pre-snap looks, but the two have also been able to get to the quarterback the good old fashioned way. They did it Week 1 against Dallas and one of the best offensive lines in the league.

This is a key play in the red-zone on second and 12 while the Giants have a 7-6 lead in the second quarter. Pierre-Paul is lined up on the left side of the line and blows past right tackle Doug Free. He’s able to push Dak Prescott out of the pocket as Olivier Vernon also approaches the quarterback. After a swim and a spin, Vernon gets past Tyron Smith, which is not something a lot of defenders can do. Prescott is able to get a pass off, but it’s at the feet of Jason Witten. The incompletion sets up third-and-12 and the Cowboys eventually have to settle for a field goal. The second down play didn’t result in a sack, but it set the table for how the drive would end two plays later.

Pierre-Paul is also shifting inside occasionally as the Giants rotate in other pass rushers. While Owa Odighizuwa and Romeo Okwara are seeing time as situational pass rushers, Pierre-Paul and Vernon are rarely leaving the field. So far Pierre-Paul has been in on 97.6 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and Vernon has been on the field for 93.8 percent. Johnathan Hankins is third among Giants linemen at 75.4 percent.

So the process is there and the results will likely follow. Monday night’s opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, might just have the offensive line needed for these pressure to produce sacks. The Vikings haven’t been one of the worst offensives lines in the league, but the pass protection has been troubling. Minnesota has allowed pressure on 14 percent of pass plays, which ranks 19th through three games. However, many of those pressures have turned into sacks.

Sam Bradford has only played in two games, but he’s already been sacked six times. His sack rate of 9.2 percent is currently the third highest in the league, though well above his career norm -- over the past three seasons he’s been between five and six percent, which is around the league average.

Much of the trouble in the past two games has come from Minnesota’s tackle position. Matt Kalil has had a rough couple seasons at left tackle, but he’s on injured reserve with a torn labrum. Now at left tackle is sophomore T.J. Clemmings, who struggled greatly at right tackle last season as a rookie.

During the offseason, the Vikings made a move they thought would sure up the right side of the line as they gave Clemmings more time to learn and develop on the bench by signing Andre Smith. So far Smith has not been good. Alongside Clemmings, the tackles are a major concern for the Vikings and something to exploit for the Giants.

Below is a play from Minnesota’s game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 2. Green Bay sends a five-man rush and runs a stunt with Clay Matthews on the interior, but none of that really matters. Both tackles -- Kalil and Smith here -- are one-on-one with the edge rushers and both get pushed back as the defenders converge on Bradford at the same time.

The next play comes from the Week 3 game against the Panthers and it’s about as bad as an attempt at pass blocking can get. It almost doesn’t do it justice to describe it. You just have to watch what LaVar Edwards does to Smith to truly appreciate it.

Minnesota’s offensive coordinator Norv Turner is a proponent of the vertical offense. But if his quarterback is going to keep getting hit as he’s been the past two weeks, he might start to work in some quicker passes in order to neutralize the pass rush. It already happened a bit against Carolina. But in some cases, when the blocking is bad, there’s nothing else a coordinator can do to kept his quarterback from getting hit.

The Giants defense has done what it’s needed to do up front even if the raw numbers don’t quite reflect it. The sacks are going to come and the current state of the Vikings might be just the thing to get them going.