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Fact or Fiction: Way-too-early predictions (defense)


The crew is presented with four statements and must decide whether they are Fact or Fiction.

Brian Burns will lead the team in sacks.

John Schmeelk: Fact – This is a preview for a future question in our "24 questions in 24 days" series leading up to training camp. I am extremely bullish on Brian Burns this year. He has been the definition of consistency so far in his NFL career, finishing with between 7.5 and nine sacks in four of his five seasons. He had one 12.5-sack season in 2022. In his last four seasons in Carolina, he has had another teammate with more than seven sacks just once: Haason Reddick in 2021. He now has Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux giving opposing defenses something else to think about with the Giants. The Panthers have also won more than five games only once in his career when they won seven in 2022 (not a coincidence that was his 12.5-sack season). It is hard to rush the passer when your team is constantly playing from behind. If the Giants can get some leads, he should get more opportunities to show off his elite pass rush skillset and lead the Giants in sacks.

Dan Salomone: Fiction – When Kayvon Thibodeaux met with the media during OTAs, I got a sense of urgency from him. He knows this is a big year in his progression. The former fifth overall pick is already going on his third season and looks to build on his 11.5-sack campaign. He has high expectations for himself, and helping him reach them will be Dexter Lawrence, Brian Burns, and Shane Bowen's philosophy of getting after the quarterback with the front four.

Matt Citak: Fact – In what was considered a "down year" by some, Brian Burns still picked up eight sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback hits last season. Now with Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux around him, Burns should see more one-on-one situations than he did during his time in Carolina. The 26-year-old looked explosive during team drills throughout the spring, setting up what could be a career year. Burns and Thibodeaux should benefit greatly from working opposite each other, and it wouldn't surprise me to see both players reach double-digit sacks.

Dexter Lawrence will have more than 7.5 sacks, his current career high.

John Schmeelk: Fiction – Dexter Lawrence is the best pass-rushing nose tackle in the NFL, and it is not particularly close. PFF pressure rate numbers have him exponentially better at rushing the passer from over center than anyone else. It is still an extremely difficult position to register sacks. It is easier for teams to put a guard and center on him regularly playing in the middle of the line. If the Giants slide him to the three-technique on passing downs, it might help a little bit, but double teams are still more feasible inside. I also think a reduction in the number of blitzes give him less frequent one-on-one opportunities. I believe he finishes with six and has another dominant season.

Dan Salomone: Fact – This might be a stretch to go with "fact," but Brian Burns' comments about the two-time Pro Bowl interior defensive lineman caught my attention. While everyone has talked about Burns teaming up with Thibodeaux, there's also something there with Lawrence.

"We have to show that we can get to the quarterback at a consistent rate by ourselves," Burns said. "That's going to take chemistry. It's going to take a form of a brotherhood. If I got Dex with me, just know if I got Dex with me, I got a plan."

Burns was also asked what he has learned about his new teammate, who is also a two-time Pro Bowler.

"Have you seen him? That speaks volumes, just his size alone," Burns said. "He has a God-given ability of strength and athleticism. For a guy that big to move that fast, that agile, it's truly a gift. Something I didn't know before I got here, he's very clever. That probably came through experience. We were going into our sixth year together. Probably came with experience. Yeah, he has a lot of tricks he picked up along the way."

Matt Citak: Fiction – You can make an argument that Lawrence was even more disruptive last season than he was in 2022. In fact, he picked up two more pressures on 67 fewer pass-rushing snaps last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and that included playing through an injury in the final five games. But his sack numbers were lower in 2023 (4.5) than the year before. Lawrence has proven to be one of the top, if not the top, interior defensive linemen in the NFL. I expect him to be in the All-Pro conversation for the third straight year. But I think his dominance inside will force quarterbacks to scramble to the outside, which will put them right into the arms of Burns and Thibodeaux and thus have an impact on Lawrence's sack numbers.

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The Giants will have at least three Pro Bowlers on defense.

John Schmeelk: Fact – This will be determined by how well the team plays. The Giants have three Pro Bowl-worthy players in Dexter Lawrence, Brian Burns and Bobby Okereke. If Kayvon Thibodeaux can repeat last year's production, he will be in the mix too. Deonte Banks also has a chance, with a second-year jump, to challenge for a spot in the Pro Bowl. But will the team win enough games to garner the attention of voters, who often glimpse the impact of players in important games late in the season when playoff spots are on the line? I think the Giants will be competing for a playoff spot into December, which should get them some voter love and at least three players in the Pro Bowl.

Dan Salomone: Fact – A rising tide lifts all boats. The addition of Burns will help the entire defense, not just the front four. "Makes my job a lot easier," Okereke said about Burns. "Quarterback has to get the ball out quicker. … It is early. I think we can be as good as we want to be. We have very talented pieces and we're just working every day to get better."

Matt Citak: Fact – Based on my first two answers, it's easy to see I'm high on the trio of Lawrence, Burns, and Thibodeaux up front. All three of those players have a chance to make the Pro Bowl, and I wouldn't be surprised if they all did. But even if they don't, guys like Bobby Okereke and Deonte Banks give the unit a chance to still reach three Pro Bowlers. Okereke was considered to be a Pro Bowl snub last year, while Banks could take a big step in his development in Year 2. Between those five players, I can see at least three of them making it.

The Giants will allow fewer than 100 rushing yards per game in Shane Bowen's first season at the team's defensive coordinator.

John Schmeelk: Fiction – In Shane Bowen's three years as the Titans defensive coordinator, they never allowed more than 107.7 rush yards per game. In two of his three season they allowed fewer than 85 per game. I think they will fall somewhere around 103 rush yards allowed per game, which would rank them eighth in the NFL based off last season's rankings. With the inexperience in the secondary, I think he will have to dedicate some more resources on the back-end and play with fewer heavier boxes. The rush defense the last two seasons has also been near the bottom of the league, so I hesitate the predict a complete 180-degree turnaround given how similar some of the personnel is on that side of the ball. This number will also be dictated heavily by game flow, and how often the Gants are behind, which would lead to more rushing attempts by the opposition.

Dan Salomone: Fact – Last season with the Titans, Shane Bowen boasted the No. 1 defense in red zone scoring (allowed touchdowns on 37.7 percent of drives inside the 20), goal-to-go scoring (42.9 percent resulting in touchdowns), and third-down conversation rate in the red zone (23.4). From 2021 to 2023, the Titans surrendered the fewest rushing yards in the NFL (89.7 yards per game) and a league-low 3.70 rushing yards per carry. They allowed 33 rushing touchdowns in that span; only the Ravens and Patriots gave up fewer with 30 apiece. Overall, the Titans allowed 106 touchdowns from scrimmage in Bowen's three seasons as defensive coordinator, the seventh-fewest in the NFL. Bowen's philosophy is "creating a new line of scrimmage," and he certainly has the pieces to do so.

Matt Citak: Fiction – Over the last three seasons, the Giants have allowed an average of 132.4, 144.2 and 129.0 rushing yards per game. All three of these marks led to the Giants finishing in the bottom eight in the NFL, including bottom five in each of the last two years. Stopping the run was the biggest strength of the Titans defense while Shane Bowen was coordinator, so I do expect that area to improve drastically. But to go from 132.4 yards per game to under 100 in one year, with a lot of the same personnel in the front seven, could be too much of an ask. However, I do think the defense will find itself in the top half of the league when it comes to stopping the run this year.


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