In the not-too-distant past, a question about the Giants' pass rush would almost certainly have elicited a gushing response from an opposing head coach who would recite chapter and verse about the destructive force of the defensive front.
But those responses have been muted by a defensive line that has not put its customary pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
John Harbaugh coaches the 9-5 Baltimore Ravens, who will host the 8-6 Giants Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium. On a conference call this week, Harbaugh was asked whether there was a "fear factor" regarding the Giants' pass rush. His immediate reaction was, "I wouldn't use that word."
Oh, Harbaugh went on to praise the Giants' linemen, saying, "We respect them, they're a great front," and "every one of those guys can rush." But it was the first sentence that was most telling. Opposing teams don't seem to regard the Giants' pass rush as highly as they once did.
The numbers demonstrate why. The Giants have recorded 32 sacks, five fewer than at this point a year ago. Through 14 games in 2011, Jason Pierre-Paul had 13.5 sacks. Today, he has a team-high 6.5. JPP, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka had combined for 27.0 sacks. This season, they have combined for 18.5.
While sacks are far from the only gauge of a defensive lineman's play, the Giants have long prided themselves on attacking opposing quarterbacks. But the players are not happy with the numbers. And with two games remaining and the Giants fighting for a playoff berth, they believe those figures can still improve.
"I haven't had a good year," Tuck said today. "JPP hasn't had a good year. Kiwi, Osi, none of us have had good years compared to what we expect from ourselves. But maybe we're giving O-lines and offensive coordinators and offenses too much credit. Honestly, I think we just need to stop worrying about what people write and what people say about our pass rush and just get back to beating people up front. I think you start listening to what people are saying about, 'You're not getting sacks and you're not doing this,' you start trying to look for answers instead of focusing on the answer, which is you beating the guy in front of you. I think that's what we've got to get back to."
Asked about Harbaugh's "fear" comment, Kiwanuka said, "That's completely irrelevant to us. I feel like it doesn't matter how they come into the game as long as they respect us when they leave the game. So for us, that means if they decide to drop back on first and second down and getting pressure and getting down on the ground and on third down we have to get sacks. We have to get him (Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco) to move his launch point. We've got to get him to do some things that he doesn't want to do and then getting sacks and making sure that we get off the field on third down."
"He's a coach and even if he did look on tape and he was scared, he's not going to be like 'Yes, we're scared' because he has to put confidence in his team," Umenyiora said. "So I understand exactly what he was saying even if he really feels that way. That's cool. We just have to go out there and try to put fear in whoever we play next."
That would mean increasing their recent sack totals. The Giants registered five sacks of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on November 25. But in the games immediately before and after that, they had zero sacks. And they had one sack in each of the last two weeks, when they defeated New Orleans and lost to Atlanta, meaning in four of the last five games they've had no more than one sack.
"I think it tells some of the story," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said of the numbers. "I don't think it tells all of the story. I think the story is we've got to do a good job in stopping the run game and that will help our numbers and we've been emphasizing the run game more so than we've been emphasizing anything else this week."
Not a bad idea, considering Baltimore's Ray Rice has already rushed for 1,031 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Pierre-Paul this week said he is having a "great year" and cited his work against the run as one of the reasons.
"Honestly, I am doing what the coach asks me to do," JPP said. "My numbers are not showing but I think I am doing pretty good. I am disturbing the quarterback, I am getting pressure every game, they are chipping me, they are doubling me, but … I have to find a way to get to the quarterback. As far as the run, I think I am a very good run-stopper, the ball doesn't come to my side often. I think I am doing a great job."
Asked about the decline in his sack total, Pierre-Paul said, "It is just less snaps," he said. "Don't put that on I am not having good year because of my snaps. I am having a good year. It's just my numbers are not showing."
Fewell concurred with that assessment.
"Everybody likes to look at his numbers, but when you look at the tape JPP is really playing well," Fewell said. "We're used to him having wild plays and this and that, but he's still playing very good football. No, he doesn't have the numbers. Would I love him to have the numbers? No doubt about it. But I think he is playing good football. He just doesn't have the wild numbers."
It would help the Giants' cause immeasurably if they recorded some of those numbers in Baltimore. The defensive linemen are well aware of the rising criticism regarding their sack totals. And while that doesn't fuel them, they would love to have a big sack game to quiet the chorus for at least a week.
"We get a lot of the praise when things are going good, and rightfully so, we take a lot of the blame when we're not," Kiwanuka said. "But the fact of the matter is a very effective way to shut the game down and put things in our favor is too get to the quarterback, especially on third down. So it's something that we have to turn up."
Fewell said that would improve the linemen's outlook
"I think they're frustrated a little bit mentally because of how people have taken the approach against them," he said. "I think it weighs heavily on them, because they are a very proud and productive unit and so when you get a sack it's not an easy thing. They work their hind end off to get there. They got to see the snap count, go through somebody and then get there and then when the ball is gone and if they hit the quarterback then it's a roughing the passer. So when the ball is gone they're like, 'I didn't get it.' And so sometimes we set five and try to single up sometimes and then the ball came out and so I think that frustrates them a little bit and it kind of weighs on them sometimes.
"I do believe this about them, though: they're a proud unit. I think they will have success in the next couple of weeks and I think you'll see their numbers go up."