There's this guy at my work. He's mid-thirties; stout. In his work area he hangs a modest boom-box, hooked up to an Ipod, and from the way he passionately belts out choruses, you can tell his music is very important to him. The big lines and soaring hooks define him. If you'd ask him what music he likes, he'd certainly say "all kinds", but his playlists are strictly top 40. He walks slow, deliberate from his car, a gray hoodie worn thuggishly over his brow and eyes; Stitch open mouthed and innocent on its back. He has the body of a bouncer, and the presence of someone you wouldn't want to be cornered by, but a cherubic face. In guarded moments he whispers wide-eyed warmth about his children.
When Tiki Barber retired, it was little debated that the Giants would suffer, but their rush offense held steady and New York won the Super Bowl. This season they've performed an even more miraculous reversal. Losing two defensive ends, the legendary Michael Strahan and top ten sack artist Osi Umenyiora, but improving defensively. With all the names and accolades, it might be surprising to read New York was mediocre on defense in 2007: tenth ranked against the run, 15th against the pass and 14th overall. This season they're 11th against the run, ninth against the pass and eight overall. Maybe Strahan and Umenyiora weren't so important, or maybe we're just not looking hard enough.
The truth is, the 2007 Giants badly declined after losing Tiki Barber. Winning has a way of washing away all sins, but the Giants were a below average offense minus Barber, dropping ten spots overall, from ninth in 2006 to 19th in 2007. Dropping exactly where an informed fan would expect: passing and on third downs. The Giants, minus Barber's 7.2 receiving DPAR and without an adequate replacement, suffered collaterally. Manning was significantly worse on third down than he was on first or second down and was terrible under pressure. Among quarterbacks with thirty or more attempts under "pressure" (as defined by Football Outsiders), Manning was the worst in the NFL.
The offense did decline. Given time, so will the defense.
The loss of Umenyiora and Strahan removes Steve Spagnuolo's "Four Aces" package. Coined by Mike Tanier, Four Aces describes Spagnuolo's innovative four defensive end package. In it, rotation end Justin Tuck and linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka join Umenyiora and Strahan, creating a line consisting of four current, occasional or former defensive ends. The mismatches were overwhelming. Ends Tuck, Strahan and Umenyiora combined for 101 hurries (37), hits (32) and sacks (32). That, and a heavy dose of blitzing -- ranking in the top half of the NFL blitzing 5 (27.2%, ninth), 6+ (10.6%, tenth) and 7+ (2.1%, 12th) -- powered a sack happy defense especially effective on third down. The team's adjusted sack rate, already a robust 8.8%, first in the NFL, jumped to 12.6% on third downs, more than three percent higher than any other defense.
Through three games, that pressure has held. The Giants rank second in adjusted sack rate, 11.3%, and have thirteen sacks. Twelve of those sacks came against the Bengals and Rams. The Rams are the lesser team, and playing from deep deficits throughout accumulated sacks somewhat because of sheer desperation. In 54 offensive plays, the Rams faced nine third and long downs (7+ yard to the first), six of which were third and very long (10+ yards). Those desperation downs included two third and 16s and one third and 17, 19 and 28. My point isn't to malign the Giants defense, after all they put the Rams in such awful predicaments, but to point out that facing third and 19, the extreme dearth of potentially successful plays forces a quarterback to idle in the pocket just for lack of better options. The Rams suffered two sacks in their nine third and longs.
The Bengals have the lesser line. The once proud unit has fallen on dark days. Cincinnati ranks 23rd in pass protection and 32nd in adjusted line yards.
Does that impugn the Giants. No, not really. There's a kind of suck cap, where a good team can only be expected to dominate a miserable opponent so much before expectations become unrealistic. New York handled the Rams and their defense stifled Cinci's suddenly netless aerialists. But on a unit that's lost significant talent, two early stompings could be red herrings long forgotten by season's end.
My attitude is always trust talent. Though Justin Tuck looks primed for a series of dominant seasons and Fred Robbins continues his run as quiet badass in the interior, there's no losing a strong pass rushing linebacker in Kawika Mitchell, a top ten defensive end in Umenyiora, and a top ten all-time defensive end in Strahan, and avoiding decline. Much less improving.
Early impressions can be deceiving. I'm confident New York's defense, that has many a Seahawks fan quivering in their boots, is soon to show a softer side.