Four years ago, the New York Giants pass-rushed their way to a Super Bowl title. The unyielding pressure that they put on opposing quarterbacks played a prominent role in their unlikely run to a championship, which culminated in a five-sack performance against New England quarterback Tom Brady in an upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots on the sport’s biggest stage.
Now they’re hoping to lean on that pass rush again as they try to put together another string of postseason victories. The Giants’ level of success Sunday in making Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers feel some heat at otherwise-chilly Lambeau Field could be a determining factor in whether they’re able to oust the top-seeded Packers from the NFC playoffs.
Former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said he believes this Giants team could enjoy the same postseason boost from pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora that the 2007 team received from Michael Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck.
“I think this team is capable of doing that with the pass rush,” Pierce said.
But Pierce also said the obstacles are bigger now for the team’s pass rushers. Rodgers and fellow quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints have set NFL passing records this season, and rushers are even more limited in the types of hits permitted on quarterbacks.
“It’s even more of a passing league now than it was in ’07,” Pierce said. “If it was 60-40 then, it’s 80-20 now. If they play the Packers and the Saints, they might face 110 passes, and it’s so easy to get a penalty hitting the quarterback. But they still need to get pressure.”
In the 2007 season, the Giants led the league with 53 regular-season sacks. Umenyiora had 13 of them, Tuck had 10 and the now-retired Strahan had nine. Those Giants had eight more sacks in four postseason games. They were shut out in that category while winning the NFC championship game in overtime in Green Bay. But their relentless pursuit of Brady in the Super Bowl contributed mightily to that memorable triumph.
Pierre-Paul, in his second NFL season, led the way this season with 161 / 2 sacks, fourth in the league. The Giants tied for third in the league with their 48 regular-season sacks.
Even so, this season’s Giants relied heavily on the passing of quarterback Eli Manning while their usually rugged running game and defense often struggled. The Giants ranked last in the league in rushing offense and 29th in passing defense during the regular season.
The all-around play has improved in recent weeks as the Giants beat the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys at the end of the regular season to win the NFC East, then shut down the Atlanta Falcons in a first-round playoff game last Sunday at the Meadowlands. The Giants sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo six times in the regular season finale. They shut out the Atlanta offense last weekend. The Falcons scored only on a safety in a 24-2 Giants victory.
Falcons Coach Mike Smith credited the Giants with winning the game at the line of scrimmage, and Tuck called it probably his team’s best defensive effort of the season.
“I think the last three weeks [of] do-or-die games for us, we really came out and put things together,” Tuck said. “But it still feels like we can play better and we probably will have to next week going up to Green Bay.”
Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Umenyiora will be working against a Green Bay offensive line that will have all of its season-opening starters on the field for the first time since the third week of the season.
Pierce said the Giants indeed must improve their play on defense when they face the Packers. Rodgers had the highest passer rating, 122.5, in NFL history this season.
“They need to not have the blown coverages [in the secondary] they had early in the year,” said Pierce, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “They seem to have fixed those problems. But part of it may be the competition. It’s been against Mark Sanchez, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan. They’re not Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.”
Manning threw for 400 yards against the Packers in a Dec. 4 game at the Meadowlands but Rodgers led the Packers to a game-winning field goal as time expired in a 38-35 win.
“I expect the Giants to come in and play the way they want to play,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said at a news conference this week. “Defensively, I think it really starts with their group up front.”
Pierce said the Giants’ rejuvenated running game must be effective and they must rely on their defense if they’re going to prevail, rather than allowing Manning to have another passing duel with Rodgers.
“I don’t think the Giants can win a shootout,” Pierce said. “They could score in the 30s. But that means the Packers might score 40. They can score 40, and the Packers might score 50. That [Green Bay] offense is just so good. If the Giants are going to win this game, they have to make it a defensive game. They need to try to keep the score in the 20s.”