When the Giants’ defense was at its recent best – its championship best – it always had a rotation of defensive ends to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Whether it was Michael Strahan or Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck or Mathias Kiwanuka or Jason Pierre-Paul, the team had wave after wave to send charging into the pocket. Even backups such as Dave Tollefson found their niche on the roster by being able to spell the stars, give them a breather the offensive linemen didn’t get and then allow the refreshed starters to finish the game.
It was one of the biggest reasons why the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was heralded for it.
This year, though, it essentially has been a two-man show. And while the dependency on Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon hasn’t yet cost the Giants any games, the coaching staff is aware that having them play virtually non-stop cannot be sustained.
“We need to take a few snaps off of those guys, especially with the injuries they’re dealing with,” Spagnuolo said of Pierre-Paul (shoulder) and Vernon (wrist). “It’s hard to take those guys out and they don’t want to be out, and I think that’s great. But when you get down to the end and you really need to step up, those guys need to be fresh.”
The snap counts are pretty astounding. The Giants have played 211 defensive snaps in their first three games. Pierre-Paul has played 206 of them, including every single snap against Dallas and Washington. Vernon has played 198. Only two players on the defense have seen more time on the field: cornerback Janoris Jenkins (208) and safety Landon Collins (206). And they’re not going against 320-pound tackles and double-teams snap after snap.
Pierre-Paul said he doesn’t mind the workload.
“I’m holding up pretty well,” he said. “I’m in great condition, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life really as far as not being tired.”
But does production suffer because of too much playing time? JPP and Vernon each have only one sack this season. Would they have more if they played less? Pierre-Paul doesn’t think so.
“If I’m not capable of doing it, I won’t do it,” he said. “But you’re going to get 120 percent of me every time I’m on the field. If I’m tired, I’m coming out. I won’t do that to my teammates and stay on the field when I know I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Ben McAdoo believes the pace “absolutely” can be kept up all year.
“That’s why we practice,” he said.
Spagnuolo, though, knows something isn’t right about it. Maybe it’s his experience with the pass-rushing depth of those 2007 Giants. Or maybe he’s starting to see some signs of them wearing down late in games. He said he wants to give more plays to Owa Odighizuwa and Kerry Wynn and Romeo Okwara. Figuring out how and when, that’s the issue.
“Listen, you want your big horses in there in crunch time, in critical situations,” Spagnuolo said. “I think the point is a good one, that maybe we should take some plays off for those other guys. It’s hard to do. You want to go with your best people.”
Not letting them be at their best – and their freshest – can be just as bad.