Ask most people associated with the Giants how they were able to twice beat the heavily favored Patriots in the Super Bowl, and they’ll point to the ability of the defensive front to put pressure on Tom Brady.
Sure, there was a helmet catch and two fourth-quarter comeback drives, but the main reason the Giants have two of their four Lombardi Trophies was their emphasis on pass rushers who could harass, affect and in some cases flatten the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
The franchise spent more than a decade abiding by the creed that it could never have too many pass rushers.
That plan may have helped the Giants win the Super Bowl battles against the Patriots, but as they continue to shape their roster for the rebuild that lies ahead, it’s actually the Patriots' way of thinking about edge rushers that is winning the war.
The Giants, with coach Joe Judge plucked from the New England School of Football Philosophy, appear to be embracing a new design. It does not rely on individual playmakers up front to create sacks and impact quarterbacks but rather an overall scheme that brings pressure from multiple areas and many different players.
“A lot of people were raised with the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl teams, where we could consistently apply pressure with four,” general manager Dave Gettleman said during his conference call on Monday. “That is the goal, that’s what you want. But you can’t manufacture it and you can’t overpay for it. What it really comes down to is it doesn’t matter who gets the sacks, it’s about how many sacks you actually get. It really is about how much pressure you apply. Some of this is going to have to come through scheme.”
The days when it was a given that Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul would be posting double-digit sack seasons are no longer. The Giants now are going to look a lot more like the Patriots' defense.
During Bill Belichick’s tenure, which includes six Super Bowl titles and nine Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots never have had a player with more than 12.5 sacks in any season. Chandler Jones and Mike Vrabel posted that many in 2015 and 2007, respectively. In the 20 seasons with Belichick as coach of the Patriots, there have been only five in which the team had someone reach double-digit sacks.
What prompted this turnaround in the Giants’ thinking? Certainly some of it has to do with money. Edge rushers are among the most expensive players when it comes to free agency — on the rare occasion when the elite ones even reach the market — and Gettleman is unwilling to spend that kind of scratch to bring in one player (say, Jadeveon Clowney) if it later will cost him and the Giants a chance to keep one of their own.
“Part of the long term is we have some good young players right now,” Gettleman said. “We’ve got Dalvin Tomlinson, [Evan] Engram and [Jabrill] Peppers. We have to make decisions on them. They’re some good young players. After another year, you guys are going to be banging on me about Saquon [Barkley]. As I used to tell the guys down in Charlotte when you wouldn’t spend all your money in free agency, I’d say, ‘Listen, you’re going to kill me about this? Well, you’re going to double kill me when we don’t have money to extend Luke Kuechly or Cam Newton or whomever.’ It’s a collaborative decision we make as we talk about how we’re moving forward. Right now, this is the decision we made. We’re just going to move forward the way we are now.”
So the Giants will go with low-risk one-year contracts on players such as Markus Golden last season (which paid off with 10 sacks) and Kyler Fackrell this year. They’ve also invested draft choices in developmental pass rushers such as Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines in the last two years.
With the draft coming up next week, the Giants likely will try to find another pass-rushing project to add to their roster. Unless Chase Young is there when they have the No. 4 pick, though, expect any new pass rusher to come much later in the process. And it might not necessarily be one who can rack up sacks the way the Giants players used to back in the day, but someone who can add to the system that the Giants are implementing.
“Would I not want two defensive ends that are 25-sacks-a-year guys? Who doesn’t?” Gettleman said. “We are not in that position right now, so we will just keep building it.”
Building it differently from the way it used to be done with the Giants. Building it, ironically, in the form of the opponent that the old way once vanquished.
Some of the edge rushers the Giants might consider in this year’s draft:
A.J. Epenesa, 6-5, 275, Iowa
Had 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 13 games last season as a junior. Despite his production and early predictions as a possible top-10 pick, he seems to be dropping. If he is there late in the first or early in the second round, he could be worth the pick for the Giants.
Julian Okwara, 6-4, 252, Notre Dame
The Giants gave his brother, Romeo Okwara, his first chance in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Romeo is now with the Lions. Julian is coming off a broken leg and without a medical recheck there could be a risk, but if the Giants like the Okwara bloodlines he’d be a solid second- or a strong third-round pick.
Alex Highsmith, 6-3, 248, Charlotte
He began his college career as a walk-on at Charlotte and left as a dominant force with 39 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks over the last two seasons combined. He’d be a nice addition for the Giants early on Day 3 of the draft.
Bradlee Anae, 6-3, 257, Utah
A technically sound player who may not have the elite athleticism to be a one-on-one menace for offenses but could fit in with the Giants’ attack-by-scheme plans. He has a high motor and plays with intensity.