Early in Thursday’s Giants practice, the defensive players broke away into position groups. Olivier Vernon stood among his fellow defensive ends, and if he took the time to look around him, this is what he would have seen:
Two career sacks.
In the whole bunch.
Three players, two of whom were undrafted free agents, one of those a rookie, and a third-round pick with a bulky brace on his left knee.
Oh, there also was a practice-squad guy working with him in the drills.
For an established veteran like Vernon, a guy who signed a five-year, $85-million deal with the Giants during the offseason, it must have been a stark reminder of the lack of depth surrounding him.
This is his new reality. The new reality for the Giants.
And it began Sunday night against the Cowboys.
With Jason Pierre-Paul out for the foreseeable future after sports hernia surgery on Wednesday, Vernon stands as the only proven NFL pass rusher on the Giants’ defensive line. It’s hard to remember a time in recent memory when the Giants have been this depleted at such a key position, one that over the years has been an identity-providing spot for the franchise with the likes of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora all manning it.
Now, Vernon seems to be the only arrow in the quiver.
While the soft-spoken player deflected most questions about having to essentially fly solo for the rest of the regular season, professing, as others have, his faith in the batch of newbies who now are his wingmen, there is little doubt that from here on out, Vernon will be asked to carry the pass rush.
It’s time for him to start really earning that contract.
He’d done well in that regard heading into Sunday night’s game, with at least one sack in each of the previous five games and eight on the season. With four games remaining, he could become the first player in team history to reach double-digit sacks in his first year with the organization. The Giants love his high motor, his durability and his quiet leadership by example.
“He seems to be in a groove right now,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “Very disruptive. He’s playing the run right now, too, which is important for us. Not just getting after the quarterback. He’s an impact player.”
But his rise in productivity in the past month has been paralleled by the same trajectory as Pierre-Paul’s. The two totaled 12 1⁄2 sacks in the previous five games, an explosion in the numbers after a stagnant start to the season.
That support now is gone. There’s no one else to draw double-teams and chips. Rookie Romeo Okwara started opposite him Vernon on Sunday night. Owa Odighizuwa, last year’s third-rounder, was inactive with a knee injury. All of the focus was on Vernon.
“The beauty of what we had was two guys that people had to worry about,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “When you have a guy of [JPP’s] caliber, people have to pay attention to him, so it is kind of naturally opening up something somewhere. We don’t have that now, so we move on and find other ways to do it.”
Vernon will have to find a way to do it. For most of his career, he’s had a wingman who can draw attention away from him. In Miami it was Cameron Wake, and in his brief time with the Giants, it had been Pierre-Paul.
The spotlight now lands solely on him.
“We just have to go out there and play,” he said. “There’s going to be obstacles out there. You just have to go out and play. Do what you have to do. Hopefully the other guys are going to come in and step up. Make the plays like they have to. I know they are.”
What they end up giving will be the side sauce. Okwara and Kerry Wynn were, by title, replacing Pierre-Paul, but if their history and projections hold true, it will be a fraction of what Pierre-Paul provided. Odighizuwa might return next week, but he has zero career sacks.
What Vernon can manufacture for the rest of the year, essentially on his own, will be the main course. And it may be the difference between the Giants making the playoffs or going hungry for a fifth straight season.