EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A year ago at this time, Jason Pierre-Paul was not on the field for New York Giants minicamp. He was in California, beginning a back-surgery rehab that would limit him throughout a disappointing 2013 season. Fully healed from that and from the shoulder injury that showed up halfway through the season on top of it, Pierre-Paul is feeling fantastic and rarin’ to go.[+] Enlarge“When your body’s fresh, you can put all of that behind you and pretend it never happened,” the Giants’ defensive end said after minicamp practice Wednesday. “I’ve got something to prove this year. I want to shut a lot of people up. I know what I bring to the table. I know what I can do. It’s going to be crazy.”
Pierre-Paul has collected a total of two quarterback sacks in the Giants’ last 23 games dating back to the middle of the 2012 season. That’s a far cry from the 16.5 he turned in during the 2011 regular season en route to a Super Bowl title. But now that he’s healthy, he says, “the sky’s the limit” for what he can do. Which is a good thing for the Giants, because however much money they spend on cornerbacks this offseason, Pierre-Paul is still the most important defensive piece they have.
The organization that has lived by the idea that “you can’t have too many pass-rushers” operated this offseason as though it didn’t think it could have too many cornerbacks. The Giants said goodbye to 2013 sack leader Justin Tuck and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who were their two best defensive linemen last year. The only replacement they signed was former Broncos first-round pick Robert Ayers, who’s known as a strong run defender from the defensive end position. They spent big money on free-agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and also signed Walter Thurmond, Zack Bowman and Trumaine McBride to go along with incumbent starter Prince Amukamara at that position.
Now, cornerback looks like a strength of the roster, but the front seven looks a bit thinned-out. The Giants are basically counting on 2013 draft picks Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore to make big steps forward in 2014 to help fill the holes created by the departures of Joseph and Tuck. If not, they’re going to test the old theory about how a strong pass rush helps the secondary more than a strong secondary helps the pass rush.
“We all work as one,” Pierre-Paul said. “But they’ve been doing a great job, because we’ve been getting to the quarterback in practice.”
That can work for a time, I think. And there are plenty of people out there who will point to the Seattle Seahawks having won the most recent Super Bowl with a strong secondary. But first of all, this group has a long way to go before it can claim it belongs in the same discussion as the one Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are running out there in the Pacific Northwest. And second of all, too many people overlook the fact that Seattle’s 2013 defense relied heavily on a strong and deep rotation of defensive linemen that wore out opposing offensive lines late in games.
For that reason, the Giants absolutely must play big and strong up front on defense. It starts with Pierre-Paul, who’s the one player in their defensive front we’ve seen perform at a truly elite NFL level. But they will need to be able to rely on a rotation of Hankins, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson, Markus Kuhn and maybe rookie Jay Bromley at defensive tackle. And they’ll need to get contributions from some combination of Moore, Ayers and Mathias Kiwanuka at defensive end on the side opposite Pierre-Paul. If they don’t — if they get pushed around physically on the defensive line and can’t force the action by invading opponents’ backfields — then quarterbacks are going to find open receivers against them downfield, no matter how good their corners are.
Pierre-Paul’s bravado is fun in June, but it needs to turn into production — for him and for his defensive linemates — come September and October. That’s the way they’ve always won with defense around here, and it’s foolish to think the formula has changed.