The New York Giants had, by most accounts, a successful 2016 campaign. The team won 11 games, made the playoffs and experienced a massive turnaround on defense. The team’s ranking in points allowed improved from 30th to second and it leaped to 10th in yards allowed after finishing dead last (32nd) and 29th in the previous two seasons.
So what changed for New York, letting the Giants breathe life into a defense that had allowed more than 400 points in each of the previous two seasons?
The full-time return of Jason Pierre-Paul and the free agent signing of fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon happened.
Pierre-Paul missed eight games over the 2015 season with a mangled hand, and even when he returned Pierre-Paul was hindered by missing two fingers and having to wear a club over the injury; he logged just one sack as a result. The return to form for Pierre-Paul was a wonderful story, though it only lasted 12 games. Pierre-Paul missed the final five games with a sports hernia injury. Pierre-Paul logged seven sacks on the year and 54 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus’ stat sheet.
As Pierre-Paul watched from the sideline in the Wild Card round, the Green Bay Packers helped negate the big free agent signing of the 2016 offseason, Vernon. With no high-end pass rush threat opposite of him, Vernon was held to his least disruptive performance in the past two seasons.
Vernon was on a mission to prove that his four-year stint with the Miami Dolphins was no fluke. Mission accomplished.
Vernon’s disruption in opposing backfields was tremendous, as he was second in disruptive plays against opposing passers behind only Khalil Mack (Mack won the AP Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016).
Eagles edge defender Brandon Graham will reportedly hold out in pursuit of a bigger contract. He was one of 2016's top pass-rushers. pic.twitter.com/KnnnUNe65j
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 11, 2017
Add Vernon’s 56 pass rush pressures from 2015 with Miami, and few rushers can hold a candle to Vernon’s two-year torrid pace of pressure.
Naysayers to both Pierre-Paul and Vernon will say the two only had seven and 8.5 sacks, respectively, in 2016. But again pressure is a more considerable measure of impact than being the one who finishes the play. For perspective: Pierre-Paul and Vernon combined for 140 pressures during the course of the 2016 season. The Giants faced 630 pass attempts, so on more than one in every five of them, New York got a pressure from one of its premier rush defenders.
The result for the 2016 Giants was a stingy pass defense, one that gave up just 15 passing touchdowns (vs. 17 interceptions) and was third best in the league in opposing completion percentage (58.6).
So what does this mean for the Giants going forward?
It means they’re going to need repeat performances from both pass rushers if the team is going to continue to contend in a division that has, in my opinion, done well to add talent to every roster across the board.
Dallas was aggressive in the draft, Philadelphia supplemented a strong free agent group with long term fits and Washington continued to target its own mold of players for its system.
The Giants? They invested early and often in offense, targeting TE Evan Engram, QB Davis Webb and RB Wayne Gallman in the first four rounds.
The decision to leave the defense be, minus the surprising addition of DT Dalvin Tomlinson in the second round and Youngstown State DE Avery Moss in the fifth, is an indication of what New York believes itd has in the pass rush duo on the boundary.
Will the pairing deliver again? There’s very little to suggest otherwise, barring injury. The two pose an impressive combination of power, burst, hand utilization and polish to win at and around the pocket.
This rep gives some nice context on how the two complement each other as pass rushers. Pierre-Paul is an athlete with notable explosion; as is on display with this bull rush. He finishes well and gets through contact to help bring down former Bears QB Jay Cutler.
Vernon, off the defensive right, does exactly what you’d expecting to see a top end pass rusher do one-on-one against a tight end: Win fast. Vernon plays well with his hands and transitions into a hard angled rush to flush the target and help cause chaos.
Neither one of these two players is a blue chip, generational player. But both have done well since entering the league to optimize their physical gifts. Jason Pierre-Paul was a raw, explosive, rangy defender. Olivier Vernon was a grinder and run-setting base end.
But not any more. Both have become much, much more: the key cogs in the Giants’ 2017 defense.