Just when everyone thought they had the Giants’ defense figured out, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell threw a few new wrinkles into the plan.
The Giants’ pass rush may have been lying dormant for the first quarter of the season, but there’s reason to believe that Fewell’s Week 6 adjustments will have a lasting effect.
The most significant difference against the 49ers was Mathias Kiwanuka’s role on defense. According to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News, Kiwanuka played 37 of his 38 snaps along the defensive line.
Kiwanuka was drafted out of Boston College in 2006 as a defensive end, but his versatility has allowed the Giants to use him at linebacker when needed. Since returning from a neck injury that ended his 2010 season, Kiwanuka has played almost exclusively at linebacker.
That does not mean that Kiwanuka’s pass-rushing capabilities have gone untapped, as Fewell’s specialized NASCAR package—which features Kiwanuka as a defensive end—helped him collect 3.5 sacks a season ago. If the Giants decide to build off what they did defensively against San Francisco, Kiwanuka could have many more sacks in 2012.
Of the 37 snaps where Kiwanuka played defensive lineman, 22 were at his natural end position while 15 were at tackle, according to Vacchiano. He recorded his first sack of the season while lined up at tackle. On the play, Kiwanuka looped around the outside while defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul crashed towards the middle, resulting in a clear shot at the quarterback and a 14-yard loss.
Those perfectly designed and executed stunts play a very large role in a successful pass rush, but a strategic mixture of differing personnel is just as important. Fewell knows this, and luckily, he has plenty of options to choose from.
Third year player Adrian Tracy was the most surprising player to get into the mix against the 49ers on Sunday.
After he was drafted as a defensive end out of William & Mary in 2010, Tracy was moved to linebacker because his 245-pound frame was thought to be too light for an effective end at the professional level.
In training camp, however, Tracy was given an opportunity to impress the coaching staff at end. A preseason hamstring injury may have slowed his progress, but Tracy’s impressive coverage on special teams garnered some attention.
Normally, Tracy would have earned a shot to make an impact at defensive end, but with Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora all ahead of him on the depth chart, there just weren’t enough snaps to go around.
That’s where Fewell had to get creative. According to Vacchiano, Tracy played 12 defensive snaps on Sunday, all at linebacker. Tracy was able to make the most of his limited opportunity, recording four tackles (all solo, one for a loss), a sack and a QB hit. He was most effective in blitzing situations.
With linebackers Keith Rivers, Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger all getting more involved, Fewell has had the resources needed to implement more unique defensive sets. And the impending return of defensive tackle Chris Canty should provide Fewell with an unparalleled amount of flexibility in the near future.
Canty has been a solid member of the Giants’ defensive front since he came over from Dallas in 2009, but his 32-tackle, four-sack performance in 2011 set him apart as a major contributor from the tackle position.
When Canty was placed on the physically unable to perform list before the season began, the Giants knew they would have to find someway to replace his production.
His replacements—rookie Markus Kuhn and second year pro Marvin Austin—have been liabilities rather than assets.
If Canty is able to return for the Giants’ Week 7 matchup with the Redskins, he will provide the interior defensive line with a rare valuable combination of size and speed. He is 6’6” and uses his extensive reach to his advantage both against the run and while rushing the passer. Canty’s return should draw some attention away from his teammates that are being double-teamed, specifically Pierre-Paul.
Last Sunday, Pierre-Paul reminded everyone just how much of a menace he can be. With the pass rush working in harmony, Pierre-Paul collected three tackles (two solo, two for a loss), two sacks, three QB hits and a deflected pass.
Pierre-Paul will maintain his dominance as long as Fewell continues to vary the play-calling when Canty returns to action.
The pass-rushers finally look hungry again. They will be a tough group to stop in the coming weeks.