The two best 4-3 defensive lines in the NFL reside in the NFC East. They would of course be the Eagles and Giants. But which one is better?
The best defensive lineman between the two teams, by far and away, is Jason Pierre-Paul. He had 16.5 sacks last season, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story on what kind of player he is:
- In 2011, he batted 10 passes at the line of scrimmage. That was more batted balls at the line than the entire Eagles’ team had last year. In fact, according to PFF, only 10 defensive backs in the league had more pass break-ups than JPP had batted passes. Think about that for a minute. That’s absolutely remarkable.
- He makes plays on special teams. Remember that kind of important, game-sealing blocked FG against the Cowboys last year?
- He’s exceptional against the run, as he had the most tackles in the league among all defensive linemen.
- Incredible competitor. I’ll always remember the Saints-Giants blowout last year. The Saints did pretty much whatever they wanted to the Giants’ defense last year at the Superdome, and with the game completely wrapped up at the end of the 4th quarter and the Giants stacking the interior of the line to stop a likely clock draining inside run, the Saints ran up the score a little by calling a pitch to Mark Ingram. Ingram had a free run to the endzone, and just about all the Giants kind of jogged and watched. Not JPP. He sprinted after Ingram all the way to the goal line and almost caught him. That unwillingness to quit stuck with me.
Justin Tuck, meanwhile, is a little harder to figure out. Last season, at least through Week 14, was easily Tuck’s worst year as a pro… until the games really started to mean something:
|Through Week 14||24||2.5||1||0|
|Week 15 and beyond||25||5.5||1||1|
Then, as the above chart shows, he turned it on. Tuck dealt with a nagging neck injury all season, so I’m not sure if it just began to feel better at some point, or if he just has a knack for stepping up in the big games. A lot of people felt that he should have been the MVP of the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl, and I tend to agree. In that game, he had 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 additional TFLs for a combined loss of 16 yards), and a FF. This past February, he had 2 sacks, and also was the guy that got pressure on Tom Brady, leading to the safety for intentional grounding in the endzone. Two monster performances on the sporting world’s biggest stage. The downside with Tuck is that he has accumulated a lot of wear and tear. In the last 4 years, he has racked up 3291 snaps, or about 822 per season. That’s an enormous workload for a defensive lineman. To be determined how much longer Tuck can play at a high level.
The third guy among the Giants big 3 is Osi Umenyiora, who is the ultimate luxury player. Put him in when you think the offense might pass, and tell him to go get the QB. Nothing more, nothing less. In 2011, Osi had the 3rd most “sacks per snap” in the NFL, but it’s his knack for separating the ball from the QB that makes him special. In 2010, he had 10 forced fumbles, which was a single-season record.
The Giants’ starting DTs are Chris Canty and Linval Joseph. Joseph is a player the Giants love. He barely played his rookie season, but became a regular in 2011. Like JPP, he had an impressive number of batted passes (4), and was a very good run stuffer for the better part of the season. I remember him being a major force in the regular season game against the Packers, as he racked up 9 tackles in that game. Joseph is only going to get better. Canty, meanwhile, has an inflated contract (6 years, $42 mil signed in ’09) that he hasn’t lived up to, but is a decent inside pass rusher and overall solid starter.
If we’re talking about “Top 5 guys” along a DL, nobody matches the Giants. Not even close. Mathias Kiwanuka is worth noting as well, as he can certainly play some DE if need be. Kiwi is currently the starting SLB, and plays there on occasion in their “NASCAR set” with JPP, Tuck, and Osi on obvious passing downs, so he could fill in there if one or more of the Giants’ DEs suffered an injury. But beyond Kiwi, the Giants don’t have much in the way of depth, especially at DT:
Beyond Canty and Joseph, the depth at DT is Shaun Rogers, Marvin Austin, Rocky Bernard (not noted on the chart above), and 7th round rookie Markus Kuhn. Rogers is a big name and a big guy, but he hasn’t been a good player in years. Austin, assuming he plays this season, will see his first game action in almost three years. He last played for UNC in 2009. The additional depth at DE is Justin Trattou and Adrian Tracy.
While the strength of the Giants’ DL is mainly in the big 3 of JPP, Tuck and Osi, the Eagles strength is in their numbers, although they’re not exactly hurting for star power either.
Early on in the 2011 season, the Eagles played the Falcons on Sunday Night Football. The box score for Trent Cole read 6 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL’s, but that did little to tell the story of what Cole actually did in that game. He basically made a mockery of Falcons LT Sam Baker’s attempts to keep him from from looking like little more than a tackling sled. Whatever he went to… the bull rush (especially the bull rush), the arm over, the rip, it didn’t matter. Baker could do absolutely nothing to keep Cole from collapsing the pocket on virtually every pass play and making life miserable for Matt Ryan. It was one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen from a defensive lineman.
I think that’s kind of the thing with Trent Cole. His stats are good (at least 10 sacks in 4 of the last 5 years), but I don’t think they truly tell the story of how good a football player he is. He’s a great pass rusher, and an elite run stopper from the DE position, and a leader in the locker room.
Jason Babin is kind of the opposite, as he has eye-popping glamor numbers (18 sacks in 2011), although his game has some deficiencies. He commits far too many penalties (he led the team with 12 last seson), and while I don’t believe he’s a liability in the run game, I certainly wouldn’t say that’s one of his strengths. Still, he is great at what he does, which is get to the QB. Earlier we mentioned that Osi Umenyiora had the 3rd most sacks per snap in the league in 2011. Well, Jason Babin was 2nd behind only Aldon Smith.
At DT, Cullen Jenkins remains one of the better interior defensive linemen in the NFL, who excels at collapsing the pocket. His 5.5 sacks in 2011 were good for 6th in the league for DTs. His presence did wonders for Babin’s numbers last season. Pairing with him is Mike Patterson, who I believe is a very underrated player, even by Eagles fans. Tommy Pudding Pops talked a little about that a few weeks ago:
One thing I can’t stress enough is that Mike Patterson is still very good at what he does. He can penetrate when single-blocked. He can take on double teams. He is a good run defender. With him out of the lineup vs WAS, the Skins ran all over us in the finale. In the first game we shut them down. A lot of that was on the absence of a guy like Patt to help control the middle. Any talk of benching Patt needs to seriously address all that he does well. Too many people are quick to dismiss him.
Patterson, however, had brain surgery and remains questionable for the start of camp.
OK, now, getting past the starters, look at that second line:
Brandon Graham – Fletcher Cox – Antonio Dixon – Vinny Curry
Crazy. Potential galore. Cox and Curry haven’t taken a snap in the NFL, but according to Tony Pauline of SI, “several NFL teams have privately stated they believe Cox will be the best defensive player to come from the 2012 draft.” Meanwhile, Curry dominated in college and I thought that he was one of the most impressive players at the Senior Bowl, sooooooo, you know, obviously he’s going to be awesome.
As mentioned earlier, I think that JPP is by far and away the best defensive lineman in this group, and as we all know, Brandon Graham was selected a few spots ahead of him in the 2010 draft. Graham showed promise as a rookie, but an ACL tear severely set him back. Naturally, the compisons to Graham and JPP have led Graham to become something of a punching bag among some Eagles fans. He recognizes that, and has come into camp with a bit of a chip on his shoulder:
(Graham) was 285 last year, and he says he’s down to 265 this year. His quote after practice:
“I’m a bust, and I’m going to keep being a bust. Even when I make plays, I’m going to still act like I’m a bust.”
Graham is now two years removed from his ACL tear, and looks very impressive physically, although it has been tough to seriously evaluate him without any contact in OTAs and minicamp.
A lot of teams in building mode would be excited about that 2nd string being their starters.
But the depth doesn’t even end there. Phillip Hunt played very well last season when he got his opportunities, as PFF has him down for a couple sacks and 15 hurries in 180 snaps last season (although their hurries are not completely trustworthy, in my opinion), and Darryl Tapp is a 6-year vet that is a really nice role player with 23.5 career sacks.
And then of course, there’s Derek Landri. Naturally, we’ll go right back to Tommy Pudding Pops for his take on Landri:
The simple fact (is that) that Landri played his ass off last year and the team was better with him on the field. A lot of our big plays came with Derek out there, whether he directly influenced the play or not. At some point you have to set aside long term plans and perfect fit. Just focus on if the guy is a good player and if you can find a role for him. Yes…and yes. If Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn can’t find a way to use Derek Landri, then they shouldn’t be coaching in the NFL.
So, who ya got?