The Browns have already faced a few elite defensive lines this season, but the three-headed monster they’ll encounter at 1 p.m. today when they play the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium promises to provide the most daunting task of them all.
Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are to the Giants’ defense what quarterback Eli Manning is to their offense. The trio of defensive ends can be a nightmare for opposing offenses, and preventing them from tormenting rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden will be vital for the Browns.
“They’ve got three guys who are really very good who play a little bit differently,” rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “Pierre-Paul’s probably the best athlete of the three, probably the least predictable as well when you look at him and what he’s doing, so you’ve got to be really good with him because physically he can do things that not many guys in the NFL do. The other two guys have been around awhile. They’re obviously established guys who are very good pass rushers and they’re more the crafty veteran type where they just know how to rush the passer.”
The Browns (0-4) must be on high alert, especially because the Giants (2-2) are still waiting for their defensive line to break out this season. Through four games, the Giants are tied for 18th in the league with eight sacks. Last season, they finished tied for third with 48 sacks, and they also had 11 sacks in four postseason games on their way to winning Super Bowl XLVI.
Pierre-Paul had 16½ sacks during the 2011 regular season, though he has tallied just 1½ this year. Umenyiora has two sacks and Tuck has none after they earned nine and five, respectively, last year.
“We have an outstanding group of defensive ends, but we haven’t accumulated the kind of numbers that we have last year,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said during a conference call. … “So we feel like for our team to get moving in the direction we need to move in, we’ve got to take this outstanding group of young players, and they’ve got to step to the front and lead us as we’ve designed our defensive team to be led.”
The 6-foot-5, 278-pound Pierre-Paul has the most star power of the group. As the starting right end, he’ll often line up across from Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas.
“Obviously the first thing that jumps out is size and physically how gifted he is — fast, strong, long arms, explosive,” Thomas said. “Then you talk about how slippery he is and how he bends for a big guy, plays hard and does the right things. He’s definitely difficult to block.”
Thomas, though, won’t be the only one who must endure being tested by Pierre-Paul. The Giants routinely move their linemen to create confusion and havoc.
“[Pierre-Paul] can ruin a game if you’re not in tuned to where he’s at in a hurry,” offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “You have him and you have Tuck on the other side. All those guys, it’s interesting because they all play along the defensive front. It’s not as if Pierre-Paul will only show up on the offense’s left side. One snap he may be there, the next snap he and Tuck may have changed positions, and then you’re in nickel and all of a sudden he’s inside rushing over a guard. All those guys play all along the front, and I think that’s the thing that makes them unique.”
The key to combating a stellar rush is to avoid obvious passing situations by running the ball down the defense’s throat. The Browns are ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing offense (76.2 yards per game), and they know improvement is necessary.
“Obviously we haven’t had a whole lot of shots at it just because of how many times we’ve been throwing the ball,” Thomas said of the run blocking. “But I expect us to be very good running the ball the rest of the season.”
In Week 4, the Giants surrendered 191 rushing yards to the Philadelphia Eagles, whose feature back, LeSean McCoy, had 23 carries for 123 yards (5.3 average). Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson believes he can experience similar success.
“If we put a hat on a number, just cover them up, I think we can get yards on ’em,” Richardson said during a conference call with the New York media. … “We’ve got to run some outside zone, and we’ve really got to try to cover up No. 90 [Pierre-Paul] as much as you can and big Tuck because both of [those] guys can bull rush and use their power and their quickness. [They] are two big guys that are very fast. They’ve got two big guys up the middle, too. I think that if we cover the edges and run our hardest — don’t be doing all this juking and stuff like that, one move and go — I think we can have pretty good success in the running game.”
The Giants took exception to Richardson’s confidence.
“If [Trent] looks on tape and he thinks he sees come candy, come try and get it,” Umenyiora told the New York Daily News.
Added Pierre-Paul: “We’re going to hit him. We’ve got to stop the running game first before we can get to the pass rush.”
And when the Giants find themselves in prime pass-rushing situations, Weeden’s pocket awareness will be crucial. After becoming the victim of three strip-sacks in the preseason, Weeden has made strides in that area.
“The preseason, there was concern about it just because it was totally new for him, West Coast, being under center,” Thomas said. “In the NFL, you look at [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady, the guys who are really good, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have to be really fast or quick or anything. You’ve just gotta have that ability to move in a short area, sense where the rush is, take a step up, left, right, wherever it needs to be to make a throw.”
Of course, the offensive line’s pass protection must be at its best, too.
“It’s obviously a pretty big challenge,” Schwartz said. “I think consistently through this year we’ve faced pretty good defensive lines. These guys obviously play things a little different than other teams do, but I think they’re just as big as a challenge as anyone.”
As expected, Richardson traveled with the Browns to New York on Saturday. His third child and first son was born Friday. Richardson was excused from practice so he could attend the birth. … The Browns downgraded wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin from doubtful to out for today’s game. Both have hamstring injuries.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.