Eli Manning can go from elite to inept and back again, but if the front four is playing well, the Giants can win. The wide receivers can play hacky-sack with the football, and the running backs can battle injuries and mood swings, but if the front four is playing well, the Giants can win. The rest of the defense can be lined up at the MRI machine, but if the front four . you get the idea.
Justin Tuck. Jason Pierre-Paul. Injured Osi Umenyiora. Interior linemen and role players Chris Canty, Dave Tollefson, Linval Joseph. Honorary lineman Mathias Kiwanuka. There are more than four of them, and they don't always line up as a foursome, as the diagrams to come will show.
But we think of them as the Giants front four, and not only have they accounted for 40 of the team's 42 sacks, but they have compensated for injuries at other positions by dropping into coverage and acting as decoy defenders.
In a season of injuries and uncertainty, the Giants linemen have a good chance to drag their not-always-cooperative teammates into the playoffs.
The Sacking Wounded
Every team must deal with injuries, but few teams in history have had to deal with the number of injuries the Giants suffered on defense this year.
At Football Outsiders, we use a metric called Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) to determine how severe a team's injury situation has been. AGL separates starters and key reserves from subs, so an injury to Umenyiora or another starter gets more weight than one to some seldom-used backup.
It also accounts for weeks when a player is listed as "questionable" or "probable" but still takes the field, so when someone like Tuck shakes off a toe injury and takes the field in a limited role, it counts as a partial injury.
AGL is a great argument settler, because it takes conversations past the "who cares about your whole linebacker corps, we lost our punt returner" stage.
The Giants are on pace to finish the season with the third-highest defensive AGL of the last decade, behind only the 2008 Lions (who went 0-16) and the 2009 Bills (who went 6-10 and got their coach fired). Through Week 14, they lost the equivalent of 58.9 games by starters to injuries. That means the Giants go into the average game missing four defensive starters and key reserves.
They have entered some games in far worse shape. Cornerback Corey Webster and safety Antrel Rolle are the only defenders to start all 15 games. The Giants lost top cornerback Terrell Thomas to an ACL injury in the middle of training camp. The mix-and-match job at linebacker has forced special teams ace Chase Blackburn to start a handful of games, and undrafted rookie Mark Herzlich climbed all the way to the starting middle linebacker job before suffering an injury of his own.
Masters of disguise
Let's look at how Pierre-Paul and Tuck can create havoc without going near the quarterback. Figure 1 (right) shows the Giants on third down, near midfield, late in the first quarter against the Jets in their game Saturday.
The Giants start with Jason Pierre-Paul (90), Dave Tollefson (71), Chris Canty (99), and Justin Tuck (91) on the defensive line, with Michael Boley (59) and Jacquian Williams (57) at linebacker. There is nothing unusual about this defensive front . yet.
Those squiggly lines on the diagram mean the Giants will start shifting in an attempt to create chaos among the Jets pass protectors.
Figure 2 (left) shows where the Giants end up after all that shifting. Boley and Williams are now defensive ends. Tuck is right over the center, leaning back and forth, threatening the A-gap. Pierre-Paul is just beside Tuck. The two pass rushers appear poised to execute a double A-gap blitz, sometimes called a Fire or Fire-X blitz.
That's a lot of pass-rushing beef stacked up in the middle, and when the television camera closes up on Mark Sanchez, he has "that look" in his eyes as he calls out some adjustments.
Tuck and Pierre-Paul do not blitz. They drop into zone coverage when the ball is snapped. But Sanchez and the Jets cannot take a chance. They pinch their protection, meaning that left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson blocks Canty so the interior linemen are available to stop Tuck and Pierre-Paul.
That leaves Boley unblocked, and he gets into the backfield in a hurry. Sanchez rushes his pass before tight end Dustin Keller can turn to look for it, and the ball bounces off his helmet.
Officially, this play is not even a blitz: the Giants rushed just four defenders. Tuck and Pierre-Paul created pressure, not as rushers, but as decoys. A defensive call like this allows the Giants to rattle the opposing quarterback while still keeping seven defenders back in pass protection.
Tucked into coverage
You may be looking at those diagrams and thinking: "boy, using Tuck in zone coverage is a crazy idea." It is so crazy it has worked throughout the season when Tuck has been healthy. In fact, Tuck dropped into coverage numerous times against the Packers, causing confusion that led to the rushed throws and sacks to keep the Giants in the game against the league's toughest offense.
Figure 3 (right) shows the Giants trailing 28-27 midway through the fourth quarter. It is first and 10, and with the Packers in a spread formation (the player in the backfield is actually receiver Randall Cobb), the Giants counter with a three-man front.
Kiwanuka (94), nominally a linebacker, is at right end, while Tuck is one yard behind the line of scrimmage, standing up, and threatening the A-Gap. This is the middle of a long, late-game drive, so Pierre-Paul and Joseph are getting a breather.
The Giants hope to create pressure using backup personnel and Tuck as a decoy, but it is a dangerous gambit: on paper, Tuck against tight end Jermichael Finley (88) is a big mismatch.
Tuck drops into coverage at the snap, but his presence in the middle has the exact same effect it had against the Jets. The center and left guard double-team Canty, while the right guard stands and waits to make sure Tuck does not blitz. That wastes three blockers on one player, creating one-on-one matchups for Tollefson and Kiwanuka.
Tollefson, who has been subbing along the Giants line since the 2007 Super Bowl season, is facing an inexperienced right tackle. He has no trouble turning the corner, and with Kiwanuka collapsing the other side, Tollefson makes an important sack.
The most interesting thing about the play in Figure 3 is Finley's response to Tuck. Finley is supposed to run a quick hitch in the middle of the field, but when he sees Tuck, he appears to get flummoxed. Finley collides with Tuck, then jostles with him as he tries to provide Rodgers with a target. Finley is Rodgers' second option on this pass, but because the tight end does not anticipate Tuck's presence, Rodgers has nowhere to throw and must eat the football.
It's a smoke-and-mirrors game, but Tuck's experience, Pierre-Paul's uncanny athleticism, and Fewell's creativity make it viable. And if the Giants can create pressure when Pierre-Paul is resting and Tuck is dropping, imagine what can happen when everyone is doing what they do best.
The Giants are not as banged up as they were a few weeks ago. Boley is back after missing a few games with a hamstring injury. Rookie Prince Amukamara has returned from a foot injury to provide some depth in the secondary. Tuck's toe does not appear to be bothering him. Umenyiora even plans to test his injured ankle this week, though that sounds more like a tease than a ray of hope.
Tom Coughlin's leg is healing after a sideline collision, and you know the injury report has gotten out of control when the coach is on it.
The Giants recorded three sacks the last time they faced the Cowboys, one of them by Pierre-Paul for a safety. Pierre-Paul later blocked what would have been a game-tying field goal.
If the Giants had not beaten the Cowboys in that game, we would not be writing about them now. That win halted a four-game losing streak and made this week's do-or-die game possible.
It came on a night when the Giants secondary could not stop anyone, running back Ahmad Bradshaw was suspended for the first half, and Manning was scattershot until midway through the fourth quarter.
The Giants beat the Cowboys because Pierre-Paul, Tuck, and the front four gave them a chance, and that chance is now a chance to reach the playoffs. For the Giants, that's the way it always goes.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.