The fact that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was dropped six times in the New York Giants' division-clinching win on New Year's Day isn't terribly surprising. Only the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings had more sacks than defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's unit had this season.
What was startling -- and potentially ominous for the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons, who visit the Giants in the wild card round of the playoffs this Sunday -- was where the pressure was coming from.
Yes, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul picked up a sack for the fourth consecutive game, but players like Osi Umenyiora, who had been out since injuring his ankle in Week 12, and rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams, who had never recorded an NFL sack before Sunday, were getting to the quarterback. Even Mathias Kiwanuka, who moved from defensive end to strongside linebacker this season, pressured Romo several times, made a tackle for a loss and sealed the victory with a late fumble recovery off of a Justin Tuck sack.
The Giants found every way to generate pressure, too.
Both Williams' sack, which came from the weakside in the second quarter, and defensive tackle Chris Canty's fourth-quarter sack were aided by lock-down coverage in the secondary. Pierre-Paul's first-quarter sack was made possible by the blitzing Kiwanuka, who forced Romo back toward the second-year Pro Bowler.
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Umenyiora, who previously said he hadn't played on the left side since 2004, registered his first-ever sack of Romo in the first quarter from (you guessed it) the left side.
"When you're really attacking an offense from those different angles, it creates a problem," said DE Dave Tollefson, who had five sacks in a backup role this year. "Who do you double team? Do you double team everybody?"
Obviously Kiwanuka and Umenyiora aren't new to this whole pass rush thing, but Fewell is forcing opponents to account for his pass rushers in new ways.
"Some of the stuff that they do is a little bit exotic," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "For example, Pierre-Paul can line up at defensive end on the right side, left side, DT, nose tackle or in the standup position. There are some things that you're not accustomed to seeing all the time so it's going to very important for us to do a good job identifying and not having free runners."
What's particularly frightening for opposing offenses is the resurrection of the Umenyiora-Tuck duo, which has accounted for 85 sacks since the start of their Super Bowl-winning 2007 season. Knee and ankle injuries limited Umenyiora to nine sacks in nine games this season while Tuck fought through groin, toe, ankle and neck problems to register five sacks in 12 games.
But as much as 2011 looked to be the beginning of the end for the two veterans, the first day of 2012 was the beginning of something else as they combined for three sacks in the Dallas win. Now, thanks to the presence of Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Umenyiora aren't fighting through as many double teams. Both players are being rotated with Pierre-Paul and Tollefson, and can play fresher, faster football than they could when they were in and out of the lineup with injuries during the regular season.
"They're not leaving me alone," Pierre-Paul said of opposing offenses, which have increasingly used tight ends and running backs to help block the NFL's fourth-leading sack artist. "But that's a good thing, you know, it helps my other teammates like Osi, Tuck, Chris and Rocky (Bernard) get off and be free. If they're doubling me, somebody's got to be open."
Unfortunately for New York, Atlanta might be best equipped to handle this pass rush because the team's own blocking scheme is somewhat bizarre. In an age when three and four-wide receiver formations are common for offenses, the Falcons have been releasing fewer players so as to keep more blockers at the line of scrimmage.
"They have the ability, as that group has done in that division, to block things up," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "They'll run one- and two-receiver routes and try to catch you by surprise with a deep ball."
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was dropped 13 times over the first three weeks of the season, but the Falcons have locked down pass rushers ever since, yielding just 13 sacks over their final 13 games to finish sixth in the NFL in sacks allowed.
The Giants have faced the league's top-two pass-protection schemes already this season, with mixed results. They sacked Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick three times in a winning effort, but failed to bring down quick-firing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in a disastrous Week 12 defeat.
And the consequences of a mediocre pass rush weren't limited to the 49-24 loss in New Orleans. The Giants (9-7) needed last Sunday's win over the Cowboys to get into the playoffs thanks to five recent losses in which they averaged just 1.2 sacks per defeat.
Getting heat on the passer is an obvious must in the minds of both the men who will chase Matt Ryan, and those who know what happens when their own signal-caller is kept upright.
"I think, the way this team is built is, as No. 10 (Eli Manning) goes and as we go ... our team goes," Tollefson said of the pass rush. "I think that's pretty obvious.
"They correspond with each other," he continued. "We get after the quarterback and No. 10 throws the ball well, we have a pretty good chance against anybody."
Nobody knows that better than Giants fans.