Giants’ pass rush questions are slowly being answered

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BEREA, Ohio — Until they told him to stop, Azeez Ojulari was going to go.

And so, after the rookie outside linebacker beat left tackle Jedrick Wills clean off the line of scrimmage, there was no one between the Giants’ pass rusher and Baker Mayfield, the Browns’ quarterback. This was Day 2 of joint practices and, with no live tackling or actual sacks, the play continued until one of the head coaches decided the play was over.

“I just kept going until they blew the whistle,’’ Ojulari said. “He’s an elusive quarterback, he can do everything, so I just tried to go as hard as I could until they blew the whistle.’’

Ojulari kept chasing and Mayfield kept drifting back, back, back, back. It was an amusing sight, but also an enthralling one for a Giants defense that must list “pass rush’’ as a concern, until proven otherwise.

Above all else, the two days working against the Browns and their excellent offensive line showed the pass rush could have a heartbeat. Everyone knows Leonard Williams, lining up inside at defensive end on the three-man line, is a force, evidenced by his career-high 11.5 sacks in 2020. Williams was largely unblockable for a Browns interior that includes Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio.

Azeez Ojulari
AP

It is out on the edge where the questions reside. Ojulari, a second-round pick from Georgia, was considered by some scouts as the best pure pass rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft. He flashed several times against the Browns. Lorenzo Carter, coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon that limited him to five games last season, was ramped up slowly in training camp and is now delivering promising signs.

“We’re just trying to affect the quarterback and be complimentary football,’’ Carter said. “Help the back end out just like they help us out. They’re doing a great job back there trying to hold it down and that’s what we’re doing up front, trying to keep building that cohesiveness because we didn’t have a fully loaded front seven last year. But we’re back.’’

The Giants last season did not have a consistent pass rush presence on the edge and still managed 40 sacks, thanks to the schemes of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and Williams’ breakout. Ojulari is a key addition. He worked with the starting unit from the start of camp and will fill a prominent role, immediately, as a rookie. Seeing him nearly chase Mayfield off the field was invigorating for the Giants.

“That’s good,’’ Carter said. “That’s what we’re looking for, consistent hungry guys who are going to keep playing relentlessly to the football. That’s what he’s doing. He’s come into the program and he’s bought in. That’s all you can ask for.’’

In some ways, Carter’s return adds a new dimension to Graham’s defense. He had 8.5 sacks in his first two seasons but only one in five games in 2020 before landing on injured reserve. He is so long — 6-foot-5, with a huge wingspan— and rangy that he should be able to factor in as an outside linebacker capable of setting the edge in the run defense and getting to the quarterback on passing downs.

“I love that guy,’’ Williams said of Carter. “I always tell him, I love playing with him, he’s just so long, he’s so fast, he’s so explosive off the ball, and he also understands the game. I think that’s the biggest part — the wisdom that comes with his game. We always talk about how it’s a chess game, not checkers, and how you have to set stuff up. Just being able to run games with him, and having him back, is a big deal.’’

The Giants starters will not play much, if at all, Sunday afternoon in preseason game No. 2 at FirstEnergy Stadium. They were able to get their work in against the Browns for two days, and that was enough.

“I thought there were some good things to build off,’’ coach Joe Judge said. “I think there were enough reps where you saw some guys flash. There were some other reps that we had to highlight to our players and say, ‘Look, you have to have a counter move here or you have to anticipate that this tackle is a good player and he’s going to go ahead and adjust to you.’ ’’

Until this unit does it in games that count, the question will remain: Do the Giants have enough at edge rusher?

“We’re just out here working,’’ Carter said. “We’re not worried about trying to answer questions for anybody else. We’re just doing what the coaches tell us, coming out here every day working hard, and letting the results follow.’’

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