The New York Giants' defensive line is in a slump.
The sacks and quarterback hits that marked the line's performance in the run to the Super Bowl last season have become few and far between.
For the season, the group that features All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and two-time Pro Bowl ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora has been limited to eight sacks and 14 overall quarterback hits in five games.
That's less than two sacks a game and less than three hits. The goal for the team is a combined 10 — a game.
It's no surprise that the Giants (3-2) and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell have had to answer a lot of questions about the rush heading into Sunday's showdown with the 49ers (4-1) in San Francisco.
"What I am tired of, is you all asking about it," Tuck said of the lack of sacks and quarterback hits. "Am I concerned? No!. As one of my great colleagues just told me, it's a waste of time to sit here and answer about it. We just have to go out there and play better. That will be the end of it."
This has been a hard time for the line, which carried the defense to five straight wins last season.
Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Tuck hounded opposing quarterbacks down the stretch and it was uncommon to see an opposing signal-caller not pick himself up off the grass or turf a least a few times a half. Umenyiora leads the trio with two sacks. Pierre-Paul has 1½ and Tuck has none.
In their 41-27 decision over winless Cleveland this past weekend, Browns quarterback Weeden wasn't sacked and hit only two times on 35 passing attempts. That's not good for any defense, particularly one that prides itself on its pass rush.
"The way the offenses are attacking us right now, sometimes that limits their opportunities," Fewell said Thursday. "The ball does come out pretty quick on us. The way people are playing us, it doesn't matter. We give them a number of opportunities to do what they do best. Obviously, yes, we have to figure out and make the game more one dimensional. If we do a better job in the run game, we can help them by letting them do what they do best."
Defensive players say opponents are using a number of tactics to limit the pass rush. They sometimes use two tight ends, have one of their running backs chip the Giants ends, run shorter pass patterns and many times, use plays in which the quarterback only uses a three-step drop and releases the ball.
The Giants have, at times, hurt themselves by playing the run poorly. They have missed tackles, gotten out of their assigned lanes and lost containment on rushes, which allows opposing quarterbacks to run. That has put opposing teams in position on second and third down where they don't necessarily have to throw the ball.
"Last year we came together as a team and it didn't matter who had a sack or who was making an interception in the backfield or who was making tackles for losses," said Pierre-Paul, who is seeing a lot more double-team blocking after recording 16½ sacks last season. "We just came together as a team and that's what we will continue doing. Yeah, we probably have fewer sacks right now, but who cares, we are still doing our jobs.
"The team has to game plan against us and when you do that, it messes up your offense."
The line will be facing its biggest challenge of the season in the 49ers, who produced 621 yards in total offense in a 45-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday. What makes San Francisco an even tougher challenge is that they run the ball as much as they throw. If they can run Sunday, it will limit the Giants' pass rush.
"By the time you get to this level and at this point in the season when we've been playing together for a long time, you're not seeing major breakdowns," linebacker and third-down pass rusher Mathias Kiwanuka said. "It's not like people are thrown out there and not knowing what they're going to do or what they're supposed to do. I think it's more a matter of an individual maybe going outside of the frame of the defense trying to make a play. It's all effort stuff.
"Guys are trying to make plays. When you start straining and start doing somebody else's job and you vacate your position and your job, offenses find that."
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is wary of the line, regardless of the production.
"I see them playing at a very high level and at times not blockable," he said.
However, that still has not resulted in sacks and hits.
"I think we all are kind of puzzled by the fact," Tuck said. "It's not like we forgot how to rush the passer. We've been doing it all our lives.
"It's something strange, but we'll figure it out."