The value of pass-rushers was on display in September, with Baltimore and the New York Giants perfect examples of what happens when you don't have them -- especially late in games.
The Giants were vulnerable to fourth-quarter comebacks by Tony Romo and Matt Ryan without Jason Pierre-Paul, who remains out after a July 4 firework incident. The loss of Terrell Suggs changed the Ravens defense. They've allowed fourth-quarter comebacks to Derek Carr and Andy Dalton in the past two weeks.
As much as defensive coordinators do to try to scheme blitzes to pressure the quarterback, replacing quality pass-rushers is tough. The Carolina Panthers didn't offer to bring back Greg Hardy, one of the top defenders in the league. Hardy's off-the-field issues were too much for the Panthers. But once defensive end Charles Johnson suffered a hamstring injury that will sideline him for at least eight weeks, the Panthers traded for Jared Allen, one of the best pass-rushers of his era, though certainly a player past his prime.
And look what happened to Hardy's new team, the Dallas Cowboys. Last week Hardy was serving part of his four-game suspension. and Randy Gregory and Jeremy Mincey were injured. To nobody's surprise, Matt Ryan and the Falcons overcame a 14-point deficit, put up two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and pulled out a comeback win.
Many of the fourth-quarter games this season have come down to a team's ability or inability to rush the quarterback late in games. In six of 12 times that teams were involved in fourth-quarter comebacks, those teams ranked in the bottom 11 for sacks.
That was abundantly clear in the Ravens' 28-24 loss to theCincinnati Bengals last week.
In the opener against Denver, Suggs and the Ravens pounded the Broncosoffensive line and quarterback Peyton Manning. A couple of people I spoke with consider that game one of the most physical in years. Manning completed 24 of 40 passes for 175 yards, a stat-line anyone could examine as a sure sign of a good pass rush, short throws galore.
Suggs played 71 percent of the snaps, but this defense was clicking in the opener. Since Suggs blew out his Achilles, the defense hasn't been the same.
Carr completed 30 of 46 passes and averaged 7.63 yards an attempt. Dalton completed 20 of 32 and averaged 11.97 an attempt. Suggs' absence forced the Ravens to become a blitzing team.
"Suggs is a great player," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said after the win over Baltimore. "Without him, the Ravens resorted to the blitz and were blitzing all day. They put their corners in man coverage."
Because the Ravens still have Elvis Dumervil, they still can get to the quarterback, but not as well. Dumervil forced a fumble from Dalton in the fourth quarter that was returned for a touchdown. But Dalton came back on the next play and hit Green for an 80-yard touchdown.
In three games this season, the Ravens have blitzed 51 times on pass plays. While they have recorded six sacks with the blitz, they are giving up 10.18 yards an attempt and four touchdowns. Suggs' loss forced Dumervil to get on the field for more running plays. If he's matched up against a good left tackle or a double team, the Ravens now have problems finding the right players to win one-on-one battles getting to the quarterback.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the eight worst teams for defensive QBR in the fourth quarter have combined records of 5-19. Give good or great quarterbacks time and they will beat you.
What's clear is the problems facing the Giants when they confront top quarterbacks. Losing to Romo and Ryan in the fourth quarter was predictable as was the win over Washington. Given time, Romo and Ryan can pick apart defenses late in game working out of shotgun and not getting pressure. Kirk Cousins of the Redskins hasn't shown that ability so the Giants won.
Overall, the Giants have allowed quarterbacks to complete 68.6 percent of their passes. They have only three sacks and have given up 43 points in the fourth quarter.
Is there hope for either team? Actually, yes.
With Romo now out, the Giants really don't face too many top quarterbacks during the rest of the season. In November, they have games against Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but the rest of their schedule is filled with Tyrod Taylor, Colin Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, Cousins and others.
So what other teams are in trouble?
Amazingly, what we saw in September is a two-fold negative effect by Ndamukong Suh going from Detroit to Miami. The Lions and the Dolphins are each at the bottom of the league with one sack per team in three games. The Dolphins still have enough pass-rushers to overcome the slow start. Down the top four defensive tackles from last year and opponents needing only to contain Ziggy Ansah, the Lions probably won't recover.
The Chargers figured to get better with the pass rush with a healthy Melvin Ingram, but they have only one sack in three games and have struggled in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers, Giants, Cowboys, Dolphins, Redskins and Lions are among the seven teams that haven't recorded a sack in the fourth quarter. Each has been involved in fourth-quarter comeback losses.
In this quarterback-driven league, defenses can't let quarterbacks dictate the agenda in fourth quarters. But that's what has happened for teams off to bad starts.