Darius Slayton knows a thing or two about what can go wrong when an offense is forced to abandon the run and play catch-up on the scoreboard.
It’s a position the Giants have occupied too frequently throughout his three years as one of Daniel Jones’ favorite receivers, so when the shoe was on the other foot Sunday as the Panthers’ deficit grew larger and larger, Slayton made sure to convey his knowledge to rookie pass-rusher Azeez Ojulari.
“It was the first game where we were up [big] and the opposing team was in an obvious passing scenario,” Slayton said. “I remember I specifically told Azeez, ‘Hey, this is when you get to work. They’ve got to pass. They’re in two-minute [drill]. This is when it’s time to turn it on.’ ”
Ojulari listened, not satisfied after he overpowered Taylor Moton in the first half to clean up a shared sack with Leonard Williams.
With the Giants leading 18-3 and less than six minutes remaining in the game, he blew past left tackle Brady Christensen with a speed rush around the outside and spun quarterback P.J. Walker to the turf. After the Giants tacked on another touchdown, Ojulari again beat Christensen to the edge and dove to ankle-tackle Walker as he fled the collapsing pocket.
“As I continue to play these games, I’m getting used to it and adjusting to the game speed,” Ojulari said. “It’s just kind of slowing down for me and getting better by the week.”
Maybe Ojulari’s progression was a steady climb, but the results were not. After becoming the first Giants rookie with a sack in each of the first three games, he played 40 pass-rushing snaps over back-to-back games against the Cowboys and Rams without recording a pressure. What changed Sunday?
“It was encouraging to see him play well, but this guy has been playing hard the entire time,” coach Joe Judge said. “There’s not going to be any one button you push to say this is the reason why it happened.
“A lot of times the edge players as rookies, it’s a real big transition because [scheme] is very different from college and the talent level is extremely different from college. He’s been productive early in his career really just by playing within his own strengths and skill set.”
Responding with eight pressures, 2.5 sacks, three tackles for loss and four quarterback hits was a sign of Ojulari adjusting to adjustments defenses made scouting his initial success on film. The second-round draft pick is tied with B.J. Hill for the Giants’ record for sacks in a rookie season (5.5) since the statistic became official in 1982.
“We just knew that we needed that game,” Ojulari said. “No more talking, just go out there and do it with our actions. That’s what we did.”
The Giants have been down this road before: Hill, a defensive tackle, only had two sacks in his final 32 games with the Giants. Lorenzo Carter, who missed time Sunday with an ankle injury, had four sacks as a rookie but only 5.5 in 27 games since. Oshane Ximines had 4.5 sacks as a rookie but zero in 11 games since.
Why will it be different for Ojulari? Well, he more than looks the part. He has a natural nose for the ball that showed up at Georgia.
“I saw some things instinctually showing up — rushing up the field, countering back, getting to the quarterback, putting pressure on him,” Judge said. “He didn’t do anything that really got him outside the realm of the defense, and it allowed him to play fast and controlled. I was very, very proud of how he worked last week to put himself in position.”
Ojulari returned to the locker room after his breakout game to find a bunch of celebratory messages on his phone. His replies amounted to saying he has to keep it going, which is the mindset Slayton kept during his promising rookie season.
“Azeez got off to a great start, but I think the fine line is allowing yourself to let your confidence build that you’ve made plays, and then still maintaining that humility and knowing that you still have a lot to learn,” Slayton said. “Obviously, he’s done a great job of doing that for us so far.”
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