Rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux has been a big focal point for the New York Giants this season, but Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders showed just how much the team had to have been missing second-year EDGE Azeez Ojulari.
Just one year ago, Ojulari was quietly having a fantastic rookie season. Being a second-round pick, the edge rusher didn’t garner a ton of attention, especially playing for a pitiful 4-13 team that ranked in the bottom 10 scoring defenses in the NFL one year after finishing in the top 10. But Ojulari was an excellent addition to the Giants’ defensive front, ending his first season with eight sacks, a new franchise rookie record, in 13 starts.
Going into the 2022 season, the Giants’ hope was to pair Ojulari with an outstanding rookie edge rusher in Thibodeaux, further opening up more opportunities for each player to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and make plays. Unfortunately for Ojulari and the team, the sophomore missed the first two weeks of the season after straining his calf in a preseason joint practice with the Jets. When he returned, it was only for a couple of weeks before he had an issue with his other calf and eventually headed to injured reserve. Still, in those two weeks, he recorded his first sack of the season despite playing on fewer than 50 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps.
New York continued to win games without Ojulari, but they still missed having his presence on the defensive line. Though they were a top-three team in pressure percentage on opposing offenses—in part because they’re the most blitz-happy team in the NFL under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale—it wasn’t translating into high sack production. The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, the two teams above the Giants in pressure percentage, rank first and third, respectively, in team sacks. The Cowboys and the Patriots had Micah Parsons and Matt Judon available. New York, meanwhile, was missing their sacks leader from a year earlier.
All of that to say, when the Giants announced Ojulari was finally available to return in Week 13’s matchup with Washington, it couldn’t have come at a better time. New York had lost three of their last four games after a 6-1 start and needed a big game against the Commanders to boost their playoff hopes.
The second-year edge rusher didn’t disappoint. In fact, he played like he had never even left, tallying four total pressures in the game, including a strip sack on Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke before eventually ending up with the fumble recovery.
WELCOME BACK @_Azeez_8!
📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/gzqkPWwkc4
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 4, 2022
The bend that Ojulari had to get underneath the tight end’s block and his incredible effort to stick with and make the play through a second block attempt showcase the kind of playmaker he is when healthy. Even when he wasn’t getting home, he was wreaking havoc on the Washington offensive line, forcing Heinicke into rushed throws and quick decision-making all game.
Azeez Ojulari had 7 pressures, along with the strip sack, against Washington in his first action since Week 4
Here are those plays pic.twitter.com/ApM6QCeZPP
— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) December 6, 2022
Having a monster presence like Ojulari back up front is so big for the Giants, not only because of the plays he can make but the opportunities he can open up for the defensive line around him as well. New York’s five sacks as a team were the most they’d had since they totaled six in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, which was (you guessed it!) Ojulari’s last game before Sunday’s matchup with Washington.
With five games left on the schedule—including a crucial rematch with the Commanders—the Giants have to be ecstatic to have one of their best defensive playmakers back and healthy. Now up to 10 sacks in his first 20 career games, Ojulari will look to continue making a big impact on New York’s defensive front, whether he’s the one making plays or opening up chances for others. The future is bright for the Giants’ pass-rush attack.
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