Despite Injuries, Giants' Defense Is Hardly Lacking

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

The New York Giants begin their Super Bowl encore in the NFL's season-opening game Thursday night against the Washington Redskins with one of their standout pass rushers from last season, Michael Strahan, in retirement and another, Osi Umenyiora, on the injured reserve list.

Don't weep too much for the defending champions, however. They still have a pair of standout defensive ends in Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, and what remains of the overpowering pass rush that played a major role in producing last season's Super Bowl title still should create some big headaches at Giants Stadium for a Redskins offense that struggled mightily at times during the preseason to keep opponents away from quarterback Jason Campbell.

"I don't see much of a drop-off," Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said during a conference call with reporters yesterday. "They don't have the credentials right now of a Hall of Famer like Strahan and a Pro Bowl player like Osi. But Tuck and Kiwanuka can do the job. . . . I don't expect any drop-off. Those guys have to go in there and step up, and they know what's expected of them."

Strahan and Umenyiora were the Giants' starters at defensive end last season and totaled 22 sacks -- including 13 by Umenyiora, who ranked fifth in the league in the category. The Giants led the league with 53 sacks during the regular season, six more than any other team. They sacked Tom Brady five times in their Super Bowl upset of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots.

Tuck and Kiwanuka did their part. Tuck, in particular, was highly productive last season as a role player, backing up Strahan and Umenyiora and playing defensive tackle in passing situations. He had 10 sacks during the regular season, tied for 15th best in the league. He had two sacks and forced a fumble in the Super Bowl, and a case could have been made that Tuck, and not Giants quarterback Eli Manning, should have been named the game's most valuable player.

Kiwanuka was a first-round draft choice by the Giants as a defensive end in 2006. He mixed eye-catching plays with glaring mistakes as a rookie, then the Giants moved him to outside linebacker last season because of their logjam at defensive end with Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck. They wanted to be able to get all their best pass rushers on the field at once, and accomplished that by having Tuck at defensive tackle, Strahan and Umenyiora at end and Kiwanuka at linebacker. Kiwanuka struggled to adjust to playing linebacker, but settled in as the season progressed.

When Strahan retired in the offseason, the Giants penciled in Tuck as a starter and fulltime player at the end spot opposite Umenyiora. Kiwanuka was to stay put at linebacker, and the Giants added veteran defensive end Renaldo Wynn for depth. But when Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third of their four preseason games, the Giants wasted no time moving Kiwanuka back to defensive end. They did that even before getting an answer from Strahan about whether he would return from retirement.

The Giants called Strahan, and some people in the league believed at the time that a lucrative contract offer by the club might lure the defensive end back. Strahan was to have a $4 million salary this season, and just before he retired there had been reports that a hefty pay increase to $8 million might keep him around for another season. But Strahan said at his retirement announcement that he hadn't walked away from the sport over a money issue and, after taking a broadcasting job with Fox as an NFL analyst, he opted to stay in retirement when New York called after Umenyiora's injury.

So the Giants are left with Tuck and Kiwanuka as their starters. What they've lost is the depth to withstand any more injuries at the position -- although yesterday they signed Jerome McDougle, who'd been released by the Philadelphia Eagles -- and some of their star wattage.

"Obviously you have two outstanding players no longer with us," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said during a conference call yesterday. "We dealt with the Michael situation most of the offseason. The Osi situation, we're sad about that. But that's the nature of our game. As our players have said, it's up to the rest of us to do a better job and take care of that."

The Giants still are fearsome on the pass rush, especially to a Redskins offense that is adapting to rookie coach Jim Zorn's offensive system and had its troubles keeping Campbell upright late in the preseason. The Redskins will have a young starter at right tackle, Stephon Heyer, to team with veteran left tackle Chris Samuels in attempting to block Tuck and Kiwanuka.

Zorn seems to know it's a difficult challenge. He called Tuck "a relentless ballplayer" yesterday, and said the Giants are "well-rounded on defense."

If Zorn isn't nervous yet, assigning Heyer to block Tuck could create some anxious moments Thursday. "I don't have any butterflies yet," Zorn said. "But it's not 10 minutes before the game, either."

Coughlin's fretting could concern his kicking situation. With place kicker Lawrence Tynes plagued by knee troubles, the Giants signed 44-year-old veteran John Carney over the weekend. He'll be paired with the club's 42-year-old punter, Jeff Feagles, on Thursday.

"We brought John in," Coughlin said, "so that Jeff Feagles could feel like a young guy again."

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