Thursday, September 4, 2008
The New York Giants' defensive line was among the keys to the team's Super Bowl title last season in an upset of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. But the unit will be without two of its most productive members when the Giants and the Washington Redskins kick off the NFL's schedule tonight in a nationally televised game at Giants Stadium.
In June, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan retired. Strahan, who spent his entire 15-year career with the Giants, had nine sacks last season, a single-season league-record 22 1/2 sacks in 2001 and 141 1/2 sacks in his career -- fifth all-time.
Although the Giants figured Strahan would walk away after their Super Bowl victory, the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora was an unexpected blow. Umenyiora suffered ligament damage in his left knee Aug. 23 against the New York Jets and is sidelined for the season.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Umenyiora had 52 tackles and a team-high 13 sacks last season. Losing two edge rushers the caliber of Strahan and Umenyiora would be difficult for any team, but the Giants do not expect to have a significant drop-off in production.
Versatile defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who had 10 sacks while playing end and tackle, will become a full-time starter (he started three games in his first three seasons), taking over for Strahan. In an effort to replace Umenyiora, the Giants have moved third-year linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka back to defensive end.
The Giants have confidence in their new starters, linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "They don't have the credentials, right now, of Osi or Michael Strahan, a Hall of Famer and a Pro Bowl player, [but] Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka are no slouches by any means. Those guys are obviously going to be big factors for our season. Mathias was a number one pick playing defensive end.
"That was the reason we drafted him, to play defensive end. Tuck was second on our team in sacks last year in spot duty. With those guys having the full time and now working at it, and getting used to it the last week or two [of the preseason], I don't expect any drop-off. That is not how we are looking at it. Those guys have to step up, and they know it."
Even without Strahan and Umenyiora in the Giants' lineup, the Redskins are preparing to face a fierce pass rush, quarterback Jason Campbell said.
"You still have to approach it just as serious because they still have those two young guys that are really, really great ballplayers," Campbell said. "Tuck is a high-motor guy. He is a guy that is relentless, and he loves to play. Then you are talking about Kiwanuka. He is another guy who is tall, athletic.
"He can move around. He can make plays. They can line him up in different spots. They are still very talented, and they are a very talented front seven. They have guys behind them that can make plays, too. It is definitely a big challenge for us. It is going to be a hostile environment."
The Giants have lost experience and depth along the defensive line, top running back Clinton Portis said, but the unit still is formidable.
"They are still going to give the effort," he said. "It is still going to be a fight."