Dear Giants fans,
Please step back from the ledge. Everything is going to be okay.
Please step back from the ledge. Everything is going to be okay.
Yes, Osi Umenyiora is out for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee and Michael Strahan isn't coming to the rescue by unretiring, but the Giants defense is going to be just fine. In fact, it's going to be better than fine. I promise.
Sure, it's never a good thing when a football team loses its two best defensive players in less than three months, especially when both players are team leaders. It's hard enough to repeat as champions in the salary cap era as it is. But now, with the loss of Umenyiora, the Giants enter the 2008 season without five of their defensive starters from the Super Bowl team (Umenyiora, Strahan, Kawika Mitchell, Reggie Torbor, and Gibril Wilson) that heroically held New England's record-setting offensive juggernaut to just fourteen points back in February. Together, those five players combined for 209 tackles, six interceptions, and twenty-six and a half sacks last season--more than half of the team's league-leading total. Their replacements, whether they be young players emerging from within the roster or newcomers acquired through the draft or free agency, are going to have a tough time matching those numbers this year. I fully concede that.
But let's not act like the Giants don't have significant depth and talent throughout the defensive roster.
The lone Pro Bowler on a championship team, it will be extremely difficult for the Giants to match Umenyiora's sack production this season. But make no mistake--Mathias Kiwanuka (pictured above mauling a middling quarterback) is a beast, folks. He's a natural pass rusher returning to his best-suited position at end, where he excelled as a rookie two seasons ago (44 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions in nine starts) after injuries to both Umenyiora and Strahan forced him into full-time action.
In addition to his outstanding pass rushing instincts, Kiwanuka has the kind of freakish athleticism that enables him to play standing up and to cover receivers (something Umenyiora and Strahan struggled with at times). These unusual physical gifts, which enabled the Giants to convert him to a linebacker last season, also make it possible for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to mix up his coverages and to disguise his blitzes, which come from everywhere. And while Kiwanuka may not be as strong as Umenyiora at the point of contact, he is, at 6'5, 265--believe it or not--bigger and heavier than him and his equal (if not his superior) in the speed department. A true sack threat coming off the edge, Kiwanuka has also not shown himself to be a liability against the run, containing plays by holding his corner ably.
"It is something that Kiwi, all of us, really, wanted," emerging star Justin Tuck told Dave Eisen of Giants.com regarding Kiwanuka's return to the defensive line, "but obviously we didn't want these circumstances for him to get back in that [meeting] room," It is a good thing for him; it is a good thing for this team. He is definitely a D lineman at heart, and hopefully he can just come back and not miss a beat."
Like their superstar forebears Umenyiora and Strahan, the largely unheralded tandem of Kiwanuka and Tuck form one of the most formidable pairs of young, pass rushing ends in the National Football League. This is precisely why the Giants inked Tuck to a five-year, thirty million dollar extension back in January--a deal which included $16 million in guaranteed money. This, several weeks before he went out and dominated the Super Bowl.
And as those of you who watched Super Bowl XLII know, Tuck is kind of a scary dude. At 6'5, 275, he is big and strong enough to line up at either end or tackle, yet quick enough to beat offensive linemen off the ball with his speed. And he's relentless in pursuit, posessing a motor that simply refuses to quit. As a key reserve the past few seasons, Tuck brought an intensity to the defense that energized the entire unit, and the Giants are confident that he will only continue to impress with starter's reps in 2008 and beyond.
This is a confidence that Tuck shares with his employers, as he has set high expectations for himself this season.
"I have individual goals like making the Pro Bowl, being an All-Pro and leading the team in sacks," Tuck told Ken Palmer of the Giant Insider. "But I’m more of a guy that sets goals as far as being the best defense, leading the league in sacks as a defensive line, things like that."
These are comments that underscore how Tuck, in only his fourth year, has already taken on--along with veterans Antonio Pierce, Fred Robbins and Sam Madison--a leadership role on the defense. And the one thing he has stressed all offseason in the interviews he's given is that he's not going to let this team rest on the accomplishments of last season.
"We really don’t put too much emphasis on what we did last year," Tuck told Palmer. "That doesn’t mean a hill of beans now. We’re looking forward to talking it one step at a time. We realize we’re going to get everybody’s best shot but we like it like that. I want to play teams that want to knock me off. And that brings the best out of me also. I think the reason why we’re going to be successful is because of our leadership, our coaching staff and because we really have a good group of guys that get it."
Considering how Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Mike Waufle like to rotate players, keeping the starters fresher late in games, it's critically important that everyone "gets" it.
"Nobody I've played for has had a defense like this that is ever-evolving, that takes you on a journey," newly acquired veteran safety Sammy Knight told Thomas George of NFL.com. "One door of it opens to another door of possibilities. It has variety in blitzes and variety in everything it does. It's a press, it's a zone blitz, it's a man attack, with all principles in one. It's like a germ that spreads. It can be what we want it to be. We can take it again to a great place."
One of the reasons Knight and his teammates believe they can take it to that "great place" is the Giants depth on the defensive side of the football, and the confidence the defensive coaches have placed on their valuable reserves.
Perhaps you've watched this clip a time or two over the past few months? Lord knows I have. If not, that large gentleman owning Tom Brady in the clip is Jay Alford, last year's third-round selection out of Penn State University. A seldom-used reserve defensive tackle last season, he is expected to see an increased role in the rotation behind Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins--the unit's captain--this year, using the confidence gained from his Super Bowl experience to make further strides towards improvement in his second professional season.
Also expected to make strides this season is little known end Dave Tollefson, who showed flashes in limited action after being signed off the Raiders' practice squad last October, including significant contributions down the stretch against both Tampa Bay and Dallas in the playoffs.
"He affected (Tony) Romo on one play and on another play he made a great effort to prevent a first down," Waufle told Mike Garofolo of the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was effective in the fourth quarter in that game."
If Alford and Tollefson's limited sample size concerns you, be comforted in knowing that other, more experienced reinforcements have also been brought into the fold this season, including versatile veteran Renaldo Wynn (most recently of Washington) and just released Eagles defensive end Jerome McDougle, the player who, back in 2004, gave Eli Manning his "welcome to the NFL" moment. Both players are sure to be inspired to exact a measure of revenge against their former employers--both fierce division rivals--when they face them this season.
In the back seven, the losses of Mitchell, Torbor, and Wilson will not hurt as badly as many of the national pundits have predicted in their short-sighted preseason analyses. All three players left via free agency for significantly more money than the Giants were willing to pay them, and while each played an important role last season, none were irreplaceable.
Obviously, teams never want to lose both of their outside linebackers at once, but as is the case with the defensive line, the Giants have other options at linebacker which they have confidence in.
The jury's still out on third-year linebacker Gerris Wilkinson, but there was no way the Giants were going to pay Kawika Mitchell--a one-year stopgap last season--the $17.5 million Buffalo threw at him. Beyond that, it's time for the Giants to finally learn exactly what they have in the enigmatic former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech. Wilkinson has started only two games for the Giants in as many seasons, but enjoyed an excellent game (8 tackles) in the playoffs at Tampa starting in place of a gimpy Mitchell last year. He is also reported to be the best linebacker the Giants have in pass coverage, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley on Thursday night. It remains to be seen whether or not Wilkinson can perform at a high level on a consistent basis, but the Giants coaches, including linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, appear to be high on him. A precipitous drop-off from the quality of Mitchell's play is not anticipated.
Kiwanuka's switch from linebacker to end also leaves a hole to be filled on the strong-side, where the Giants believe newly acquired veteran Danny Clark, most recently of Houston, will fit in nicely. Clark, a seventh round draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000, is the first former Coughlin player to rejoin him in New York. A nine-year veteran with 66 career starts under his belt, Clark has experience playing all three linebacker positions and comes to New York with a reputation for being an excellent special teams player as well. That's exactly that kind of versatility that will help him excel in Spagnuolo's ever-changing defense.
The depth behind Wilkinson and Clark may not be as strong as what the Giants will rotate up front, but Chase Blackburn and Zak DeOssie have both proven themselves to be capable backups and special teams contributors in the past. In addition to them, rookies Bryan Kehl (who had an outstanding first camp) and Jonathan Goff will also likely see action this season.
For years considered its weakest link, the Giants defensive backfield is perhaps its deepest unit heading into 2008. Losing Gibril Wilson, the team's top safety, certainly hurts, but not as much as it hurt Raiders' owner Al Davis' checkbook ($39 million over six seasons, with $16 million guaranteed). Wilson is a good player who made some big plays for the Giants during their run to the Super Bowl, but let's not kid ourselves--he is not even close to being a $39 million dollar talent. In his place, the Giants will open the season with Michael Johnson, one of their two seventh round picks from last season (Ahmad Bradshaw being the other), at free safety. The oft-maligned yet consistently solid James Butler returns as the starting strong safety.
Johnson is likely just keeping the seat warm for this year's first-round pick, the dynamic Kenny Phillips out of the University of Miami, though. The 6'2, 210 pound Phillips is the latest in an impressive line of outstanding safeties from "The U" which includes 2004 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor. Judging by his performance in camp and in the preseason, Phillips looks to be an absolute steal as the 31st and final pick in the first round.
It hasn't taken Phillips long to catch the eye of his teammates and coaches, either.
"Looking at him, I definitely see a special player," safeties coach Dave Merritt told Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. "I truly believe that he is going to be a special one. Athletically, Kenny is without a doubt one of the best I've seen. The kid has unbelievable range. He can get from the middle of the field to the sideline just like that."
“You don’t like playing against guys like that,” Plaxico Burress, the Giants' top wide receiver, told Joshua Robinson of The New York Times. “They can be in the middle of the field, the quarterback can look him off, throw to the other side of the field, and he’s right there to put his helmet under your chin or pick the football off. There’s only a few guys in the league that can do things like that."
Instead of opening the vault to retain Wilson, the Giants went out in free agency and signed Knight as insurance against Butler and Johnson. Knight, a twelve year veteran and former Pro Bowl selection, ranks third among all active players in interceptions, having amassed 42 picks in 168 starts for New Orleans, Miami, Kansas City, and Jacksonville. He, along with veteran corners Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters, should be able to mentor the Giants young defensive backs as they step into larger roles this season.
Combined, the four safeties the Giants will bring into 2008 are slated to earn just $19.1 million over the length of their contracts, less than half of what Wilson will be earning out in Oakland. And considering how the sky appears to be the limit for young Kenny Phillips, the Giants certainly seem to have made a wise move by letting Wilson go. He was a good Giant and will be missed, but his departure is a reminder that football is a business, and that teams have to do what makes the most long-term business sense for their ball clubs.
At corner, the team boasts some legitimately quality depth this season. The playmaking Aaron Ross (last year's first-round pick)--who had three interceptions in nine starts as a rookie last season (including the Super Bowl)--returns as a full-time starter this season opposite Corey Webster, who not only resucitated his career last season but who also, through his outstanding play throughout the playoffs, is playing with as much confidence as he ever has in his three seasons in blue. If both Ross and Webster can build on their individual success of last season, they might be able to emerge as one of the best young corner tandems in the league. Go figure.
And because the NFL is a week-to-week league in which every starter is one play away from injured reserve, the Giants have solid veteran depth behind Ross and Webster as well. Sam Madison (a four-time Pro Bowler in Miami) and R.W. McQuarters enter the 2008 season with a combined 21 years of NFL experience, 51 interceptions, and both will undoubtedly see plenty of playing time this season. Rounding out the DB corps behind them are the fleet-footed yet raw Kevin Dockery and this year's second-round pick, the talented yet oft-injured Terrell Thomas from the University of Southern California.
With that kind of depth up and down the defensive roster, it's no wonder the Giants and their coaches are confident.
"We are crisper now than we were at this time last year," Madison told George. "We're in the second year with our defensive coaches and with this system. But this year's Giants defense is really up in the air. Everybody is speculating right now. For many of our young guys, this is their time. I don't know how good we are going to be or what we are going to do. But I know we won't be sitting back trying to find out. We'll be on the attack."
Amen, brother. No Osi, no Strahan, no Wilson, no Mitchell, no Torbor.... no problem! This is a defense with enough playmakers and depth to make things happen, and with Coach Spagnuolo dialing up his unique brand of blitzes and coverages, Giants fans can expect big things out of this unit again in 2008.
Like Michael Strahan told the Giants offensive lineman before they headed out for their final drive of the Super Bowl: "Believe it and it will happen." Yes, Big Blue can be great again this year, regardless of what all the "experts" are saying.
So please, Giants fans, I beg of you. Step back from the ledge. Until further notice, the Giants are world champs, and we might as well enjoy it as long as we can.
NFL.com: A Giant reminder: Best offense is a good defense
Giants.com: On the Line
Newark Star-Ledger: New York Giants DE Dave Tollefson cherishes each moment on the field
New York Daily News: Kenny Phillips a Giant Shock at Safety
New York Times: Phillips Takes Guesswork Out at Safety for the Giants