New York Giants' 10 Unsung Heroes of the 2011 Season
Looking back on the Giants season, you'll see all kinds of highlights featuring Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle and all of the other "Big Blue" stars.
But it took a lot more than just the star's contributions to get to the big game.
Here are ten players that you won't see on SportsCenter or on the front page of the New York Post, that had a major part in getting the Giants knocking on the door of another championship.
Tyler Sash, Safety
A sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft, Sash was no guarantee to make the Opening Day roster, especially considering the adverse effect the lockout had on rookies. But he led the team in tackles in the preseason, and also had two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Speaking of forced fumbles, he had two in one game earlier this season. Against guess who, the Patriots.
Sash is no Rookie of the Year or Super Bowl MVP candidate, but he's been dangerous on special teams.
Teams simply don't expect a lot out of him, which makes him such a dangerous surprise. If he can force a turnover or two in the Super Bowl, he could have a huge impact on the outcome of the game.
Dave Tollefson, Defensive End
When discussing the Giants' fierce defensive ends, we hear about Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora. Rarely does Dave Tollefson enter the conversation. He should.
Tollefson received just one start this season, all the way back in Week 1,but he received major playing time due to Tuck and Umenyiora's nagging injuries. He was the No. 3 defensive end or higher in 10 games.
Now that everyone's healthy, Tollefson's had a quiet postseason thus far, having yet to record a tackle in three games. But he put together five sacks during the regular season, which is pretty nice considering he's fourth on the Giants' depth chart.
He was a free agent after last season, and re-upped with the Giants on a one-year deal. The team isn't regretting that move for a second. Even with Tuck and Umenyiora having injury-plagued seasons, the team's depth at the position kept the pass rush hot all season long, and you can thank No. 71 for that.
Greg Jones, Inside Linebacker
When Jones was drafted in the sixth-round out of Michigan State last April, the Giants viewed him as an emergency inside linebacker. Well, the preseason proved to be quite an emergency in the linebacker corps.
Jonathan Goff was coming off his best season as a pro, racking up 80 tackles in 2010, and was the Giants clear starter at middle linebacker entering training camp. But an ACL tear during the preseason forced him to sit out the season. No problem, third-year player Clint Sintim will take over. Another ACL tear. Uh oh.
That forced the Giants to turn Jones' way. Despite a slew of big name veterans (including some former Giants) such as Lofa Tatupu, Chase Blackburn, Dhani Jones, Keith Bulluck and Kawika Mitchell available, the Giants stuck with Jones.
He started the first 11 games at middle linebacker, and wasn't spectacular, but did his job by not self-destructing.
The linebacker corps could easily have been a disaster had Jones struggled, since there were no other capable middle linebackers on the roster, but he held his own until Chase Blackburn was re-signed in December.
He certainly won't enter the 2012 season as the Giants' starter, but he got a lot of people's attention with his stability through the first 11 games of 2011.
Henry Hynoski, Fullback
Fullback was a position of need for the Giants entering the 2011 season. In 2010, longtime Giants fullback Madison Hedgecock went down with injury after just four games. This forced Bear Pascoe, a tight end, to fill in for the remainder of the season, though to his credit, he did so admirably.
But the team knew it couldn't rely on Pascoe for the 2011 season, and after missing out on free agent Vonta Leach, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens, the Giants found their man with undrafted free agent, Henry Hynoski.
Hynoski's value doesn't come in his fantasy statistics (zero carries, 12 receptions for 83 yards on the season), but in his ability to block. And that was incredibly important considering the Giants' offensive line was entering a season without Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert, and would face numerous injuries to David Baas, Will Beatty and Stacy Andrews.
Jacquian Williams, Outside Linebacker
Instead of re-signing Keith Bulluck or signing a big-name free agents like Stephen Nicholas, Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Paul Posluszny or Takeo Spikes, the Giants decided to get younger at the linebacker position, entering training camp with Jonathan Goff starting at MLB and Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka (who had just missed most of the 2010 season, been re-signed and was converting to linebacker after mostly playing defensive end for his entire career) on the outside.
But injuries to Goff and Clint Sintim forced rookies like Greg Jones, Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger into action, but none of them shined brighter than Jacquian Williams, a sixth-round pick out of South Florida.
Despite mostly functioning as a nickel linebacker, Williams was fourth on the team in total tackles (78), with a lot of them coming on special teams. He also led all linebackers with passes defended (four) and tied Boley for the team lead in fumble recoveries (three).
If the Giants win on Sunday, expect Williams to forever live in Giants folklore after forcing a Kyle Williams punt return fumble in overtime, that was recovered by Devin Thomas and set up the NFC Championship Game-winning field goal.
Devin Thomas, Wide Receiver
Speaking of Devin Thomas...
He was one of the key special teamers on the roster this year. He was on the verge of falling into NFL obscurity after being waived by the Redskins in 2010, and then played in just one out of his five games spent with the Carolina Panthers before being waived again.
The Giants picked him up, and the special teams have improved by doing so.
He started the season as the Giants' kick returner, but after averaging a pedestrian 24.3 yards per return (No. 14 in the league), he was relegated to special teams gunner. During the regular season, he recorded five tackles and forced two fumbles.
His best moments, however, came in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, when he recovered one fumble after a punt hit 49ers return man Kyle Williams' knee (the Giants scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive), and another in overtime after Jacquian Williams knocked the ball loose.
Following that recovery, of course, Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants to the Super Bowl, yet again.
Steve Weatherford, Punter
The Giants' 2010 season could be defined with one image: Matt Dodge punting the ball to DeSean Jackson. During the offseason, the front office's mission was to find a punter who wouldn't make that kind of crippling mistake. Enter Steve Weatherford.
Weatherford also spent the 2010 season at Metlife Stadium (then called New Meadowlands Stadium), playing for the other team: the New York Jets. During his time with "Gang Green", he tied an NFL record for most punts inside the 20-yard line, with a whopping 42.
By all accounts, Jerry Reese bringing Weatherford across the stadium to the other locker room made a lot of sense. The Meadowlands is not an easy place to punt, just ask Dodge. Also, Giants fans had been used to expert punting for several years prior, with veteran punter Jeff Feagles, who retired before the 2010 season.
Continuing the trend of players coming through big in the NFC Championship Game: On the game-winning field goal, Zak DeOssie's snap was off balance, but Weatherford (the holder) was able to recover it and set it up in time for Tynes.
Linval Joseph, Defensive Tackle
Joseph was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, but spent most of his rookie season on the bench behind Chris Canty and Barry Cofield.
Despite Cofield leaving in free agency, Joseph's future still seemed murky after the Giants used another second-round pick on Marvin Austin in 2011. But a torn pectoral muscle kept Austin from taking the field in his rookie season, and Joseph was penciled in as the starter alongside Canty, and has done a nice job.
Defensive tackles rarely put up exciting stats, but Joseph had a solid first year as a starter.
His 49 tackles ranked tenth in the league among defensive tackles. He also racked up two sacks. In addition, Joseph was great defending the run. More importantly, he was rarely ever spotted making the kind of mistakes a young player in his position typically makes. He'll likely enter 2012 locked in as the starter, and deservedly so.
Chase Blackburn, Inside Linebacker
It was a humbling turn of events for Chase Blackburn last offseason.
In 2010, he was the Giants' special teams captain. In 2011, no one wanted him. The Giants didn't even re-sign him after season-ending injuries to Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim. Heck, in 2010 Blackburn competed for the starting middle linebacker job with Goff.
That changed in December when he got a call from his former team, and not much later he was back in blue. He took over middle linebacker duties from rookie Greg Jones, and played surprisingly fresh for a guy who hadn't played an NFL game in 11 months.
He had a monster first game back against the Packers, racking up seven tackles, two passes defended, and an interception against the likely 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who only threw six picks the entire regular season.
Blackburn made another key play in the Giants' next game against the Packers, in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, recovering a Ryan Grant fumble in the fourth quarter.
On the next play, Eli Manning found Mario Manningham in the end zone to give the Giants a commanding 30-13 lead against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Kevin Boothe, Offensive Lineman
This guy did it all.
In 2010, the Giants offensive line dealt with a slew of injuries. Rich Seubert filled in at just about every position on the line before blowing out his knee in the final game of the season.
In 2011, the Giants offensive line once again dealt with a slew of injuries. But this time Seubert wasn't there to save the day. Instead, it was Kevin Boothe.
David Baas missed five games, Chris Snee missed one, Will Beatty and Stacy Andrews were both placed on I.R. and David Diehl had to adjust to moving from left tackle to left guard, and then back to left tackle after Beatty's injury.
Meanwhile, Boothe dutifully filled in for all of those guys, becoming a key run defender, and was a major help in giving Eli Manning time to throw out of the shotgun.
You might have missed it last summer when the Giants re-signed Boothe to a two-year deal, and it has certainly paid off. The Cornell graduate will look for his second championship ring this Sunday, when the Giants take on the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.