Bernard sat out of practice all week but wasn’t officially downgraded to "out" until Friday afternoon. That’s big news concerning a very big man, as Bernard has started at defensive tackle for the Giants in all four games so far this season.
After watching Eagles running back LeSean McCoy tear apart the Giants’ front seven last week, Browns running back Trent Richardson must be aching for his opportunity to attack a defense that is missing its best run-stuffer. Richardson has only averaged 55.5 yards per game this season, but the bruising back could make New York pay with Bernard out of the lineup.
The Giants have relied heavily on Bernard in 2012 despite the fact that he had played strictly a reserve role since joining the team in 2009. Before this season, the 33-year-old former Seahawk had only logged one career start with New York.
Chris Canty’s slow recovery from offseason knee surgery forced Bernard into the starting fold this season, and for the most part, he has stepped up and exceeded expectations. Bernard has been on the field for an average of 39.5 plays per game this season, and in the loss to Philadelphia, Pro Football Focus gave him the highest rating (+4.6) of any of the Giant's defensive players.
Still, even with Bernard’s help, New York has had difficulty bottling up the run. The Giants have given up an average of 118.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 22nd in the league (via espn.com). Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Philadelphia’s McCoy have all averaged 4.5 yards per attempt or higher against the Giants defense.
If the Giants want to stop Richardson from having a similar performance, they’ll need an inexperienced defensive tackle to step up in Bernard’s absence.
This could be second-year defensive tackle Marvin Austin’s big shot to make an impact in the NFL. Austin was a second-round draft pick in 2010 despite missing his entire senior year at North Carolina due to a NCAA rules violation. Although he didn’t play a snap in the game, Austin was active for the first time in his short career against Tampa Bay in Week 2.
Since then, Austin has failed to impress. He made his NFL debut in Week 3 against the Panthers, playing in 17 of the Giants’ defensive snaps. The young tackle seemed to regress against the Eagles, though, as his snap count fell to five. In spite of his limited playing time in that game, Austin still managed to record the second worst Pro Football Focus grade among New York’s defensive players (-1.2).
If Austin isn’t the answer, then it may be rookie defensive tackle Markus Kuhn’s turn to make a name for himself. That will be a tall order for the German-born player with limited football experience to fulfill, but the Giants may have to rely on their seventh-round draft pick to produce.
Kuhn, who was thought to be a surefire developmental project destined for the practice squad when drafted, has been surprisingly active in New York’s defense and special teams this season. Through four games, he has accumulated 46 snaps on defense and 44 snaps on special teams.
The Giants will be asking a lot of their unproven defensive tackles on Sunday. Shutting down Richardson, one of the league’s most enthralling young backs, will be no easy task for a couple of players who are just getting their professional feet wet.
Bernard’s injury magnifies the Giants’ lack of depth along the interior defensive line. The loss this summer of DT Shaun Rogers becomes much more significant, as the position is suddenly low on reinforcements until Canty is released from the physically unable to perform list in two weeks.
Given how thin the Giants are at defensive tackle, it’s tough not to question the team’s decision to keep unrefined players like Austin and Kuhn on the final 53-man roster over an impressive, hard-working talent like Dwayne Hendricks.
In the end, New York will probably be able to get away with either Austin or Kuhn at one defensive tackle position as long as Linval Joseph plays especially strong on the opposite side. It also wouldn’t hurt to supplement the defense's base formation with looks that feature either Jason Pierre-Paul or Justin Tuck lined up on the inside.
Either way, it’ll be a patchwork group going up against the Browns offensive line on Sunday. If Tom Coughlin wants his team to avoid falling below .500, he’ll have to hope that the unit holds up.