During training camp this summer, Mark Herzlich and Chase Blackburn, both former undrafted free agents, were neck and neck in the race for the New York Giants’ starting middle linebacker position. Blackburn, who closed out last year’s Super Bowl season as the team’s starter, was able to edge Herzlich out in the preseason, as his experience and veteran leadership made him a better candidate for the job.
Since then, Blackburn has valiantly manned the middle of the Giants defense. He leads the team with 47 tackles (34 solo, one for loss), while also adding 2.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2012.
However, after sustaining a hamstring injury in Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, Blackburn may be forced to miss his first game since returning to the team in Week 13 of last year. His injury opens the door for Herzlich, who, according to USA Today’s Mike Garafolo, will prepare for this week as the team’s starting middle linebacker.
Herzlich, a second-year pro, will need to display a high football IQ and a complete understanding of the defensive scheme, as Blackburn is often viewed as an on-field extension of defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Head coach Tom Coughlin, who is usually reluctant to place young players in positions of great responsibility, will learn to trust Herzlich, as long as he shows understanding and leadership qualities similar to Blackburn’s.
After all, that’s what won Blackburn the starting job in the first place.
Last week, Coughlin called Blackburn the “most difficult” player to take out of the lineup, and Fewell said he is “the key to our success” (via Tom Rock of Long Island Newsday). That’s pretty high praise for a middle linebacker that was team-less at this point a season ago.
But is Blackburn as talented as his statistics and coaching staff lead us to believe?
Sure, he may possess the intangibles, but as Ed Valentine of Big Blue View points out, the Giants had an opportunity to bring back Blackburn before the 2011 season even began. Instead, after the team’s starting-MLB Jonathan Goff tore his ACL in the preseason, New York decided to move forward with one of its four rookies, Greg Jones.
Nine weeks into the 2011 season, Jones was clearly not an ideal fit. And with Michael Boley sidelined by a hamstring issue, Herzlich was inserted into the starting lineup against the Philadelphia Eagles. He had four tackles that game and three more the following week against the New Orleans Saints.
It wasn’t until Herzlich’s Week 12 ankle injury—a huge blow to an already ailing group of linebackers—that the Giants decided to call Blackburn back into action.
If the Giants are so high on Blackburn, then why was the organization so reluctant to bring him back in 2011? What led Coughlin—someone who rarely allows leeway for inexperience—to start a rookie MLB in Week 1 of last season when he had an on-call veteran readily waiting? Blackburn didn’t magically become an elite linebacker by sitting on the couch for three months; skill-wise, he is basically the same player that he was from 2005 to 2010.
Valentine’s article cites Pro Football Focus, a paid website that uses a +/- grade scale to assess player performance. According to Valentine, Blackburn’s cumulative PFF score through the Redskins game was an abysmal -14.7 (-11.2 against the run). Valentine also mentions that the only linebacker in the NFL with a score lower than Blackburn’s is Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga (-15.7).
Many believe that Herzlich will provide the Giants defense with the burst of youth and athleticism that has been missing from the middle linebacker position. While it seems to be common knowledge that Herzlich is the superior linebacker physically, he’ll still need to convince his coaches and teammates that he’s just as sharp mentally if he wants to make the most of his Week 9 opportunity.
Herzlich may not have a chance to show off his full ability; it's unlikely that he'll be thrown Blackburn’s full workload all at once.
Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York reported that Coughlin is considering alternative defensive sets that “don’t necessarily need” a traditional middle linebacker. After Blackburn was injured last Sunday, Herzlich only recorded seven snaps, according to Valentine, as the Giants reverted to a two-linebacker set featuring Boley and Keith Rivers.
Herzlich, a cancer survivor, is one of New York’s most determined players. He will probably be given another shot at the starting job against the Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Sunday, and there’s a good chance he won’t let this one pass him by.