Mathias Kiwanuka: New York Giants' Converted LB Breaks out Versus Packers

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Mathias Kiwanuka: New York Giants' Converted LB Breaks out Versus Packers
Al Bello/Getty Images
Kiwanuka recorded two sacks against the Packers on Sunday night.

Last week, New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora claimed that the team’s Sunday night matchup with the Green Bay Packers would not be “that type of party” when asked about the possibility of a pass-rush revival.  Clearly, Umenyiora did not pass that notion by his defensive teammate, Mathias Kiwanuka.

For most of the 2012 season, Kiwanuka has failed to produce eye-opening statistics, recording more than three tackles only twice in the Giants’ first 10 games.  Against the Packers, however, Kiwanuka justified the team’s offseason decision to extend his contract through 2015 ($21.75 million, $10.95 million guaranteed).

Kiwanuka recorded six tackles (five solo, two tackles for a loss), two sacks and three QB hits on Sunday night, leading the charge for a Giants defensive front that brought down Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers a total of five times.  In contrast to Umenyiora’s comments, it was the New York pass rush’s best performance since Week 6 versus the San Francisco 49ers, when it tallied six total sacks.

Kiwanuka’s lackluster performance over the first 10 weeks cannot be attributed to his health. He is one of the few Giants who has consistently avoided the injury report.  One can, however, speculatively point the finger at the way the coaching staff has utilized his ability.

The former Boston College standout was originally picked up as a defensive end in the 2006 NFL draft (Round 1, 32 overall).  His size (6’5”, 260 pounds), speed and overall versatility allowed the Giants to use him in a multitude of backup roles.  It wasn’t a seamless transition to the pros for Kiwanuka, though—the most famous play of his rookie year was one in which he naively let then-Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young escape from his grasp on what would have been a game-clinching sack.

By 2007, Kiwanuka had clearly outgrown his reserve role.  But with Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck all ahead of him on the depth chart, Kiwanuka was jammed into the starting lineup at linebacker.  The second-year pro looked like a fish out of water, as he struggled to adapt to the complex strong-side duties of former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme.

The following year, Strahan retired and Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury, which allowed Kiwanuka to assume the starting job at his natural defensive end position.  He filled in admirably in 2008, recording 35 tackles, 8.0 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Over the next couple seasons, Kiwanuka’s production was hampered by Umenyiora’s return and costly injuries.  After a herniated disc cut his 2010 season short, Kiwanuka worked his way back into the starting lineup for the Giants' 2011 Super Bowl campaign.  Once again, he was asked to play linebacker.

The transition was much smoother the second time around, as defensive coordinator Perry Fewell created innovative ways to put his athletic ability to good use.  One such way is Fewell’s NASCAR package, which features four defensive ends (Kiwanuka, Tuck, Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul) all lined up across the defensive front.

But after amassing 62 tackles (career high), 3.5 sacks and an interception a season ago, Kiwanuka’s presence was not felt through the first 10 games of 2012.  Somehow, the identity-less star slipped between the cracks, his dwindling production making him less and less visible with each passing game.

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Kiwanuka’s low point came four weeks ago in a 29-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys.  It was a game in which Dallas’ Jason Witten torched the New York linebackers for an NFL record (for tight ends) 18 catches, and Kiwanuka failed to produce even one single tackle.

One day later, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the New York-New Jersey area, hitting particularly hard in the town of Hoboken, where Kiwanuka resides.  On Friday of that week, Kiwanuka told Art Stapleton of The Bergen Record that he and his family had been displaced by the storm.

A bye week may have been just what the doctor ordered for Kiwanuka, as no player on the Giants’ defensive side of the ball looked more re-energized than the 29-year-old defensive end turned linebacker.  His consistent pressure prevented Rogers from ever getting into a rhythm, which was a huge reason why New York was able to hold a potent Packers offense to only 10 points.

Kiwanuka characterized his team's dominant, four-touchdown victory over Green Bay as a return to "fun football" (h/t Arthur Staple of Long Island Newsday).

Moving forward, Fewell and the Giants may need to rely on Kiwanuka to replicate his Week 12 performance. At 5-6, the Cowboys and Redskins are still within arm’s reach of the division lead.  A strong, veteran showing out of Kiwanuka in the final five contests of the season could help the team ensure its second straight NFC East title.

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