Giants Keep the Pressure on Opposing QBs
Sure, neither will actually be in uniform. Strahan retired during the offseason; Umenyiora is out for the year with a knee injury.
But both are still playing defensive end vicariously through the dynamic duo that has replaced them—Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Skepticism about whether the defending Super Bowl champions would maintain a bone-crunching pass rush without Strahan and Umenyiora has quickly dissipated. Tuck is tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks with a team-high six. Kiwanuka is coming off a career-best performance with three sacks, five quarterback hits and a forced fumble in last Sunday's 21-14 victory at Pittsburgh.
And as evidenced by New York's NFL-best 26 overall sacks, the attention Tuck and Kiwanuka draw has created opportunities for others.
Part of their success comes from the advice that Strahan and Umenyiora continue to provide. Strahan dials Tuck and Kiwanuka enough to have them in his Fab Five cell phone plan. Umenyiora also is no longer around on a daily basis while completing a rehabilitation program for a torn patella tendon. But he too calls regularly and offered encouragement in person during a Thursday visit to Giants Stadium.
"Obviously, these guys are more than just teammates," Tuck said after Friday's practice. "We look at it as a brotherhood. Michael has seen everything an offense can throw at you. He watches every game and critiques us like he was our coach, like he's still here. Osi keeps pushing us. He wants us to break every record that's possible.
"There's no jealousy. If anything, we're so competitive we bring out the best in each other."
As he spoke about Umenyiora and Strahan, Kiwanuka subconsciously gestured toward where their stalls were located inside the Giants locker room.
"They offer tips all the time," Kiwanuka said. "That's not just something that started when they left. It's something that has been an ongoing thing from the day I walked in the building. Strahan always coached up the younger guys. They both always shared the things they saw. I honestly wouldn't have expected it to stop."
Very few blockers could stop Strahan during a 15-year career that will land him in the Hall of Fame. Strahan passed the torch to Umenyiora, who averaged double-digit sacks over the past four seasons playing on the opposite side.
When Strahan announced his retirement in June, a replacement was already on the roster. Tuck flourished as part of New York's defensive line rotation in 2007, notching 10 sacks during the regular season to earn a five-year, $30 million contract extension.
The Giants, though, couldn't have foreseen Umenyiora going down during their third preseason game. When Strahan chose to stay retired, Kiwanuka was converted back to end from strong-side linebacker after one season at that position.
"We had no reservations whatsoever about doing that," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Friday. "As a matter of fact, he was doing this franchise a really huge favor by playing (strong-side linebacker) just because we wanted to get him on the field."
Still, there were no guarantees Tuck and Kiwanuka would be effective even though the tandem has the benefit of playing alongside two emerging defensive tackles (Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield). Kiwanuka was coming off a broken leg suffered eight games into his second NFL season. Tuck needed to show he could raise his overall game and stamina to handle a full-time starting role entering his fourth year.
Both players embraced the challenge that replacing Strahan and Umenyiora presented.
"We enjoy the fact no one really gave us a shot to even come close to matching what we were able to do last year as a defense," Tuck said. "We really haven't missed a beat."
Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie said Tuck's athleticism and body control for a 6'5" 274-pound lineman allows him to do "a number of different things you wouldn't think a defensive end could. He'll play on an edge and come inside all of a sudden. He is good at faking one way and coming another."
As for the 6'5", 265-pound Kiwanuka, Tuck said he is in awe of his wingspan.
"I think he's got the longest arms in the league," Tuck said. "He knows how to use them and keep offensive linemen off him."
Coughlin also offered praise of Tuck and Kiwanuka. But it was clear the Giants have been placing more emphasis this week on stopping Cowboys running back Marion Barber rather that clobbering quarterback Brad Johnson, who is replacing the injured Tony Romo (pinkie).
"So much has been made of this sack business," Coughlin said. "It all starts with playing the run."
If the Giants (6-1) can make Dallas (5-3) one-dimensional, Tuck and Kiwanuka should have ample opportunities to tee off on the immobile Johnson. That's the type of situation that would make Strahan and Umenyiora wish they were playing Sunday.
"Having those two guys still around would be a tremendous boost for this team," Kiwanuka said. "But without them, I think we're doing fine."
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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