|Kiwanuka has emerged from his injury with a better feel for his role.
|Grant Halverson/Getty Images|
4 WASHINGTON (T)
14 at St. Louis
13 at Cleveland (M)
19 SAN FRANCISCO
26 at Pittsburgh
9 at Philadelphia
23 at Arizona
30 at Washington
14 at Dallas
28 at Minnesota
Ahmad Bradshaw, Running Back: The shifty, 5' 9" 198-pounder, who came out of nowhere to make a dynamic contribution to the 2007 title run, is an ideal complement to power back Brandon Jacobs. "He doesn't look at the [tackler] in front of him," says G.M. Jerry Reese of Bradshaw, "but at the next guy, because he's confident he'll make the first guy miss."
During the title run, linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka was left watching -- and burning for a chance to get back. It's here.
As the Giants have discovered, there are at least two ways a star player can
react when he's forced by injury to miss his team's championship run. One is to
spend his time off the field compiling a list of grievances about everything
from his role in his unit's scheme to the fact that his team didn't pay for his
plane ticket to the Super Bowl -- and to become so embittered that the club is left
with little choice but to trade him for two draft picks just before the start of
training camp. Call it the Shockey way.
Then there's the Kiwanuka way. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka fractured his left
fibula last Nov. 18, one month before tight end Jeremy Shockey, who's now a
Saint, suffered an identical injury. Like Shockey, Kiwanuka struggled to come to
terms with the fact that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII without him. "It was a
very emotional experience," Kiwanuka says. "I couldn't have been more proud of
being a part of this team, but it was heartbreaking not being out there for what
would have been the biggest game of my career."
Unlike his former teammate, however, Kiwanuka, 25, channeled that emotion
toward something constructive. The Giants had converted the 6' 5",
265-pound defensive end into a strongside linebacker before the 2007 season, and
both he and general manager Jerry Reese admit he struggled at first. "When
you've played with your hand on the ground your whole career, then you back up
and stand up, it's a tough adjustment," says Reese. "Early on you could see him
way out of position, overrunning things." Kiwanuka -- whom teammates call simply
Kiwi -- was just beginning to get the hang of his new position when his leg snapped
in a game against the Lions. Rather than sulking, Kiwanuka exploited his
recovery time to master the intricacies of his new position. "I watched all the
film I could," he says. "I wasn't walking. I wasn't doing anything [else].
There's no doubt I've improved."
That was readily apparent at Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., particularly in
pass coverage. Sharpened by film-room study, Kiwanuka's awareness of where he
should position himself is now allowing him to use what coach Tom Coughlin
jokingly calls his "27-foot arms" to knock down passes as far as 35 yards
downfield. Coughlin singled Kiwanuka out for praise after several sessions.
The pass-rushing skills that made Kiwanuka the final pick of the 2006 first
round looked as formidable as ever in camp -- and his contribution on that front
will be essential now, with the retirement of Michael Strahan and the
season-ending knee injury suffered by Osi Umenyiora on Aug. 23; those two
defensive ends combined for 22 sacks in 2007. On passing downs Kiwanuka will
most likely join defensive end Justin Tuck on the line in coordinator Steve
Spagnuolo's attacking system.
As the line brings the pressure, the secondary should be waiting to take
advantage. There, Spagnuolo has a new toy to play with in rookie Kenny Phillips,
the Miami product who looks poised to continue the school's tradition of
producing game-changing, Pro Bowl safeties (see: Ed Reed and the late Sean
Taylor). The Giants felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas morning when Phillips
fell to them at the end of the first round. He looks significantly bigger than
his listed 6' 2" and 210 pounds, and he drew nothing but raves in camp
for his play in pass coverage and run support. While he might not start
Week 1, Reese says, "he should be a big-timer for us."
The Giants won one of the most improbable championships in NFL history last
season, when a host of formerly unheralded players became big-timers. They'll
need more of the same in 2008, from the likes of Kiwanuka and Phillips. A
schedule that's fairly soft through the first two months of the season should
help propel New York to a wild-card spot. And as the Giants showed last season,
after that anything can happen. -- Ben Reiter