Even with a fractured toe, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan can be relentless. His rookie defensive linemate Osi Umenyiora discovered that during a practice session in early August, when Strahan ran through a laundry list of pass-rushing dos (always shed a blocker's hands) and don'ts (never rush the same way two times in a row), pushing and pulling the rookie throughout. At times the 11th-year All-Pro playfully ragged his charge, eliciting chuckles from veteran defensive end Keith Washington, who was standing nearby.
The scene was telling because, for the Giants, the good times will not continue unless they address their glaring need for defensive-line depth. New York's traditionally stalwart defense looked increasingly mortal last season as the shortage of quality replacements resulted in an overworked front four. Those players' exhaustion meant a diminished pass rush—New York had only 37 sacks and forced just 11 interceptions—and the Giants ended up allowing 130 fourth-quarter points, tied for second most in the league.
Never was the problem more evident than last Jan. 5 when, holding a 38-14 lead over San Francisco late in the third quarter of a wild-card playoff game, the Giants gave up 25 consecutive points in a shocking 39-38 loss. Because the game ended on a botched New York field goal attempt, much was made of the Giants' myriad special teams needs, but make no mistake—at the root of the Giants' problems was an ineffective defense.
"We didn't have the luxury of being tired last year," says Strahan, whose sack total fell to 11 last year after an NFL-record 22� in 2001. "We need quality guys who would let us grab a breather and be up for the fourth quarter. Our kids are good, but they need to be ready now, not two years from now."
The new cavalry members are an upgrade over last year's bunch, particularly rookies William Joseph, drafted 25th overall out of Miami, and Umenyiora, a quick 278-pounder from Troy State who was a second-round selection. With 32-year-old starting tackle Keith Hamilton returning from a right Achilles tear that ended his season in Week 6 (assuming he avoids league suspension after being charged in May with possession of cocaine), and fourth-year tackle Cornelius Griffin on the decline, Joseph must contribute immediately. Umenyiora might spell Strahan occasionally and will rotate series with starting right end Kenny Holmes, who is no longer an every-down player. "We just need to get off the field," Strahan says, "because with our offense, we can stay off for a while."
Indeed, the offense is no longer New York's redheaded stepchild. Over the final nine games of '02, the Giants morphed into a scoring leviathan, averaging 25.7 points behind the underrated captaincy of quarterback Kerry Collins and the fiery passion of rookie tight end-lightning rod Jeremy Shockey. After a preseason homophobic rant, however—his second in two seasons—Shockey's mouth remains an issue for the team. Tailback Tiki Barber (1,387 rushing yards, 69 passes) and wideout Amani Toomer (82 catches, 1,343 yards) provide Collins with multiple big-play threats.
On special teams a season's worth of gaffes brought a new kicker (Mike Hollis), punter-holder ( Jeff Feagles), long snapper (Ryan Kuehl) and returner ( NFL alltime return-yardage leader Brian Mitchell), who were welcomed like favorite uncles to training camp. "I feel very lucky to have gotten them all," says coach Jim Fassel. "Replacing special teams isn't like replacing a lineman, where you hope the group comes together. On their own, those guys are all difference-makers. And you know what? I think they came here because each one looked at us and thought, Hey, those guys have a chance to win it all."
Asked what could be drawn from last year's playoff ignominy, Strahan laughs. "At least it wasn't the biggest comeback in playoff history," he says. "Hopefully, we won't have to worry about it again." As long as the new dogs learn enough of Strahan's old tricks, they won't.
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