AS THE car scaled the seaside mountain on the island of Santorini, Justin Tuck sat in the backseat quietly going over the possibilities. On one side was a drop onto a craggy hillside, on the other a plunge into the Aegean. All the while, cars were trying to pass each other on a ribbon of asphalt as skinny as six o'clock. "People would have to stop to let the other cars pass," says Tuck, the Giants defensive end, who after marrying his college sweetheart, Lauran, in the spring, honeymooned in the Greek Isles. "I could have laid across the road and touched both sides."
And will he be going back there soon? No, says Tuck, "that was a one-time deal."
Skeptics are saying the same thing about the Giants' Super Bowl run, a trip inspired by an attacking defensive line that was facing 2008 without its gap-toothed leader, Michael Strahan, who retired as one of the best ends of his era, and Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora, who was lost for the season with a knee injury on Aug. 23. Now much of the pass-rushing burden falls to Tuck, a Notre Dame product from tiny Kellyton, Ala., who had 10 sacks in 2007 while rotating with Strahan and Umenyiora. "I look forward to being on the field a whole lot," says Tuck, 25. "Nobody can fill those shoes. I'm just going to go out there and be Justin Tuck."
A year ago Justin Tuck was many things to the defense. He filled in at all four line positions for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose pressure schemes produced a league-leading 53 sacks. Never was the line better than against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants sent wave after wave of bodies and Tuck sacked Tom Brady twice.
Losing Strahan had meant Spagnuolo was without his chief weapon. "You don't replace a Hall of Famer with one guy," Spagnuolo, who joined the Giants' staff last year, said in early August, "but you certainly can fill in there and, if everybody picks up the slack, get the same result."
Now, in Umenyiora's absence, the Giants will expect even more from Tuck, and from the feisty duo of Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield on the interior. In addition Mathias Kiwanuka will be sliding back to defensive end, the position he played as a rookie in 2006 before shifting to strongside linebacker last year. Line coach Mike Waufle will continue the practice of substituting and flip-flopping players along the line in a rotation intended to keep opposing blockers guessing and to enable the Giants' defense to finish games strong. To bolster the unit's depth, New York signed free-agent end Renaldo Wynn, a 12th-year veteran who began his career in Jacksonville under coach Tom Coughlin, now the Giants' head man. The depth chart also includes second-year tackle Jay Alford, who sacked Brady in the final 20 seconds of the Super Bowl, and second-year end Dave Tollefson, who saw limited action last year.
Of course, the most intriguing possibility was the return of Strahan. The news that Umenyiora would need season-ending surgery prompted immediate speculation that the Giants would try to lure Strahan—and his 141 1/2 career sacks—into joining Brett Favre among the ranks of the unretired.
Still, how Tuck handles his increased workload could ultimately tell the tale of the defensive line this season. Even with his bountiful start to 2008—a contract extension (five years, $30 million), a Super Bowl title, a wedding and a Greek honeymoon—he remains on edge. While thumbing through preseason magazines, he saw that the Giants were ranked sixth in the conference by one publication. "The added motivation is that people are doubting us," Tuck says. "Even though that will be bulletin-board material, there's nothing to be hootin' and hollerin' about. We'll see what happens in February."