The arrow is pointing up for the Giants' defensive line and the change of direction is occurring at the perfect time.
The line was responsible for all five of the Giants' sacks – the team's highest total in eight weeks - in a 29-14 victory last week over the Jets. Justin Tuck, finally rid of the injuries that have plagued him all season, played his best game in weeks and had one of those sacks and knocked down two passes. Jason Pierre-Paul was dominant again, led the sack parade with two and within 24 hours this week was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team and won his second Defensive Player of the Week award in three games.
And now more good news: Osi Umenyiora, the two-time Pro Bowl end, practiced today on a limited basis, his first on-field work since spraining his ankle in New Orleans a month ago today.
If Umenyiora continues to progress, he will likely get a chance to contribute to the cause when the Giants host the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night with the NFC East title on the line.
"It means everything to have Osi out there," safety Antrel Rolle said. "I know he's probably not going to be 100 percent, but he's fighting, he's fighting for himself, he's fighting for this team and he's fighting for what we have at stake."
"It would be impeccable timing, to get everybody healthy and running," said backup lineman Dave Tollefson. "That's the plan, everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth, so hopefully we can execute it with everybody going, and really kind of implement the plan we've been hoping to implement all year, with all these guys that can rush and do different things."
The Giants have seldom played with their full complement of linemen this season. Umenyiora underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and missed the first three games of the season. He played in the next eight games before suffering a sprained ankle vs. the Saints.
"He's tested everything – lots of times," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's been working his tail off, he just hasn't been able to get right."
Tuck has had neck, groin and toe injuries. He has missed four games and played in several other contests at less than full strength.
Several other players have stepped in and played well in their absence, including tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph, linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka and especially Pierre-Paul, who has had an extraordinary sophomore season.
"You can't replace Osi Umenyiora, you can only keep a seat warm for a guy like that," Tollefson said. "In our room … we can all play well, so I could have done a good job if they asked me to do it. But all jokes aside, Jason has been everything for us, the guy has played his butt off. He's humble, he's hungry, he wants to win, so yeah it's been great. Now we get another Pro Bowl guy back, can you ask for anything better? It's not like we had to sign some guy off the street."
Pierre-Paul, the newly-minted Pro Bowler, leads the team with 15.5 sacks. He might not have that number, or all his accolades, had Umenyiora been healthy, but no one welcomed back the nine-year veteran faster than Pierre-Paul.
"It was a good thing seeing him out there going, and hopefully he's going to this week," Pierre-Paul said.
Coughlin surely won't reveal his deployment plans for the defensive line, but it's possible the reigning Player of the Week might be a reserve in the most important game of the season. And that's fine with Pierre-Paul, who, by Coughlin's count, played more than 100 defensive and special teams snaps last week.
"I don't really care (about starting)," Pierre-Paul said. "Like I said last time, it doesn't matter if I start or not. I'm going to play hard no matter what. We have packages where Osi was involved and we can execute those packages with more rest for the defensive front. That rest will help me a lot and it will get me going. I was playing like 80 snaps a game and that is a lot. You don't really think about it, you just have to go."
"It means everybody is going to be fresher when they're out there on the field," Kiwanuka said. "When he's at full speed, he's definitely an all-pro player so we are lucky to have him back. He's a Pro Bowl guy. When you look at what he presents to an offensive tackle, it's a completely different scenario than the other guys that we have in. We have power guys, we have speed guys, we have our guys who can move around throughout the line. I think just the matchup, the adjustment during the course of the week, they're going to have to prepare for another all-pro player."
Asked how Umenyiora looked in practice, Kiwanuka said, "He's faster than ever."
Although he has missed almost half of the Giants' games, Umenyiora is second on the team with 7.0 sacks and tied for the team lead with Pierre-Paul and Kiwanuka with two forced fumbles. No one else on the team has Umenyiora's knack for creating turnovers, a big reason he can be such a big influence even in games in which his role is limited.
"Osi will always be a key factor of our defense," Rolle said. "His play speaks for itself, and having a guy like JPP to back him up, who makes the Pro Bowl, congrats to him it's well-deserved, as well as Eli Manning, and we'll come out there to play Sunday. It's great to have him back in the lineup. We all know what he can do once he's out there and we're looking forward to him giving that same effort, that same play."
"He brings a different game," linebacker Michael Boley said. "JPP, they're different players just as far as how they play the game. He brings a different spark than JPP does. Osi's been here a while, so he knows the tricks of the trade as far as pass rush. JPP is still learning, but obviously he's been great doing the things he's been doing."
"You can never have enough; the more the merrier. It's good, it keeps fresh bodies in there. The fresher we can keep our guys up front, the better it works out for us."
Umenyiora, who didn't speak publicly today, would certainly love to play against the Cowboys. The Giants' season is on the line. Umenyiora missed the Giants' 37-34 victory in Dallas on Dec. 11. In 15 career games against Dallas, including one in the postseason, he has only 5.0 sacks – none since 2006. The Cowboys would like to shut him out again on Sunday night.
"He is a great football player, obviously," said Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett, the former Giant. "They have a number of defensive linemen who do a good job of pressuring the quarterback and defending the run. He is a part of that group and been a really good football player for a long time. Like the rest of those guys on their defensive front, we have to make sure that we run the ball well and that we protect well. He just adds to the challenge."
Which is exactly what the Giants are hoping for.
- Tight end Jake Ballard did not practice. He sprained his posterior cruciate ligament against the Redskins on Dec. 18 and missed the Jets game.
"He's improving," Coughlin said. "I'm holding out hope (he will be healthy enough to play Sunday). He won't work today."
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) also did not practice. Bradshaw has been limited to one or two practice days for many weeks. Herzlich was hurt in New Orleans and has missed four games.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee) joined Umenyiora as the players who were limited.
*Coughlin, who hurt his leg in a sideline collision with D.J. Ware in the fourth quarter on Saturday, said he received a text from New Orleans Coach Sean Payton, who tore the medial collateral ligament and fractured the tibia in his left leg when tight end Jimmy Graham was tackled into him on Oct. 16 at Tampa Bay.
"(He said), 'You look like you're a better athlete than me, you didn't go down,'' Coughlin said.
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