Terrell Thomas' torn anterior cruciate ligament – which officially landed the valuable corner on season-ending injured reserve today – was the biggest but not the only loss suffered by the unit in last night's 41-13 preseason rout of the Chicago Bears. Brian Witherspoon, a third-year pro who joined the team this year and had made a favorable impression in camp, also tore a knee ligament and was waived/injured.
"Terrell Thomas was in great shape, very confident, lost weight, looked faster than he has, was very spirited in practice, and in games and really was a rallying point and motivating factor for the defense," Coach Tom Coughlin said on a conference call today. "He has an ACL and he'll have surgery. Brian Witherspoon gained a lot of attention particularly a week ago, and a lot of notice in terms of coverage. Not going to tell you that this week in practice was as good, but nevertheless, had made himself noticed and had also been involved in punt returns. Brian had an ACL. He will require surgery as well."
Their departures from the active roster leave the Giants understaffed at a position where large numbers are preferred. The five corners still standing are Corey Webster, Aaron Ross (who will take over for Thomas as the starting right cornerback), Michael Coe, Joe Burnett and Darnell Burks. Burnett played 15 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 and Burks is a rookie.
In addition to Thomas and Witherspoon, the corners lost include third-year pro Bruce Johnson (torn Achilles tendon), Woodny Turenne (waived/injured after hurting his calf) and first-round draft choice Prince Amukamara, who is out after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot.
'We've basically taken some licks at one spot," Coughlin said. "It's unfortunate but it's not unusual for football, either."
If only the injury bug had attacked one position. Coughlin also announced that defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the Giants' second-round draft choice this year, suffered a torn left pectoral muscle. He will require surgery and is out for the season, the second year in a row he will not play football. Austin missed his senior season at the University of North Carolina because he was suspended and then dismissed from the team.
With Amukamara and Austin both sidelined, the Giants are without their top two 2011 draft choices.
The Giants announced earlier today they have signed veteran defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, a former first-round draft choice. Kennedy played for Minnesota in 2010.
In Kennedy, Rocky Bernard and Gabe Watson, the Giants have three veteran backup defensive tackles. But their situation at cornerback is more precarious because of the shortage of healthy players at the position. The Giants will continue to search for recruits, but they play again Saturday at home vs. the Jets and then five days later at New England, so they have relatively little practice time to integrate a new player into their system on the field.
"We'll do the best we can do to gather as many players, quality players, as we can at this point in time," Coughlin said. "Try to get them in here for a workout and see where we are. We do have, I think it's five healthy corners, and we certainly want to make sure that we do have more so that we can play these final couple of preseason games."
That, of course is easier said than done, both in terms of finding players who can contribute and getting them up to speed in a limited time frame.
"Whether it is realistic or not, it is going to have to be," Coughlin said. "That is the position we are in so whomever we bring in here, doesn't have very many practice days but does have a lot of days when they can be with a coach in a meeting room going over the tape that has been established since the beginning of camp and the first two games, discovering who we are. If there are veteran players who are involved in this, then it's just simple changes in language (that is) all that is necessary. They will have experience in the National Football League and the multiplicity of coverages. So if it is a veteran player, I don't think it will be to the extent that it would be a young guy. Regardless of who it is, there are only so many days and it is limited. We have two short weeks and literally we are lining up to play so it is going to have to happen fast no matter who it is."
Coughlin is well are that injuries – whether suffered by a key player like Thomas or those that come in bunches – can adversely affect a team's psyche. He endured a similar situation in 2008, when Osi Umenyiora, fresh off a Super Bowl victory and second Pro Bowl appearance, suffered a knee injury in a preseason game that required season-ending surgery. Like Thomas, Umenyiora was replaced by a first-round draft choice, Mathias Kiwanuka. The Giants started 11-1 on their way to a 12-4 record and NFC East title.
How will the current team react?
"I think the guys will rally," Coughlin said. "We're aware of that. We spoke about it last night in the locker room and actually prayed for the guys who were injured that I just mention. I think our guys will come rallying back. Certainly, it will be a bigger plus if we do find that there are contributors, that some of the people we have here, some of the people we may discover, if they can help us and contribute I think it'll be a big plus. I think our guys will continue to believe in themselves and certainly going to be disappointed in this news, as we all are. But we're going to have to push our way through this and maybe it will be an opportunity for someone else."
It's certainly an opportunity for Ross and Coe. The Giants are confident in Ross, the team's first-round draft choice in 2007 who was a starter until a hamstring injury two years ago caused him to be supplanted by Thomas. He played in 15 games last year, primarily as a third corner.
"I think Aaron Ross played well last night and he has had a good camp and now he is a guy that our team will turn to and he realizes that," Coughlin said. "Hopefully, he is just going to get some consistency in his play and I think he will step up and realize that our team is looking to him. We need him for the reason that he was brought here and will go on to help us this year."
"That comes with the territory," Ross said after the game. "A teammate went down and now it's my job to fill in. I'm ready. I'm ready to get back on the field and hopefully the coaches have confidence in me. I've been ready since day one. It's just a different situation. I'll take the challenge on and I'm ready to go."
So, presumably, is Coe. He played four games for the Giants last season, though most of his action was on special teams. Coe has also played for Indianapolis and Jacksonville in a five-year career.
"Michael Coe has practiced well the last couple of weeks, been involved in all kinds of special teams play, was in a significant amount of time last night, played a lot of snaps, both on special teams and in the secondary," Coughlin said. "He and a couple of the other young guys are going to have to look at this as a great opportunity for them. Our team needs them. Our team needs someone to step up and take some added responsibility and so the opportunity is there."
Coughlin has another option at cornerback, but chooses not to use it at the moment. Antrel Rolle, who was selected to the Pro Bowl as a safety each of the previous two seasons, played corner in his first three NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But Coughlin prefers to keep Rolle on the back line of the defense.
"We are aware of the fact that Antrel was a corner and we also know that we have designs for Antrel as a safety," Coughlin said. "He is a guy who can come down and match up. He is a guy who can come in a blitz situation, so we do have a couple guys at the safety position that have played there. I am reluctant unless I was to think that we were keeping them there, to put more on their plate in terms of learning etcetera. At this time, I would say that we are well aware of that but we would like to keep Antrel at safety."
So the search will continue for cornerbacks. As it does, Coughlin remains confident in his team, despite the spate of injuries.
"You have to categorize it and separate it," Coughlin said. "I am disappointed in the injuries, but this is football. I am sorry to tell you but over all the years, the most frustrating thing is this part right here, but you have to go ahead and recognize that this has happened. I feel bad for the young men who have invested so much and looked forward to playing and then you have to get back to work in terms of doing the best you can with your current roster and hopefully engaging some other pieces to the puzzle and move on.
"The thing that is ironic is that we have been relatively injury free through camp and through the first preseason game and that is including Prince's injury in that number. Last night, for whatever reason, you can go back and look at whatever tape you want to try to decide how these things happen, you got to deal with them. That is all there is to it. We had a pretty good night last night, we still have an awful lot to be learned. There are a lot of positives from last night and a lot of young guys played with great energy and did some great things, things, whether it be special teams or either side of the ball and you have to be encouraged by that. You have to be able to turn to your team and congratulate them, mention the people that did well and also mention the things that have to be improved without much time left to do that. You move on and you have to be disciplined enough to try to do that."