On the first play of the Cowboys' opening drive, linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka stonewalled Felix Jones for a loss of one yard. The play set the tone against the Dallas running back that gashed the Giants defense for 106 yards in relief during their first meeting.
Kiwanuka had five tackles, two for losses, and helped limit Jones to 30 yards rushing on 11 attempts (for an average of 2.7). The entire Dallas rushing attack was held to just 49 yards, a sign of improvement for a defense giving up 121.3 yards per game (19th in NFL).
"That was really an outstanding game for Kiwi," Tom Coughlin said on Monday. "Penetrated, you saw him run through the back side, make the play on the power right off the bat, first play of the game – did that with some consistency throughout the game. Had some good rushes in the third down package as well. We put a lot of time and emphasis into stopping the run. One of the packages was what you saw right away early in the game with Kiwi. He certainly did respond and play well."
Kiwanuka, who also nearly blocked a punt midway through the first quarter, teamed up with Antrel Rolle later in the second quarter, stopping Jones again. This time it was a loss of two.
The sixth-year outside linebacker leads the team with 12 stops behind the line and is coming on strong a year removed from being placed on injured reserve with a herniated disc.
"I know he's playing well based on this particular game right here," Coughlin said. "And I hope to tell you that this is the start of something, that we're going to see the continuation of that kind of play."
Kiwanuka and company will have a stiff task in the opening round of the playoffs against the Falcons' Michael Turner, who finished the season third in the NFL with 1,340 yards. But it's not the running back who Kiwanuka is familiar with.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan played with Kiwanuka at Boston College from 2004-05.
"He is fearless," Kiwanuka said. "You can't assume that if you have tight coverage he won't fit the ball in because he can make every throw. He's a prototypical quarterback and he has the confidence to get it in there so it is going to be tough. As long as we are in the right spots and as long as we do what the defense asks us to do, we will come out with the win."
Former teammate or not, every quarterback can be rattled.
"Absolutely, there is one way you can rattle a quarterback," Kiwanuka continued. "If you hit them in the face a few times and that makes their job a lot harder. If you shut down the run and make them one dimensional. If you put them in situations where they have to throw the ball, especially with that front that we have, you can."
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