Mark Herzlich's usual enthusiastic zeal for football games will rise this week, because he could be a starter when the NFC East-leading Giants host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Chase Blackburn, who has started every game this season at middle linebacker, did not practice today because of a hamstring injury sustained last week in a victory in Dallas. Herzlich, the second-year pro who has played primarily on special teams this season, is the next man up.
"I'm excited for every game, but also when I've been waiting a long time for this opportunity," Herzlich said. "If it's showing its head right now, then I'm going to make the most of it."
Blackburn was hurt with about six minutes left in the third quarter in Dallas. Herzlich replaced him and promptly stopped Felix Jones for no gain on a first-and-goal play. Herzlich also had two special teams tackles in the game.
Though he could have a more significant role on Sunday, Herzlich said his preparation won't change, because he puts in long hours prior to every game.
"A lot of the focus every week goes toward getting ready to go in just in case Chase's shoe comes untied or something like that and I have to go in and get some plays," Herzlich said. "So the preparation will be basically the same. Obviously, it's going to be a little bit more intense during practice, which is what I would rather have anyway."
Herzlich started two games as a rookie in 2011: November 20 vs. Philadelphia and the following week at New Orleans. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Saints, prompting the Giants to re-sign Blackburn, who had been out of football. Blackburn won the starting job this season in training camp, but coach Tom Coughlin said Herzlich is ready to step in if needed.
"He's obviously studied and been in the same room with Chase and knows a lot of those mannerisms," Coughlin said. "If Chase is able to go, fine. If he's not able to go, I'm sure he'll be a big help to Mark this week or to any number of linebackers depending on the personnel set that we're in. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're just talking about a conventional 4-3 'mike' linebacker. It could be in different categories as well. We try to match as we match their personnel. (The Steelers) number one personnel group is three wide receivers."
Blackburn has a speaker in his helmet. He receives the defensive calls from coordinator Perry Fewell and calls them in the huddle. If Blackburn can't play, Coughlin and Fewell must decide who assumes those duties.
"Those things will all be considered," Coughlin said. "Michael Boley has done it quite extensively, so I don't think that necessarily has to fall to anybody."
"That really is up to the coaches," Herzlich said. "It depends. I know last year when I went into start the first game, Deon (Grant, the safety who is no longer with the team) had the headset because Boley was out. So I feel like I'm ready for that responsibility. I can listen to calls and repeat them, so I know I can do that. So hopefully I'll have that responsibility as well."
*In addition to Blackburn, running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), center David Baas (ankle/elbow), tight end Bear Pascoe (ankle), linebackers Keith Rivers (calf) and Jacquian Williams (knee) and safety Antrel Rolle (concussion) did not practice. Rolle must go through the concussion protocol, but Coughlin said "we're hopeful, confident that he will pass."
*Safety Kenny Phillips, who missed the last four games with a knee injury, practiced fully.
Stevie Brown, who has started in Phillips' absence, leads the team with five interceptions. Today, Brown was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble in Dallas.
Coughlin said there is room in the secondary for all three safeties.
"Stevie Brown had an outstanding run here," Coughlin said. "My position has always been the more outstanding football players, the better. So we'll find ways to involve all of them and, of course, we're still on track trying to make sure that Kenny is ready to go. So we look forward to the addition of another outstanding player."
*Wide receiver Victor Cruz (calf) and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (quadriceps) were limited in practice.