Soon after Jonathan Goff suffered a season-ending knee injury on Labor Day, Mathias Kiwanuka arrived for a meeting of the Giants linebackers and was jolted by all the chairs occupied by rookies.
"When we lost Goff early in camp, I walked into the room and looking around, I was kind of shocked," Kiwanuka said this week. "I said, 'Wow, there are not a lot of veterans in here.' But we're watching how these young guys have responded to the pressures of being thrown out there and I am impressed."
He's not alone. The Giants' quartet of rookie linebackers – sixth-round draft choices Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams and free agents Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger – have received favorable reviews from teammates and coaches because of their work ethic, demeanor and production.
This week, the four young backers could have an opportunity make a more significant impact. The 6-3 Giants, leaders in the NFC East, will host their fierce rivals, the 3-6 Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday night in MetLife Stadium. Michael Boley, who took over for Goff as the defensive signal-caller and is the Giants' second-leading tackler, did not practice all week and is listed as doubtful because of the hamstring injury he suffered last week in San Francisco.
Coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell have disclosed little on how the young linebackers will be used and who will relay the calls to the defense – "someone else will wear the headset but I won't reveal that," Fewell said – but it's possible the foursome will have a big impact on the game.
That's not the only news concerning rookies. First-round draft choice Prince Amukamara has practiced fully the last two days and could make his long-awaited NFL debut against the Eagles. Amukamara, the cornerback from Nebraska, missed the first nine games because of the broken foot he suffered in a training camp practice on Aug. 6. He is listed as questionable, but Coughlin would not commit to putting Amukamara on the field on Sunday.
"We will see," Coughlin said. "He seems to have run around a little better this week compared to other weeks."
"I was pretty limited the week before, but this week I have been getting a lot of reps with the first team and with the scout team," Amukamara said. "This week is looking more promising than last week."
Not for Boley. He hurt his hamstring late in the first half last week in Candlestick Park and did not return. He is second on the team with 57 tackles (42 solo), a sack and a team-high three fumble recoveries, one he returned 65 yards for a touchdown. Just as important, Boley replaced Goff as Fewell's conduit to the other players on the field. He receives and delivers the calls and helps line everyone up. That responsibility will now fall to one or more of the younger players.
"Michael Boley is more trained at doing that than they are," Fewell said, "but they have been training all year long so it is time for them to step up and assume that responsibility."
Each of the rookie linebackers has played in all nine games. Jones has the most starts, four, but Williams has had more playing time and leads the group with 29 defensive tackles (24 solo) and the team with 11 special teams tackles. Herzlich has played special teams exclusively. Paysinger was in that group before he and Jones were called upon last week to fill the void created by Boley's absence.
"I was pleased that they went in and didn't panic," Fewell said. "That was a big game for them to be in. We had some mistakes with them but for the most part, they did well. They had a couple bad plays in there that were critical mistakes that they made but I think they will get experience, learn and get better from it."
The rookies have worked hard on the field, pay attention in meetings, watch hours of tape and soak up as much knowledge as possible from the veterans.
"There is communication that is going on from the moment that we walk in the building until that first call is set and the more information we give them about what we see and what we have been through, the better off they will be," Kiwanuka said. "They are doing a good job at being receptive and trying to take all the information in and certain guys do not even need that much help. With a lot of those guys it's just getting them to transfer it right onto the field. It would be exciting to see how well they play this week."
Kiwanuka was asked if it's risky to rely so heavily on rookies in a big game against a division rival.
"I don't think it is as risky," Kiwanuka said. "It's not the beginning of the season. They've had practice reps, they have had chances to hear what is being said and what veterans see and what they don't see and then we have to give them credit. On their own, they come in and do extra work and they are well prepared."
Williams, the 202nd overall selection in the draft, has been used in sub defenses most of the season. He had a game-high nine tackles when the Giants beat the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sept. 25.
Jones, taken 185th overall, started the season-opener in Washington and three other games, most recently vs. Miami on Oct. 30. Because the Giants often use safety Deon Grant instead of a third linebacker, Jones' action has been somewhat limited. He has 23 tackles (20 solo) on defense and three on special teams.
"I feel like I'm ready, I'm prepared (for more playing time)," Jones said. "We in our linebacking corps, we always prepare like we're going to start. I think that's something we do well."
At 6-2 and 236 pounds, Paysinger is physically similar to the 6-2, 230-pound Boley. After the veteran went down last week, Paysinger had two solo tackles. Like his rookie brethren, he hopes for more time on the field, but insists substituting for Boley will not be his job alone.
"I feel like it will fall on the shoulders of all of us," Paysinger said. "Whether one person gets in line to go in, we will have three other people on the sideline that when he comes off the field, we will be able to tell him what we saw. So even though there may be one person out there working, all three of us will be working together."
Herzlich is eager to show what he can do defensively. The story of him sitting out a season at Boston College because he contracted Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, and his subsequent return to the field are well-known. But Herzlich would like to get attention for his football exploits instead of his inspirational story, which was recently featured on "60 Minutes."
"The better I play, the better my story gets," Herzlich said. "And obviously my goal right now during the season, in general right now, is to play better. I've beaten cancer, it's in my past, but at the same time I continue to be proud of what I've accomplished.
"I'm itching. I'm itching to play defense. I've been playing special teams my whole life, too. I mean, to people who don't play in the league or follow it real closely, they think special teams is just something off to the side. Just because the camera doesn't follow us on every play doesn't mean we don't take it very seriously. I know we take a lot of pride in special teams. If I get a chance in defense, great; if I don't, I'll get my pride on special teams."
Coughlin said Herzlich "had a nice week. … We want to see what he can do and how he will play in there. We already experienced the fact that he communicates well. He seems to know the defense and he can get us lined up. He is a big strong kid in there. … He has been constant in his progress. He is a young linebacker, given the opportunity, we will see how he plays."
Herzlich is eager to show his teammates and coaches he can contribute on defense.
"That's why you play the game," Herzlich said. "You always want a little more responsibility and a chance to make plays. The more opportunities you're on the field, the better. That's how I feel. If I get a chance this week, I'll be ready. I don't ever really know until Sunday (what's going to happen). I've been kind of a sub guy in different packages in the past and just happened to have not been on the field. Hopefully, this week it'll happen."
If it does, his fellow rookies will be rooting for him. When they began training camp, the young linebackers were competing with each other for roster spots. But they soon became close friends and after all of them made the team, they have fostered an "all-for-one" attitude. When one of them is on the field, the others feel as if they're in the game together.
"I think we are becoming more close together," Jones said. "It was different in the beginning, because we didn't know who was staying and who wasn't. It gets hard, especially in training camp. As rookies, for us, we see people get cut who are sitting next to us in lockers for the first time. It's hard.
"We don't try to stab anybody in the back. We're looking to help each other out. When one guy is playing, when he comes off the field, we give him as many pointers as we can. Or if it's something from the coach, we take a step back and try to cheer him up, cheer him on, tell 'em good job no matter what, because we all know it's hard, it's not an easy job at all."
"We're all still competing for a job," Herzlich said. "We're all competing to be here. One thing that's great about this team, especially linebackers, which is what I know best, is we all want each other to do well. We all understand winning as a team is more important than any one's personal success. We have two sixth round guys and two free agents. We don't have that play bonus. We want to win games and that's the most important thing we think about."
On Sunday against Philadelphia, they should get the opportunity to help as the Giants try to win another one.
*Running back Ahmad Bradshaw has been declared out and will miss his third consecutive game. Bradshaw said yesterday he expects to play next week in New Orleans, but Coughlin is not prepared to make such a bold statement.
"I am hoping, we are all hoping and we have to see," Coughlin said. "He needs to do some things on the practice field. I know the position of the medical staff, exactly, they are not quite ready to turn him loose. When they do that, let's hope that he can go out on the practice field for a limited amount of plays and the next day be able to come out and do the same thing. Then we will know that he can go into a game and play and hopefully come out of the game."
Defensive end Justin Tuck (ankle) did not practice today and is listed as questionable.
"Justin Tuck got stepped on yesterday afternoon and he rolled his ankle a little bit," Coughlin said. "They thought it was good to just hold him today. Hopefully, it is not going to be a big deal. There is soreness but it doesn't seem to be a lot of swelling. I think he will be fine."
Tuck indicated there was no question in his mind that he would play Sunday night.
Tackle Will Beatty returned to practice on a limited basis today after sitting out yesterday with a sore back and is listed as probable, as are defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee), cornerback Aaron Ross (quad) and wide receivers Mario Manningham (knee) and Jerrel Jernigan (hip).
For Philadelphia, cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (ankle) and offensive lineman King Dunlap (concussion) are out, and quarterback Michael Vick – who did not practice – is questionable (ribs). Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (shoulder/hamstring) and defensive end Brandon Graham (knee) are also questionable.
If Vick doesn't play, two-time Pro Bowler Vince Young is expected to start.
"(They are) pretty similar," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "(Young) is a good quarterback, athletic, can make plays with his feet as well as with his arm. He came down here with Tennessee last year and they beat us. He had a good game then. Whoever plays, we'll try to prepare ourselves as best as we can for.'
*Coughlin will coach his 250th regular season game on Sunday night. He will become the 19th head coach in NFL history to coach 250 games. Coughlin is 139-110, including 71-50 with the Giants.
*The Giants are 15-20-1 on Sunday nights, including 7-10 at home. Their most recent Sunday night game was also against the Eagles, a 27-17 loss in Philadelphia on Nov. 21, 2010. The Giants have one more Sunday night game scheduled, Dec. 11 at Dallas.
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