One day soon, perhaps tomorrow and hopefully Sunday, the Giants will have both of their Pro Bowl defensive ends on the field at the same time. But lately, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora seem as if they're trying to avoid being seen together.
Tuck again missed practice today because of groin and neck issues, though Coach Tom Coughlin said he is "optimistic" about his availability for the Giants' road game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Umenyiora did practice for the second day in a row after missing the first three games while he recuperated from his Aug. 19 arthroscopic knee surgery. Coughlin hasn't stated definitely that Umenyiora will make his 2011 debut in University of Phoenix Stadium, but he appears to be heading in that direction.
"Again, a nice practice today," Coughlin said of Umenyiora's performance. "Again, we're going to have to watch and see how he comes back." Asked whether he wanted to "push" Umenyiora in light of Tuck's injuries, Coughlin said, "We'll have an exact plan for Osi and that will be directly related to his situation."
Second-year pro Jason Pierre-Paul has started for Umenyiora at defensive right end and leads the team and is tied for second in the NFL with 4.5 sacks. If everyone is healthy, Umenyiora could step back in as a starter with JPP becoming a reserve. If Tuck were to miss the game, Pierre-Paul could take his place on the left side.
"We really haven't decided," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "We'll figure all of that out when that comes to pass.
"That's a great problem to have. If Osi's the player he was last year and JPP's coming on like that, we'll find a way (to get everyone enough snaps), I promise you."
Tuck said the principals are not concerned with who starts or who plays at what position.
"None of us are selfish guys, none of us are jealous guys," Tuck said. "He understands his time's going to come. It's already here. It doesn't matter. We're all going to pretty much play the same reps. If they need me to sit down so somebody can start, I couldn't care less. That whole starting thing is overblown, anyway. As long as you're out there helping your team win, that's all that matters."
While uncertainty exists regarding where everyone will line up, it's crystal clear that Fewell is excited about the possibility of having Umenyiora return to the field.
"It's good to have him back," Fewell said. "He looks good. He has fresh legs, as we say. He's quick off the ball. He's excited to be back out there."
Fewell said Umenyiora does show evidence of having missed significant practice time.
"Obviously, when you haven't trained and practiced, there's some rust," Fewell said. "As he told me the other day, he's a nine-year vet and he's been paying attention, which he has been. He looked pretty good.
"(It's) more conditioning than anything else. We won't really know that until game day, but he pants a little bit out there, but that's because he's working and trying to get himself in condition."
Umenyiora is fifth on the Giants' career sack list with 60.0. A Pro Bowler in 2005 and 2007, he was the team's sole or shared sacks leader in six of the last seven years, missing only 2008, when he sat out the entire season after undergoing knee surgery.
Despite Umenyiora's relative inactivity, Tuck is convinced his running mate can make an immediate impact.
"He's one of those rare guys that can get to a hundred percent with a lot of quickness," Tuck said. "He showed it again during practice today. You couldn't tell he had anything done with his knee. He's flying around and making all the moves that we're accustomed to him making.
"You can tell he's chomping at the bit about it. Hopefully, he can seamlessly step right in and pick up where he left off last year. The deal is to get all of our weapons firing at the same time. It is good to have him back."
Tuck is chomping at a different bit. He missed the season opener in Washington because of his neck injury, the first time he sat out a game since 2006. Tuck started the Giants' victories over St. Louis and Philadelphia and he has six tackles (five solo) and 1.5 sacks. But the team's defensive captain – and Pro Bowler in 2008 and 2010 – is accustomed to being in the center of the action during the week and on Sunday.
"He's a little bit better," Coughlin said. "I think each day he feels a little bit better, but he was not able to practice today."
Tuck said that's due to both his groin and his neck.
"It is definitely frustrating," Tuck said. "But it is football and you fix your mind to know that you are going to have these nagging things."
Tuck said his plan is to practice tomorrow, but he admitted he's not certain he can. He said if he flies to Arizona with the team on Saturday, then he will play Sunday. That leads to the logical question: can he play if he hasn't practiced?
"Yes, but I don't know how I can do it," Tuck said. "I would rather not, but I am getting all the looks and I am watching practice. I am (studying) the film, but obviously you would rather be out there taking the reps and seeing it for yourself. I have been around here long enough to understand what offenses try to do. Hopefully, I get out there tomorrow and go and I won't have to worry about that."
"We'll have to see how Tuck is tomorrow, whether he can go or not," Coughlin said. "Can he be limited? What's his deal? We don't know that yet."
Until everyone has the answers, Fewell, Coughlin, Tuck, Umenyiora and everyone with an interest in the Giants can only fantasize about how good the defensive front can be when everyone is available. Tuck said he has a pretty good idea.
"With the depth issue, some of the reps of the guys who have played will be cut a little bit, because (Umenyiora) will be able to fill some of that," Tuck said. "As far as him being on the football field, it's just another weapon for offensive lines and quarterbacks to deal with. It takes some of the double teams off of guys, too.
"It's going to be very tough for teams, other than leaving eight guys in, to double team myself, Osi – JPP's having a great year. We have pass rushers all over the football field. And we have guys that can play the run. You saw the goal line stop in Philly. With him coming back, hopefully we can get all our guys back healthy and have a lot of bullets to fire. It's going to be very tough to scheme against us."
*Wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (knee) and Brandon Stokley (quad) and long-snapper Zak DeOssie (back) missed practice.
Coughlin expressed confidence that both Nicks ("I think he'll make it to the game") and DeOssie ("Do I think he'll go? Yes, I do.") will play Sunday.
Rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich and tight end Travis Beckum long-snapped in today's practice.
Regarding Stokley, Coughlin said, "He's in the training room, didn't make it out here. He's got swelling and he's being looked at daily. Beyond that, I'm not free to say."
*Wide receiver Mario Manningham (concussion) and Umenyiora were officially listed as limited.
*The Giants lead their series with the Cardinals, 79-42-2. They will make their third visit – second in the regular season – to University of Phoenix Stadium, where they defeated New England in Super Bowl XLII. Their only regular season game there was on Nov. 23, 2008, when Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes in a 37-29 triumph. The Cardinals won the teams' most recent meeting, 24-17, on Oct. 25, 2009 in Giants Stadium. The Giants are 10-7 in Arizona since the Cardinals moved there from St. Louis following the 1987 season.