Defensively, the Giants have the NFL's best line when everyone is healthy. Ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck combined for 30.5 sacks in the regular season (16.5 by All-Pro JPP) and 7.5 in the postseason (3.5 each by Umenyiora and Tuck). No group of ends gets after quarterbacks like the Giants' trio. The line is also titanium solid in the middle with Chris Canty (assuming he is fully recovered from offseason knee surgery) and Linval Joseph. Behind them is quality depth in Rocky Bernard, Rogers and Austin, who hasn't played in a football game since 2009.
The starting linebackers entering camp are Mathias Kiwanuka on the strong side, Chase Blackburn in the middle and Michael Boley on the weak side. But a large cast of reserves hopes to earn significant playing time and perhaps displace one of the first teamers. Kiwanuka remains the Giants' defensive wild card, a player who can play on the line or behind it, a backer who can tackle the league's best running backs on one play and move up front and sack the quarterback on the next snap. Blackburn didn't sign on until Nov. 30 last season, but soon moved into the lineup and was invaluable down the stretch. His fourth-quarter interception of a Tom Brady pass was the biggest defensive play of Super Bowl XLVI. Boley is a steady performer who was second on the team last season with 91 tackles. Rivers, the ninth overall selection of the 2008 draft – by Cincinnati – intends to a big contributor after missing the 2011 season with a wrist injury. The Giants acquired him in a trade. Jacquian Williams, the most impressive of the team's quartet of rookie linebackers last season, wants a larger role this year. So do his classmates, Mark Herzlich, Greg Jones and Spencer Paysinger.
The Giants seemingly have a cast of thousands competing for jobs at cornerback. Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas (who replaces Ross after missing the 2011 season following knee surgery) will likely start. Amukamara and third-round draft choice Jayron Hosley will try to pressure them and earn time in the sub defenses. Behind them Molden, Bruce Johnson, Justin Tryon, Michael Coe, Brandon Bing and Hughes will fight it out in camp and during the preseason games. The Giants are not as deep at safety, but Antrel Rolle, the team's leading tackler last year, and Kenny Phillips, form an outstanding starting tandem. Tyler Sahs, Will Hill and Brown are among the contenders for backup roles.
The special teams are an odd mix of certainty and mystery. Kicker Lawrence Tynes, punter and holder Steve Weatherford and two-time Pro Bowl snapper Zak DeOssie are an excellent battery. The Giants' kicking game is in good, uh, feet. The coverage teams have played consistently well. But the return game remains a question mark. Coughlin would like to find the kind of dangerous kickoff and punt returners the Giants seem to face every week. Rookies Wilson, Randle and Hosley are candidates to become those players. Jernigan and Hixon, who handled those roles so well before missing most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, are also contenders.
"We're going to need some guys to step up," Manning said. "We lost some guys, so we need some guys to raise their level of play and other guys who've been doing it. We also need some guys who are either new to the team or have been here and haven't been a big part of this team to raise their contributions and play at a higher level and fill some spots, fill some roles. We have a number of guys who are competing for those jobs and we need to see which ones are going to step up and take initiative and show the commitment to becoming a better player."
And to making the champion Giants more than a 9-7 team.
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