Osi Umenyiora's Pro Bowl seasons were 2005 and 2007. But his best season? The Giants' nine-year veteran defensive end selects 2010.
"That was my best year as a professional," Umenyiora said this week as the Giants prepared for their game Sunday in San Francisco. "No question. I mean, 11.5 sacks (which tied him with Justin Tuck for the team lead), 10 times I forced turnovers. I'll take 11.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles over 14 sacks and five forced fumbles any day. Those are more impact plays. That's why I think last year was my best year."
Umenyiora's stellar 2010 season included the NFC Defensive Player of the Month award for October, when in four games – all Giants victories – Umenyiora had 18 tackles (10 solo), including 7.0 sacks and six forced fumbles. Umenyiora had three consecutive multiple-sack games in October: 3.0 sacks vs. Chicago, 2.0 at Houston and 2.0 vs. Detroit.
After a delayed start, Umenyiora is determined to make his 2011 season even better. Since missing the first three games after undergoing knee surgery on Aug. 19, Umenyiora has reclaimed his standing as one of the NFL's finest defensive ends. In five games he has 6.0 sacks – second on the team to Jason Pierre-Paul's 9.5 – five tackles for losses, seven quarterback hits and, of course, two forced fumbles.
"He's not quite there yet, as far as his all-around game from where he was a year ago," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "But he came in blazing. That Arizona game (Umenyiora's first of the season), he had a phenomenal game (with two sacks and a forced fumble)."
Nobody in the NFL can dislodge footballs from opposing players as well as Umenyiora. In 2010,
Umenyiora led the Giants and tied an NFL record with 10 forced fumbles, tying Jason Taylor's record set in 2006 with Miami. The stat has been kept since 1994.
Although he is fourth on the Giants' career list with 65.5 sacks, Umenyiora considers the forced fumble his signature statistic. He has been credited with 30 in his career (he's played eight years after sitting out the 2008 season with a knee injury).
"That's instinctive," Umenyiora said. "I don't know when I picked that habit up. I just started doing it. When I come around the corner, if you get a sack, a sack is cool. Everyone glorifies that. But at the end of the day it's just a tackle for loss. But if you're able to get the ball out, you force the turnover, you get it to your offense and you put your offense in a position to score. So that's a truly game-changing play. There's a big difference between getting a sack and causing a fumble.
"If I'm around the quarterback, I'm trying for the strip every time. If there's no other recourse, I'll go for the sack. But if I'm around him, I'm looking to get the football out of his hands."
That is a strategy wholly endorsed by Fewell.
"Osi has his own unique skill set," Fewell said. "Osi and Tuck caused 17 fumbles last year. Osi's very good at that. That's a skill and a talent he has. We don't mess with that skill or talent, because that causes turnovers for us."
Although he looks as quick and fast as he was when he joined the Giants as a second-round draft choice in 2003, Umenyiora has become an elder statesman in the locker room. He turns 30 next Wednesday, making him the Giants oldest or second-oldest defensive starter (it depends if 32-year-old Deon Grant, who has started half the games, is in the lineup). Umenyiora and David Diehl are the longest-tenured Giants players. Umenyiora has played in 109 regular season games. Only Diehl, Chris Snee and Eli Manning have played more among current Giants.
Umenyiora takes pride in being so productive this far down his career road.
"You look around the league, you don't see that many players who are able to play at a certain level for that long," Umenyiora said. "I want to keep playing for a few more years. I just have to keep my body in shape and keep everything in order."
When Umenyiora joined the Giants, he walked into a defensive line room that included Michael Strahan, two years removed from setting the single-season sack record, Kenny Holmes and Keith Washington. He soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the veteran ends. Now he's the senior member of the group, dispensing advice and leading by example.
"It's funny, I don't see myself as being that old, but (Justin) Trattou (a rookie defensive end on the practice squad) was telling me he watched me play for the Giants while he was in junior high, and now me and him are on the same team. When I hear things like that it kind of weirds me out. It's still fun to be able to keep my youth, but still be the older guy around here."
One thing that hasn't changed is Umenyiora's size relative to the tackles assigned to block him. He is listed at 6-3 and 255 pounds. Today's offensive linemen are routinely around 6-4 or 6-5 and in the 300-325-pound range. But Umenyiora said their height and weight isn't an issue.
"I'm stronger than a lot of these guys are," he said. "So they might be bigger but if you play with leverage, technique, or speed you overcome a lot of that.
"I have a (speed advantage) over every offensive tackle. But they do different things like slide the line, overset you, do different things to try to take that away from you. You have to expect that, because that's what they do to a guy who can run. You get up there and you'd be shocked. So I'm more prepared."
Umenyiora uses his quickness to get a step on the tackle when the ball is snapped. No one is quicker coming out of his stance than Umenyiora.
"I've been working on that since college," Umenyiora said. "You have to understand, offensive linemen, they're lined up a yard off the ball. And they're so long and tall, they take one step and they're there. So if you're not moving at the exact same time as the ball is snapped, they're going to be sitting there waiting for you. You move at the exact same time as the ball, you take away that advantage of knowing the snap count, and them being back there. So you really have to focus on doing that."
Umenyiora also works hard on the mental aspect of football. He watches so much tape, Fewell said, "He knows his opponent better than his opponent knows himself. And he gains an advantage that way."
Umenyiora said that part of his preparation has improved since he broke into the league.
"I'm really studying my opponent a lot better," Umenyiora said. "I'm seeing different things – which hand he's trying to punch me with, what offenses are trying to do, how they're trying to take away certain players or certain things you do. I'm learning something new every week. The older you get, the more you have to realize some of your physical attributes start to go away. The mental attributes have to start picking up. I'm learning a lot more about the mental side of football."
For Umenyiora, the physical aspect of football comes into play after a game. That's when the pain and soreness take longer to heal than they did in 2003.
"It's real bad now – your whole body hurts," he said. "It takes so much longer to recover. As opposed to, play Sunday, by Tuesday you'll be fine. Now, you play Sunday, around Thursday you'll start feeling okay.
"You have to do more things to take care of your body. You're just not able to bounce back as quickly as you used to. You've got to keep your legs right, work out harder, run more, do a bunch of things to keep your body in shape."
To Umenyiora, it's all worth it, because he's enjoying himself so much. When he or someone else on defense makes a big play, he pumps his fists and jumps around as if he won a free car.
"Man, it's so much fun, especially with my teammates," Umenyiora said. "Being around them, it seems like the older I get, the more and more fun it gets. I'm truly, truly enjoying it. It's a great time. I'm just happy to be here. I've been through a lot. So just to be able to come out here, make plays, and help this team win, is great."
His teammates and coaches appreciate both his attitude and his contributions.
"Osi is a professional," Fewell said. "He studies the game extremely, extremely well. As we continue to play more, Osi will get better and better and he will pick up where he left off from a year ago from a production standpoint on a consistent basis, in my opinion. Is his production where it was a year ago? Yeah, probably is. But there are some little things he can do better for us. Then I'll say he can pick up where he left off a year ago because he was doing all the right things last year."
Umenyiora has played a lot of outstanding football, but he believes the best may still lie ahead.
"It doesn't feel like I've been here nine years," he said. "I hate the fact it's gone by so fast. I feel like I have so much stuff left to do, so much left I need to accomplish. I don't know if I'll have enough time to do it."
But he'll certainly give it – and the Giants - his best shot.
*Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and rookie wide receiver/return specialist Jerrel Jernigan (hip) have been declared out of the Giants' game Sunday in San Francisco.
Four players who practiced on a limited basis are questionable: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring), center David Baas (knee), tackle Stacy Andrews (back) and cornerback Prince Amukamara (foot).
Nicks, who missed last week's victory in New England, said he took a little more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps.
"It turned out pretty good," he said. "I got to test it a little bit. I got to run downfield a little bit. It still felt pretty good, so we will see what happens.
"We will see what the decision is that they will make (about his availability on Sunday)."
Fullback Henry Hynoski (neck) and Umenyiora (knee) practiced fully and are probable.
*The Giants have a three-game winning streak in the series with the 49ers with victories in 2005, 2007 and 2008, the first of them in San Francisco. Prior to that, the 49ers had won the previous five meetings, including postseason triumphs in 1993 and 2002. The Giants are 4-6 in the regular season and 1-4 in the postseason in Candlestick Park since the 49ers moved there in 1971. How close is this series? The teams have met 34 times in the regular season and postseason. Each team has 17 victories (the Giants lead in the regular season, 14-13 the 49ers in the postseason, 4-3). In those 34 games, they are separated by only five points. The regular season point total is tied, 533-533. The 49ers hold a 161-156 edge in postseason points.
*Umenyiora on San Francisco running back Frank Gore, who has five consecutive 100-yard games: "I would say outside of Adrian Peterson, he's probably the best running back in football. He's very good."
*Welcome back, Ryan Perrilloux. For the fifth time this season, the quarterback has been signed to the Giants' practice squad. To make room for Perrilloux, the team terminated the practice squad contract of defensive end Craig Marshall, who was signed on Tuesday.
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