They’ve been summoned to replace the irreplaceable, the immovable, and the inspirational. So it’s not surprising that the Giants’ new-look defensive line of unknowns, i.e., Lance Legree, Kenderick Allen, Osi Umenyiora, and William Joseph, were seemingly tossed around like bobble head dolls against the Redskins while attempting to emulate Michael Strahan, Norman Hand and Keith Washington.
Not surprising, but still disheartening. The Redskins, after all, are at the bottom of the NFC East and their offensive line play has hardly been dominating.
In a season that’s quickly unraveled, the Giants defensive line began the season as one of the team’s strengths. Strahan was playing like Strahan. Tackles Hand and Fred Robbins were more airtight than a Tupperware convention, and Washington was playing with inspired intensity. Then, suddenly, they got knocked out faster than fans at a Ron Artest basketball camp.
To give an idea of the defense’s sudden drop in stature, in the first four games of the season the Giants defense caused 13 turnovers. In the next four (Arizona, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington), they forced just one. Uno.
Of course, a big reason is injuries. Both Strahan and Washington were shelved for the year after the Chicago loss. Veteran defensive end Chuck Wiley was activated, only to find himself on IR two weeks later. Ditto Lorenzo Bromell. Hand, the human Brinks truck, has missed games with a groin pull. All told the Giants have had 12 defensive linemen on the active roster. They’ve become the Demoralized Dozen, instead of the Dirty Dozen.
Coach Tom Coughlin and his staff have had no choice but to play the waiver-wire game. They’ve picked up free agents who were cut early in the year, and plucked practice squad players from other teams. They’ve even shifted rookie linebacker Reggie Torbor to defensive end on some passing downs. Not the way you build toward the playoffs or for next year, which they seem content to do.
Similar to starting a rookie quarterback on offense, the Giants D-linemen can only hope to gain valuable experience for 2005. They’re attempting to replace 32 years of prowess turned in by Strahan, Hand and Washington with six total years of potential (Joseph, Allen and Umenyiora).
Yet, despite Coughlin’s assessment that both offensive- and defensive-lines were “whipped” against the Redskins, some of the veteran linemen like what they see in the young guns.
“I think this is a great bunch of young defensive linemen,” said newly acquired veteran defensive end Regan Upshaw, who was brought in by defensive line coach Mike Waufle, his coach with the Raiders and as a collegian at Cal-Berkeley. “They’re young, but aggressive and they like to work hard and have fun.”
Upshaw, who has spent the last two years with two clubs (Redskins and Raiders), says for the first time in awhile he feels completely healthy.
“Coming to the Redskins I had had ACL surgery with the Raiders and it wasn’t as strong so I had another surgery on the same knee,” Upshaw said. “I came in with an eight-month recovery and played two months later . . .. Now I feel great. I’m back with my old coach and I’m ready to go.”
In addition to Upshaw, who played in Super Bowl XXXVII with the Raiders, vets like Washington, a member of the Ravens Super Bowl XXXV team, are taking an active interest in developing the youngsters.
“Guys like Kenderick, Osi and Lance come over to my house to sit down and watch film,” said Washington, who, despite rehabilitating his knee, remains a presence in the locker room. “I enjoy talking to them about different situations. They’re young and motivated. I think they’re doing a tremendous job in wanting to acquire knowledge and become better players.”
It seems everyone can forgive a young QB for inexperience, but other positions aren’t afforded the same immunity. Or media coverage. DT William Joseph, for example, the team’s 2003 number one pick, had 15 tackles and two sacks after 12 games this season. But the media hasn’t been at all patient with the massive 6-5, 315-pound Joseph, as it continues to be with Eli Manning.
“There definitely have been high expectations of me,” Joseph said. “But I’m just focusing on working hard and trying to make plays.”
Other young linemen who weren’t top picks may not feel the pressure of Joseph, but still are hungry to prove themselves. Umenyiora, a second-round pick in ’03, has notched 31 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He seems like a future star.
Then there are interesting unknowns like Allen.
“I don’t feel pressure, because anyone who gets a chance to play in the NFL should want to perform at a high level,” said Allen, who spent last season with the Saints. “There’s no pressure, it’s a blessing.”
This season Allen was inactive until Thanksgiving weekend against the Eagles. When he got his chance, he gratefully responded by sacking the elusive Donovan McNabb for his first NFL trap.
Unfortunately, the next week, Allen, along with the rest of the linemen, was pointed out in the post-game lineup as culprits for Clinton Portis’ big 148-yard, two-TD day. When asked about the game, the 6-6, generously listed 315-pound DT responded like a veteran.
“It’s the NFL. You win some and lose some. But you move on and get ready for the next opponent,” he said. “We put that game behind us and we’ll be ready for the next one.”
Even as a relative newcomer, Allen is impressed with the camaraderie of the unit and the lack of big egos.
“Keith Washington has helped me a lot,” he said. “We’ve become friends and Strahan still watches film with us. They’re still around helping any way they can.”
So what does a new player like Allen brings to the Giants line?
“I’m just physical,” he smiled. “I’m a big physical guy and that’s what I try to bring on every play.”