The Giants are getting defensive during their organized team activities (OTAs), and it has nothing to do with the absences of their starting wideouts.
Star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul will likely be out 12 weeks following back surgery, which means there’s a huge void to fill. And instead of testing the free-agent water for the likes of accomplished veterans like John Abraham, the Giants simply shifted Mathias Kiwanuka back to his natural defensive end position.
Kiwanuka, who started five games at strongside linebacker last season, is more than happy for his homecoming.
“I feel like I’m at home wherever I’m playing, so long as I’m out on the field. But having your hand in the ground and not having to worry about going from one position to another makes it more comfortable to be out there,” said Kiwanuka. “It’s no doubt in my mind [I can re-adjust]. This is the position I came into this league playing, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. I’m ready to go. This is a move I’ve been looking forward to since talking to [general manager] Jerry [Reese] a while ago.”
Kiwanuka handled the switch to full-time linebacker last season with nothing but professionalism, which was to be expected, but after registering career lows in sacks (three) and solo tackles (22), the eight-year veteran is happy to leave the past in his rear-view mirror.
A versatile defender, Kiwanuka will be looked upon as the main replacement for Pierre-Paul, whose return to the lineup may not be in time for the Sept. 8 prime time showdown with the Cowboys. Kiwanuka relishes the challenge, although he isn’t thrilled that he’s back in the starting lineup due to an injured friend.
“Obviously we’d like to have him, but we’re not going to rush him back for any reason,” Kiwanuka said. “The younger guys are playing behind you, which I think is what makes you have to step up, because there are just some things that they haven’t seen yet.”
The other bookend on the defensive line is veteran Justin Tuck. And while the former Pro Bowler is disappointed he won’t be terrorizing opponents opposite Pierre-Paul, he’s confident Kiwanuka will fill that role.
“I know he’s excited about it. That’s where his heart is. This is his natural position. He’s going to be a sleeper because a lot of people tend to forget he’s a pretty good defensive end,” Tuck said. “He constantly talked about doing whatever the team needed him to do, going back and forth from linebacker to the line. But I know he’s happy about being back with us in that [defensive linemen] room. A lot of time it’s about what this team needs the most, so that tells you how versatile he is and also a lot about his character — even though you know he didn’t want to play linebacker. But he knew it was helping this football team.”
What used to be a strength for the Giants — a deep and veteran pass-rushing rotation — has now thinned out drastically with Pierre-Paul’s surgery and Osi Umenyiora’s defection to Atlanta.
The Giants coaching staff and scouting department will be put to the test this season, because the fill-ins behind Kiwanuka and Tuck are very green. Adrian Tracy, Adewale Ojomo, Justin Trattou and rookie Demontre Moore may not inspire much confidence from the fan base, but within the Giants’ facilities, the leaders of the defense have faith in guys pulling their own weight.
Moore, a former Texas A&M star, dropped to the third round of this year’s draft because of poor combine workout numbers and lack of strength on the bench press, but Tuck said Moore possesses the innate ability to get after the passer.
“I have the utmost confidence in our backups as I do our starters because I’ve seen the work they’ve put in,” Tuck said. “Damontre, that‘s a guy that can get after the quarterback. He’s explosive, and that’s exciting. He’s athletic. And he’s hungry, I can tell, because he wants to learn and has been asking me already to work with him in the offseason and after practices. I like what I’m seeing from him early. He really doesn’t have any bad habits and that bodes well.”
Kiwanuka said Big Blue’s pass rush is what will bode well once the season starts, and isn’t worried about the lost pieces because the replacements are going to pleasantly surprise people.
“Once you see what we have on the field you’ll understand [how good the defensive line still is]. Guys like Adrian Tracy came back fired up ready to go. He’ll be a guy who will step in and make plays for us,” Kiwanuka said. “We have the talent to get the job done. We’re focused on not repeating what happened last year.”
Big Blue notes ...
» Wideouts Hakeem Nicks (reasons still unknown) and Victor Cruz (contract) were not at the sessions again, to the surprise of no one. Coughlin, though, said both absences are “different categories,” but added he expects to see Nicks at the mandatory minicamp next week, or face the wrath of the coaching staff, and a lighter wallet.
“We have a mandatory camp [next week],” Coughlin said. “I would expect that he [Nicks] would [show up].”
» Tuck noted that Moore’s story sounds familiar in that once upon a time, the Giants took a flier on a talented defensive lineman who fell in the draft, and had to wait his turn to get into the rotation.
“It wasn’t too long ago that a third-round pick contributed,” Tuck said. “It wasn’t right away because I had two people ahead of me [Umenyiora and Michael Strahan] who didn’t want to come off the field. But I wasn’t hurt. I was hurt more pride-wise being a third-round pick when I saw people go in front of me [in the draft that didn’t belong].”
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.