As television coverage of the Giants hosting the hapless 49ers in East Rutherford began yesterday, the first image we saw was gap-toothed Michael Strahan’s pre-game speech, with the obligatory request for a “New York Giants on three.”
The next shot was of Osi Umenyiora, Strahan’s partner at the other end of the defensive line. Realizing the camera was focused on him, Umenyiora winked, as if the NFL sacks leader knew what was about to transpire.
What the watchful eyes of Fox commentators missed, however, was a shot of the third piece of the defensive end triumvirate that has put New York at the top of the league in total sacks. Former Notre Dame sacks leader Justin Tuck has turned out to be a secret weapon, collecting 7 sacks of his own though restricted to playing nearly exclusively on passing downs. All this success comes after Tuck, the Giants’ third-round pick in the 2005 draft, had his 2006 season cut short by surgery on an ailing foot.
The trio was so intimidating in the Giants’ 33-15 victory over San Francisco that on a few occasions they didn’t have to lay a hand on the quarterback to cause errors. On the very first drive of the game quarterback Trent Dilfer got a taste of just what he’d be facing for four quarters. Strahan drove rookie tackle Jon Staley back and tackled Dilfer for a sack. And it wasn’t just Dilfer who lost his nerve. In the second quarter, as 49ers back Frank Gore took a handoff from Dilfer, he looked up before securing the ball and dropped it to the turf, undoubtedly distracted by the sight of Umenyiora, who had beat his blocker and was coming hard.
The Giant’s defensive seemed determined not to allow the team to suffer a late-game letdown, as the Giants did so often last year during their second-half season collapse. After another sack shared by Tuck and Strahan was wiped out by Antonio Pierce’s unnecessary roughness, Umenyiora punished Dilfer with a sack, a fumble and a touchdown, running the ball back 75 yards to score. And while giving up a safety on a blocked punt shortly afterwards gave San Francisco some hope, Tuck worked hard through a block and came up with a big sack to kill any momentum the 49ers thought they had.
Now the talk will begin, just as it did last year, that in a weak NFC, the Giants are Super Bowl contenders with a defense that can seemingly harass a quarterback on every passing play. It’s probably too soon for that.
If they win in London against the winless Dolphins next week, they’ll be 6-2—just as they were last year. That’s when the infamous collapse began with a defense that seemingly disappeared at times, as players missed tackles, botched assignments and bickered, while the locker room imploded.
Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck will have to keep up their attack throughout the entirety of the season if New Yorkers expect the Giants to fulfill the expectations that are about to be thrust upon them.
For now, they’re 5-2 and breathing down the Cowboys necks. The three-headed monster is hungry for more.