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Strahan an all-time great, but Giants still have NFL's best front four

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Strahan an all-time great, but Giants still have NFL's best front four

Post  Big_Pete on Mon Jun 09, 2008 10:34 pm

from http://insider.espn.go.com/nfl/insider/news/story?id=3434054&univLogin02=stateChanged

Strahan an all-time great, but Giants still have NFL's best front four

By Keith Kidd
Scouts Inc.
(Archive)
Updated: June 9, 2008

Michael Strahan is 36 years old, and 2008 would have been his 16th NFL season, but regardless of age, the loss of the future Hall of Famer is a major hit for the New York Giants and their defense. Strahan still was playing at a high level opposite fellow DE Osi Umenyiora, who demanded enough attention from opposing offenses to allow even a player like Strahan one-on-one matchups on the outside.

Strahan also was a leader on the field and in the locker room. He had the experience and instincts to identify formations and tendencies and communicate effectively to the linebackers on the second level, and he knew how to deal with the off-field aspects of playing in New York.

Still, Strahan missed all of training camp last season and would not have been in camp if he had come back this year, and the Giants have been preparing for this day for some time now. They drafted Mathias Kiwanuka in the first round in 2006 and have assembled impressive depth along the defensive line. Closing the book on this situation now allows the players still on the roster to move forward without all the questions and distractions that surrounded Strahan leading up to last season.

And from a pure football standpoint, the Giants still have the best defensive line in football. New York can compensate for his loss because it has more depth and flexibility up front than any other team in the league. Justin Tuck will take Strahan's spot at left defensive end on first and second downs, then slide inside on third down to make room for Kiwanuka, who was converted to a strongside linebacker last season but thrives with his hand on the ground in sub situations.

That will allow the Giants to do what served them so well last year: get their top four pass-rushers -- Tuck, Kiwanuka, Umenyiora and DT Fred Robbins -- on the field at the same time. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is all about moving players around and finding mismatches up front to create pressure, and that foursome, combined with DTs Barry Cofield and Jay Alford, will give offenses a lot to worry about this season, no matter what grouping is on the field.

What most people forget about Strahan, though, is his uncanny ability to play effectively against the run. Strahan had the most explosive hands in the league and knew how to use them. He consistently was able to get on the edge of the offensive tackle, play with leverage and use his hands to shed the blocker, all while using his impressive anticipation and instincts to find the ball carrier. Most fans were enamored of his sack totals, but his ability to control his gap responsibility and allow the linebacker behind him to find the ball and get downhill will be missed even more than his contributions as a pass-rusher. Strahan simply was one of the most unique and consistent three-down defensive ends in the NFL.

The biggest question now is how long it will take Tuck to improve his play against the run. He got work at end in the Giants' rotation last season and when Strahan was absent from training camp last summer, but this will be his first experience as a three-down player. There will be a steep learning curve, because Tuck must improve his ability to use his hands, play with gap responsibility, react to blocking schemes and separate from blocks. He will have to learn to play within Spagnuolo's scheme in running situations, because doing all that is much different than using natural quickness to get off the ball and roll to the quarterback.

Tuck eventually should make the transition, but in the short term, the Giants might have to adjust how they play from down to down. They are better than anyone when it comes to turning the front four loose and simply letting them get after the quarterback, but things now will be different on early running downs as they try to read and react on first-and-10, second-and-5 or third-and-short while players adjust to playing in new situations.

The linebackers will miss Strahan's ability to keep them clean, but Kiwanuka likely will remain at that position to allow him and MLB Antonio Pierce to maintain some continuity on the second level after the offseason departure of WLB Kawika Mitchell.

Strahan's retirement doesn't change much on the back end, either, as the Giants still will count on pressure from the defensive line to compensate for weaknesses in the secondary. Aaron Ross quickly is developing into a shutdown corner, but it remains to be seen whether fellow CB Corey Webster can build on his impressive finish in 2007, and first-round rookie safety Kenny Phillips also faces a steep learning curve. Veteran safety Sammy Knight will bring experience and be a coach on the field in the secondary, but offenses still will be able to find mismatches in coverage. Slowing down the pass rush and finding time to exploit those matchups will be the bigger problem.

From a team standpoint, Strahan deciding to retire now might be the best thing that could have happened. His decision allows the team to move forward full-steam ahead with the players they know will be on the roster and get them more reps together as they prepare to defend their Super Bowl title. Strahan was an integral part of that championship and one of the best defensive ends in the history of the game, and he certainly will be missed. The Giants still are in good shape, though, and theirs still will be the best defensive front in the NFL when the 2008 season begins.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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