Picking up the pieces

Injuries that toy with NFL teams don't discriminate. They idle great players as often as the average, leaving coaches and ownership little to do but shrug and accept their fate.

"It's a part of our game," Tom Coughlin said. "It's the most difficult part of the game for the coaches and assistants, too. But all we really can do for our injured teammates is go forward the best we can and hope to make them proud."

Still, the Giants could not have anticipated what was in store for them against the Bears Nov. 7 when they lost starting defensive ends Michael Strahan and Keith Washington to season-ending injuries.

Nor are they quite sure how they'll react and rebound, even though they got their first small taste last Sunday against the Cardinals in Tempe, Ariz.

"He's always been out there," said Osi Umenyiora, the second-year defensive end, who is part of the group that will fill in for Strahan. "It's hard to say how we'll respond, but I'm sure we'll respond favorably. We're all men out there. Nobody is going to be hanging their heads."

The Giants began the process of rebuilding their defensive line in predictably conservative fashion Nov. 10, signing Vikings castoff Chuck Wiley and expressing hope Lorenzo Bromell, signed off their PUP list Nov. 9, can quickly regain his form after knee surgery.

Wiley, 6-5, 275, was originally a third-round pick of the Panthers in 1998. He started the first two games of the season for the Vikings but was released Nov. 2, two days after playing for Minnesota in their 34-13 loss to the Giants at the Metrodome.

"It was one of those things you have no control of," Wiley said. "I remember playing the best I could against the Giants and I graded out well. But they needed some roster spaces because of injuries at halfback and receiver and they found mine. When they called me up the office [to release him] I thought there was a joke coming because we were going to play on Monday Night Football. I thought it was some stunt from 'You Just Got Sacked.' I was playing along with it until I had to sign the papers."

Bromell, signed by the Giants as a free agent during the offseason, has been recovering from June knee surgery. He has 27.5 career sacks.

"I'll play hard, just like I've been doing for seven seasons in the NFL," Bromell said. "I kind of have a knack for getting to the quarterback. I've been practicing for three weeks, trying to knock some of the rust off. I'm sure my experience and wisdom will carry me through. This is what I love doing. It's tough to come to work and just be a cheerleader."

Strahan's loss appears crushing on multiple levels, none of which Umenyiora, Bromell, Wiley or Lance Legree, the current options, seem currently prepared to compensate for.

"What's left to do doesn't need to be said," said Reggie Torbor, the rookie linebacker who played defensive end at Auburn. "We all need to step up and make plays."

Legree, 6-1, 300, certainly does not fit the current sleek stereotype for defensive end. He came into the season with 80 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in his first three years and 51 games for the Giants. He had 16 tackles but no sacks this season prior to the Arizona game.

Umenyiora is a greyhound, however. He had 19 tackles and one sack in 15 games as a rookie in 2003, but already had three sacks and 12 tackles heading to the desert.

"We have a whole lot of confidence in the group we've assembled this year," Washington said. "We have tremendous depth at the defensive line and a lot of guys who can flat-out play in Osi, Lance [Legree] and Big Norm [Hand]. We still have guys that can go out and get things done."

Said Umenyiora: "There's definitely a lot more pressure on me, although I'm not sure if I'm the only one who is going to be asked to fill his shoes."

Part of the problem is that Strahan was indestructible. He played in 137 consecutive games, all but two since his rookie season in 1993, and did not miss a game since the start of the 1996 season despite injuries to his ribs, back, shoulder, knee, neck and toe. The Bears game was his 95th straight start.

He had Hall of Fame talent. Strahan's a six-time Pro Bowl pick, the NFL's single-season sack leader and its active career sack leader with 118. Craig Krenzel of the Bears was the 57th different quarterback he's sacked in his career, and despite regular double and triple teaming, Strahan was tied with Fred Robbins for the team lead with four.

But more than anything, he was a leader of the defense and the team.

"What the average person doesn't see is what a leader Michael is in the locker room and the weight room," Coughlin said. "He genuinely enjoys and appreciates his teammates and is held in such high regard that he can compliment when necessary and criticize without ruffling feathers. He always does a great job telling his teammates where we are and what we need to do. He's just an overall outstanding teammate. On the field, the players looked to him for inspiration."

Although Umenyiora is quick, he's also lighter (270) than Strahan (275) and Washington (285) and not as adept against the run. Once Strahan and Washington were gone, Anthony Thomas darted around Umenyiora's side on his way to the 41-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that insulated the Bears victory.

"When you look at Michael you think pass rusher, but he's probably as dominant a run defender as a pass rusher and he's probably the best one of those in the league," defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said during the bye week. "He has about five different moves, which he doesn't share with me, but I can see they are really good. It kills people. He has the ability to rush through, around, over and under people. I've learned a great deal from him, to be honest with you. I'm going to sit back one day and do a cut-up tape on his pass rush, just so I can teach others what he does."

Of course, that won't help the Giants much this season, but Washington believes the core players and belief in each other is strong enough to survive the crisis.

"I care so much about those guys," Washington said. "That alone is the toughest part for me. The way we look at each other, the way we laugh and joke and know when it's time to go to work. We've been together, studied together, prayed together."

Washington, who tore his left medial collateral ligament simply trying to get his balance after hitting the ground, isn't sure he'll be able to sufficiently recover from his first surgery to resume his career. But he's certain help is coming.

"Osi is a better player than I am," Washington said. "To see him surpass me, in terms of physical talent, is no shame because that's what I wanted for him. There's no letdown between myself and Osi because he is a tremendous player. He can do it."

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