Slick Nick

The list was long and somewhat daunting. Nick Greisen was taking the time to identify all the differences he was set to confront moving from his position at weak side linebacker into the gaping void in the middle created by the loss of Antonio Pierce.

There was loads of technical jargon, with Greisen explaining how life in the middle of the Giants defense was unlike his assignments playing as an outside linebacker. He went on and on and eventually it sounded as if there were so many changes he wasn't even playing the same sport any more.

And then he paused, smiled, and finally identified a similarity between the two positions.

"But really, a linebacker is a linebacker and football is football,'' Greisen said. "It's going and making the plays, hitting people and tackling.''

With that, Greisen defined his existence with the Giants. Making plays, hitting people and tackling, which is a fairly accurate portrayal of a linebacker's role.

The role Greisen was asked to play changed dramatically in the first quarter of the Giants' 26-23 overtime victory in Philadelphia. That is when Pierce went down with a high right ankle sprain that forced him out of that game and landed him on the sideline, his right foot placed in a protective cast. High ankle sprains are painful injuries that often linger and suddenly, the team's leading tackler, the player who called the defensive signals, provided intense emotional energy and Pro Bowl-level performances was in danger of missing the remainder of the regular season.

No one could soft-pedal the loss but at least the Giants felt fortunate that they had Greisen, once a valued backup, this season a starter on the weak side and for almost all of his formative years a true middle linebacker, to step in and try to fill the enormous shoes Pierce left behind.

"You can't change the way you're going to play,'' Greisen said. "Everyone kind of says you got to step it up but at the same time you got to play your game. If you try to do above and beyond what you're capable of you're only going to make it worse for yourself.''

When Pierce went down at Lincoln Financial Field, Greisen moved from weak side linebacker into the middle, with Carlos Emmons shifting from strong to weak side and Reggie Torbor coming off the bench to fill the spot Emmons vacated. That's the way the Giants may line up the rest of the season and possibly into the playoffs, if Pierce cannot return by then.

"Of course it doesn't make us a better team for him to be out,'' Michael Strahan said.

"As far as the knowledge and preparation goes we'll be in good shape, but when you're talking about replacing Antonio Pierce, I mean, it's hard to do,'' safety Brent Alexander added. "He's got a lot to say when he's on the field, he's very emotional, he's into the game, brings a lot of energy. He's a great football player. It's definitely a big blow to this defense.''

What the Giants lose without Pierce is both tangible and intangible. Greisen admiringly calls him "kind of a bad-ass,'' which in middle linebacker terms should be taken as a compliment.

"You have a guy that has played in the middle, who has played very, very well and been a part of the personality on that side of the ball,'' Tom Coughlin said, "and he is no longer part of it. You are going to miss him. Fortunately we have guys that can go in and play and perform, and they have to.''

That's the burden placed on Greisen, 26, who grew up playing middle linebacker, starred at that spot at Wisconsin but has played there sparingly with the Giants. He started one game at middle linebacker as a rookie in 2002. While this is not completely foreign to Greisen, it is a whole new world in the middle. He must check with the sideline to get the defensive call, then relay it to his teammates in the huddle. The gaps he must plug are different. There will be more offensive linemen in his face, less room to run free. Pass coverage routes are different.

"I have to be the leader out there, the one guys are looking to for the information so we can stop this team,'' Greisen said. "I have to be cool and calm, I can't get all flustered, because if I get flustered when the offense is coming out of the huddle and I'm still getting the signal then guys are going to feel that. Guys need to feel calm and relaxed out there.''

Known as an incredibly instinctive and well-prepared player, one of Pierce's great strengths was recognizing what the opposing offense was attempting and making the proper defensive calls. The signal is relayed to the middle linebacker from the sideline and then it's the middle linebacker's job to alert his teammates.

"He's the mediator between the secondary and the defensive line, making sure everything's on the same page,'' Alexander said.

Greisen anticipated adding that responsibility would not be extremely difficult for him. "I'd always look to make sure the signals were coming in right anyway, making sure Antonio was communicating right to the team,'' he said.

After starting only eight games in his first three seasons with the Giants, Greisen in year No. 4 has emerged as a key cog in the defense. The timing is just right for him. Greisen will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Giants for years did not consider him the answer as a full-time starter but he has played well when given the chance this season. No player could ask for a greater opportunity.

"I relish the chance in the fact I need to step up as a leader,'' Greisen said. "I need to show I can be in a leadership role and hopefully lead this team and this defense to the playoffs.''

The Giants Beat Top Stories