To the Left

Bob Whitfield was disgusted. And this time, the Giants' loquacious left tackle, known for profane, entertaining interviews, was cursing himself.

Offensive tackles have to accept allowing a sack occasionally, but Whitfield was furious after Alex Brown beat him for two that caused Eli Manning fumbles during their nationally televised loss to Chicago. He felt like he let his teammates down once they lost Luke Petitgout to a possibly season-ending leg injury.

"I look at it as an opportunity to really lead the team, as a left tackle," Whitfield said. "I felt like me giving up two sacks to Alex Brown does not show the type of leadership that I'm accustomed to and why they would have me here as a 15-year veteran, to be a shutdown left tackle. So that's my focus for the rest of the season, however long I'm going to be in there, however long Luke's gone. It's to get back to being that shutdown left tackle. In any situation, no one beats me. That's not supposed to happen."

The injury-ravaged Giants' chances of making a postseason run suddenly revolve around Whitfield's ability to properly protect Manning's blind side. The 35-year-old former Pro Bowler hasn't started regularly since 2003, the last of his 12 seasons with Atlanta. The 6-5, 318-pound Whitfield has started only four games since joining the Giants in 2005, two apiece at left and right tackle, but his teammates seem sold on the idea that Whitfield will be able to fend off younger, faster defensive ends for the duration of the season.

"I'm not concerned," Manning said. "I think Bob's going to do fine. Bob is in a tough position. (On Nov. 5) he had to start at right tackle. All of a sudden, they throw you in there and say, ‘You're playing left tackle right now.' It's not an easy thing. It's one of the toughest positions on the field. For the most part, he did well. I'm going to have all the faith in him. He's going to do a good job for us there."

Of course, Whitfield wouldn't be the first aged left tackle to help the Giants to January glory this decade. Lomas Brown was 37 when he anchored an offensive line that guided the Giants to their third Super Bowl six years ago. But that was when Petitgout was still a right tackle, only a season removed from an alarming demotion to guard that raised questions about his worth as a first-round pick in 1999.

Petitgout played perhaps the best eight-game stretch of his eight-year career this season, though. His chronically creaky back had finally allowed the former Notre Dame standout to a play at a level commensurate with the six-year, $30 million deal he signed after the 2002 season, his first at left tackle. He had improved his pass protection, consistently helped open huge holes on the left side of the line for Tiki Barber and avoided the false start penalties that plagued Petitgout in 2005.

"Luke gets maligned a little bit, but he really is a very good player," Barber said. "He was having a great season, so for him to be down for six-to-eight or how many ever weeks it is, it's going to be devastating for us. We're going to have to have Bob get in that position and really step up, playing to a great level."

A fractured left fibula could keep Petitgout from returning until the 2007 preseason, but Tom Coughlin hasn't ruled out a postseason return. Regardless, teammates along the Giants offensive front felt especially bad for the 6-6, 310-pound Petitgout, a quiet leader who began making Giants fans forget his five-false start disaster a year ago in Seattle. He had been flagged for only three false start penalties in the Giants' first eight games combined, and wasn't whistled for holding.

"I think anybody that knows our team and has been watching us knows a lot of the success we've had running the ball is because of Luke," center Shaun O'Hara said. "He's been playing great, he's been healthy. … But that's the NFL. You can't explain it; you don't have an excuse for it. It sucks for Luke. I feel for him right now, because he was having a great year. He put in all the time and all the energy and worked hard. You hate to see that happen."

The Giants have seen this happen at virtually every position this season, but they're particularly deep along the offensive line.

Rich Seubert provides interior insurance and left guard David Diehl's versatility provides another option if Whitfield falters. Seubert, an emerging starter before a devastating leg injury nearly ended his career in 2003, would play left guard in that scenario. Diehl would then switch to right tackle, with Kareem McKenzie moving to left tackle.

Seubert started at left guard and Diehl headed to right tackle last Dec. 17 against Kansas City, when Petitgout missed the game with back spasms. But Whitfield started that game against the Chiefs, too, because McKenzie missed it with a hamstring injury. Whitfield played well that day, as he didn't allow a sack, didn't commit a penalty and helped pave the way for Barber's 220-yard day.

Diehl envisions more of the same from Whitfield, which would keep him playing alongside Whitfield, instead of essentially in his place.

"Luke's been playing hard," Diehl said, "been playing well, and definitely been one of the leaders on our offensive line. And for that to happen to us, it's difficult. But that's where the depth comes in. That's where Bob steps to the plate, where he's going to work hard. I know he's going to watch film, and I know he's going to work hard to improve."

Whitfield, meanwhile, wants redemption during the next few weeks after what he considered a poor performance against Chicago.

"It'll be my opportunity to step up while Luke's out," Whitfield said. "This is how guys earn their money, how they make a living. … I look forward to just getting the opportunity to be in the first group, so I can shore up what I know I need to shore up for the Giants to make this run."

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