Middle Man

There was no doubt in the mind of Antonio Pierce that the Giants during training camp would not have to fend off soaring expectations. There would be no need to blunt burgeoning optimism or quiet those who wanted to trumpet the rise of the Giants.

Pierce arrived at the University of Albany knowing he and his teammates would not have to learn how to handle great praise.

That was fine with Pierce.

"I love it,'' he said. "That's when we play our best. When everybody was talking about how good we are, and how we may be Super Bowl bound, we didn't perform well. But when we have our backs against the wall, that's when we perform best.''

Funny, but as Pierce was characterizing the Giants he might as well also have been describing himself. His football life is not exactly filled with accolades and honors and compliments. He's never been the biggest, fastest or most statuesque. He wasn't even drafted out of Arizona, a slight he carries with him every time he steps onto the field.

For the past three years, Pierce felt as if he played well enough for selection to the Pro Bowl. He had 160 tackles for the Redskins in 2004. He had 98 tackles in only 13 games in 2005, his first year with the Giants. Last season, Pierce had 159 tackles and was named a Pro Bowl first alternate. When Brian Urlacher of the Bears could not play for the NFC squad because of an injury, Pierce got the call and headed to Honolulu, finally achieving a long-waited goal that had repeatedly eluded him.

"I felt like I belonged there the last three years,'' Pierce said. "To actually be there, be in the presence of those other players, to play next to Derrick Brooks and seeing Joe Montana and Steve Young and those guys at the Pro Bowl, it's a different feeling. It makes you feel like you're one of the elite guys and it's something I would love to do the rest of my career.''

For someone who thrives in the role of underdog and plays with a chip on his shoulder, Pierce needs to upgrade his approach. After all, a Pro Bowl linebacker can't insist that no one is giving him the respect he deserves.

Or can he?

"I wasn't voted in,'' counters Pierce. "I'm actually trying to still be the top guy in this business. I read the papers a lot, and I read a lot of comments from fans and the media about how I played last year. Obviously a lot of people in the world didn't see what my peers saw. I feel there are still question marks there. I was in the top three, the first alternate. I want to be in that top spot. For me to get in that spot, our total defense has to be there. If you look at the linebackers that go, it's off the top defenses.

"I'm looking for the respect amongst those guys. I feel like I got it amongst most of my peers but I definitely want to get it in the New York media and the fans.''

There is no worry around the Giants that one Pro Bowl appearance will douse the fire that burns so fiercely in Pierce.

"I haven't seen him change and I don't think he will change a lick,'' linebackers coach Bill Sheridan said. "Prior to it, he was everything he needed to be to try to get to that position or recognition. Fierce competitor. Total professional. Tremendous work ethic. I haven't seen that change since we came back.

"His mind now is just to pile it on, do it again, play better. I haven't seen his guard down a lick. Prior to it he was totally confident; he carried himself as if he was a Pro Bowler, because that's what he thinks of himself as a player. He knows.''

In the early weeks of training camp at the University at Albany, Pierce took his place in the middle of the Giants defense, but there was no Michael Strahan anchoring the left defensive end spot. Never shy about expressing himself, Pierce realized immediately that Strahan's absence created a void. Pierce also realized he was the logical choice to fill that void.

"You never appoint yourself a leader or captain or anything else,'' Pierce said. "That's up to your peers, your coaches and players around the league to kind of do for you. Nobody can fill the shoes of a Michael Strahan, that's kind of impossible to say. I am who I am. When me and Strahan are out there it's kind of a co-captain leadership thing. Of course with him not being here I'm probably the next guy who's going to be as vocal. I get that sense people expect me to do that.''

Just as Pierce accepts an increased leadership role, he eagerly takes on added responsibility running the Giants defense. No one studies more film, analyzes the opponent more fervently and attempts to understand every minute detail and nuance of the defensive scheme.

At times, it appears as if Pierce has exhausted himself before the ball is ever snapped, with all the motioning and gesturing he does.

"He takes a tremendous amount of personal responsibility for how we play as a defense,'' Sheridan said. "It's not just enough for him to do well, if we don't play well he's not going to rest until he can figure out and justify why and what needs to be done, whether it's approaching the coaches about something, whether it's personnel or scheme, or address other players. For his own peace of mind and maybe to take a little bit of burden off his back, it may be a little bit healthier to do a little less of that, but that wouldn't be him. He does put a lot on himself.''

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