Justin Tucked Neatly into Defense

As Justin Tuck stood in front of his locker, fresh from the treatment room, his left foot was swollen, noticeably wider than his right foot.

There is a short scar across the top of his left foot, too, more evidence of everything he has figuratively withstood to literally remain standing along the Giants' defensive line.

Some days that left foot feels fine, just about perfect, and those are the days Tuck uses as motivation for what could lie ahead for the third-year defensive end. There are other days when that surgically repaired foot hurts "for real, for real," when walking and simply putting weight on it once he gets out of bed are challenging chores. Those days serve as reminders of how fragile NFL careers can be, how close even talented, highly drafted players come to seeking employment elsewhere following just one misstep or one cruel collision.

Michael Strahan, the seven-time Pro Bowler Tuck plays behind, taught him long ago to treasure every day like it could be his last as a Giant.

"The thing is here, you see a lot of guys that are in and out (of the league)," said Tuck, one of the few Giants defenders to play consistently well this season. "So basically, the biggest thing I learned from him is not to take anything for granted. I mean, we're all great athletes. But whether we're here or not will be out of our control. So anytime you're out on that football field, treat it like it's like the last time you'll be out there."

Tuck, 24, was a little less philosophical prior to the Giants' game against Dallas on Oct. 23 in Irving, Texas. The Giants won that "Monday Night Football" encounter, but lost LaVar Arrington and Tuck for the season. Arrington's torn Achilles' tendon required surgery and cost the former Penn State star the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed six months earlier. But Tuck's Lisfranc sprain and torn ligaments resulted in surgery, having screws inserted to stabilize his left foot and a lengthy rehabilitation process that eventually led him back to the field for the Giants.

The Notre Dame graduate's conservative rehab schedule intensified once the screws were removed in April, but he wasn't even cleared to run until three weeks before the start of training camp. And it wasn't until he survived pre-camp conditioning drills the day they reported in Albany, N.Y., and his first camp practice the next day, that Tuck realized he would be able to regain his form.

"That was a big step for me," Tuck said. "I went out and it was my first time on the football field since the Dallas game the year before, so it was a big step because it didn't really hurt then. It gets sore, but it's going along pretty good."

Tuck went along pretty good throughout camp, too, as the Giants begrudgingly awaited Strahan's decision on retirement. Coach Tom Coughlin commended Tuck, a third-round pick in 2005, for "a very, very good game" against the Jets on Aug. 25, and seemed encouraged by Tuck's ability to at least adequately replace one of the sport's top defensive ends. The developing reserve's role immediately diminished once Strahan announced on Aug. 31 that he would return for his 15th season, but he has played plenty because Strahan has been busy getting into game shape, Mathias Kiwanuka has remained at strongside linebacker and defensive tackle William Joseph's injury enabled him to see some time at defensive tackle on passing downs.

"I think I've improved on being more consistent," said Tuck, who recorded the Giants' only two sacks in Weeks 1 and 2. "I think last year you saw flashes of good plays and you saw flashes of plays where it looked like I wasn't supposed to be on the football field. So I think the big thing this year is when I am out there, there have been a lot of plusses and not too many minuses. And that's one thing that (defensive line) Coach (Mike) Waufle wanted me to work on … you want gradual climbing. You're either getting better or you're not, so that's the biggest thing I've worked on."

Becoming better at playing the run is another thing the 6-5, 274-pound Tuck has worked on. Watching game film and the practice play of Strahan has been especially helpful, as Strahan has long been one of the league's most complete ends, a committed run-stopper in addition to being an All-Pro pass-rusher.

"The one thing he does well is just his leverage," Tuck said. "You can't move him in there because he's lower than the guys he's going against and he does a good job of using his hands to fend off opponents that are bigger than him. And that's the only thing that I have seen that I definitely can improve on. Just watching him, every day he goes and does it, you learn from it. I mean, it's a constant reminder to get better for me."

Strahan suffered a Lisfranc foot sprain later last season, too, and although his setback didn't require surgery or screw insertion/removal, the season-ending injury was among the things he weighed while wondering if he wanted to put his 35-year-old body through the physical demands of another NFL season. His plans for what would be a 16th season are unknown, but if he doesn't return it looks like Tuck should be ready to start opposite Osi Umenyiora in 2008. For now, though, the Kellyton, Ala., native, isn't interested in discussing his personal present or future, not with the Giants struggling merely to become mediocre.

"I think the development is coming along pretty good, coming off an injury last year," said Tuck, a cousin of Adalius Thomas, a play-making linebacker for New England. "I think that's holding up well, but it all gets washed under the table when you're not winning. So it really doesn't matter how good I'm playing. We just need to find a way to get some wins on the board. And then we can talk about individual performances."

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