Fillin' LB Hole

Reggie Torbor talked to Mathias Kiwanuka in the immediate aftermath of the injured strongside linebacker's season-ending surgery to repair his broken left fibula.

But the teammates didn't discuss work, certainly nothing about how Torbor would try to minimize the effect of Kiwanuka's absence from the starting lineup as the Giants attempt to make the playoffs for the third consecutive year.

"We didn't talk a bit about football," Torbor said. "We talked about getting him healthy. You know, he had some things on his mind. He's going through a lot right now.

… He's doing fine and looking forward to recovering. Football was the last thing on our minds."

Figuring out how they'll overcome the loss of the versatile Kiwanuka was at the forefront of many minds inside their locker room, though.

The second-year linebacker overcame a slow start this season and adapted to a new position relatively quickly. By the time he was helped off Ford Field during the first quarter of the Giants' win in Detroit on Nov. 18, he had clearly become one of the Giants' most valuable defensive players. More comfortable with the nuances of playing linebacker, the 6-5, 265-pound Kiwanuka had joined Justin Tuck to make defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's job considerably easier, too. They terrorized some quarterbacks because offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs just couldn't account for four natural defensive ends invading their space simultaneously.

Rotating Tuck and Kiwanuka inside also helped keep defensive tackles Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins feeling fresh later in games. The inventive defensive scheme prevented ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan from being double-teamed on occasion as well.

"To me, personally, he's probably one of the most valuable players we have because his athletic ability gives him the right to do so many things in our defensive schemes," Tuck said. "He played special teams, he played linebacker, he played D-line. He was always dropping (into coverage), he was always doing something different in certain packages. So when you have to replace a guy like Kiwi, you've got to replace him with three or four guys."

That task is primarily Torbor's responsibility. Second-year man Gerris Wilkinson, who has barely played this season, could also see some time on the strong side, but Torbor has more experience at the position.

Torbor, a fourth-year veteran, has shown some capability during his three-plus seasons as a Giant, particularly in 2005, when he made nine starts because the Giants' starting linebackers were ravaged by injuries. Torbor recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles during his rookie season in 2004, but he hadn't been enough of a playmaker thereafter for the Giants to keep Kiwanuka at defensive end once Spagnuolo replaced Tim Lewis. But he'll be a free agent in the offseason, thus the 6-2, 250-pound Torbor is auditioning for other potential employers as much as he is trying to satisfy his current teammates and coaches as Kiwanuka's substitute.

"Everybody on the team wants to start," Torbor said. "Everybody on the team feels that they should be playing. But 11 (starters) are going to go out there, so the remainder (of the players) on offense or defense are in that backup role, or that special teams role. I found myself in that role, but I didn't put my head down. I tried to excel in it. I was a good special teams player. When my time comes right now, I've just got to go out and perform."

Like Kiwanuka, a first-round pick out of Boston College in 2006, Torbor was a defensive end throughout his collegiate career. Unlike Kiwanuka, the Giants drafted Torbor to play linebacker, even though the Baton Rouge, La., native recorded 10.5 sacks as a senior at Auburn in 2003. His history as a pass-rusher hasn't prompted Torbor to urge Spagnuolo to use him the way Kiwanuka was maneuvered, yet he believes he can be a consistent contributor on defense, just as he has been as a special teams player.

"I feel I can make plays," said Torbor, a fourth-round pick in 2004. "I know the defense. I didn't just walk through the door. I've been here from the start. I've been in the league for four years. I know some things. I know how to watch tape. I've had the luxury of playing behind some older guys over the years and I've had a couple different position coaches, so I just feel like I'm ready."

Cofield and Robbins believe they're ready to remain on the field more as well, assuming Spagnuolo doesn't position Torbor as an interior lineman on obvious passing downs, alongside Tuck. The Giants' defensive tackles think they're more than just run-stuffers, but they've understood that their roles had to be reduced due to the pass-rushing success of Kiwanuka (4.5 sacks) and Tuck (seven sacks).

"We've just got to try to make up for it," Cofield said. "It's got to be a collective effort. Not one guy is going to step in and have the kind of versatility that Kiwi has. That's the (thing that's) going to hurt the most now that he's gone, because of all the things he could do. But we've got a bunch of capable guys. We haven't been hit too hard on the defensive side of the ball with injuries, so we're not too thin. So we're just going to have to try and step in, and pick up where he left off."

The 6-4, 317-pound Robbins had two sacks prior to Kiwanuka's injury, despite that he hadn't been playing as many snaps as he did in 2006. With Kiwanuka on injured reserve, the eighth-year pro welcomed more chances to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

"We're still confident," Robbins said. "We've still got guys we're going to be rotating in. … We've got guys who still can come in and play and still get at the quarterback. The key pass-rushers, the defensive ends, they're always going to get attention (from offensive fronts). So it's our job, the two tackles inside, to step up and be a force."

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