Commentary

Tuck's task: Shoulder the load

Justin merely expected to get healthy, get sacks, get Giants D back to dominance

Updated: May 20, 2010, 2:12 PM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com

Justin TuckAP Photo/Bill KostrounJustin Tuck says leadership will be a team effort -- but he's eager to give the Giants a lift.

GLADSTONE, N.J. -- New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck knows what is expected of him this coming season.

After offseason surgery to repair a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder, a healthy Tuck will be counted on to return to double-digit sack form. As arguably the best defensive player on the team, Tuck must lead the charge to restore Big Blue's proud defensive image. And finally, the respected Tuck must help the unit offset the loss of Antonio Pierce by assuming the linebacker's leadership role.

There's a lot being placed on Tuck's broad shoulders. While the humble Tuck says his goal is to become more of a leader this season, he insists he will need help filling Pierce's cleats.

"I know everybody is going to look toward me as being the spokesperson of the defense, but I think we can do that by committee," Tuck said Wednesday after playing in an LPGA Pro-Am prior to the Sybase Match Play Championship. "It gives other people the opportunity to get involved in leadership and have their voice be heard. Once you have all of that then the jealousy factor doesn't come in. That is how I want it."

Tuck, though, is the guy who will have to become the defense's heart and soul.

Osi Umenyiora has seniority, but he will be busy trying to regain his starting job back from Mathias Kiwanuka. And whoever emerges from the roster to win Pierce's old starting middle linebacker job will be too young or unproven.

Tuck, 27, is entering his prime in his sixth season. He tries to lead more by example; he didn't miss a game despite suffering his shoulder injury in Week 2. This offseason, he already had a one-on-one talk with Umenyiora about the way his teammate has approached regaining his starting position.

[+] EnlargeJustin Tuck
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJustin Tuck managed to play all 16 games, but injuries made his '09 season a struggle.

Umenyiora initially told reporters during Super Bowl week that he would consider retiring if he didn't start this season. He later offered a bunch of no-comments when asked about his future and his happiness following a Giants' offseason workout. This week, however, Umenyiora maintained that he is focused on helping the Giants win and insisted he will not be a distraction or a problem in the locker room.

"We talked a lot and I understand his stance," Tuck said. "Guys have to do what is best for them. And whether I think it is the right thing to do or not, that is not for me to decide.

"I am going to support him as long as he does it the right way," Tuck added. "And I will tell him when I don't think it is the right way and he can take it or leave it."

Like Umenyiora and virtually everyone else, Tuck initially wondered what the Giants were doing when they took Jason Pierre-Paul with the 15th overall pick in the draft. The Giants desperately need a middle linebacker, and they were already strong up front with Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and Dave Tollefson.

"I am biased," said Tuck, whose surgically repaired shoulder is on track to be ready for the start of training camp. "We didn't really need another pass-rusher."

But Tuck said he is going to embrace Pierre-Paul and take the raw defensive end under his wing. He was impressed after seeing the South Florida rookie up close at Tuesday's OTA.

"Very, very talented guy," Tuck said. "I'm excited to work with him and hopefully we can develop him into kind of like how I was -- a young pro coming in with Osi and [Michael] Strahan. Hopefully we can do the same thing with him."

Initially, Tuck did wonder if the Giants had done enough to improve their defense after last season's 8-8 debacle, in which they finished 30th in the league in points allowed with 26.7 per game.

The Giants used five of their seven draft picks on defensive players, but did not take a middle linebacker until the fourth round, when they selected Nebraska's Phillip Dillard.

"I think the defensive moves this offseason helped us a lot, but I would have liked to have seen us do more," Tuck said. "But I trust [general manager] Jerry Reese. Jerry Reese has a proven track record."

The more Tuck thought about the Giants' offseason moves, the more he got excited with the prospects of rebounding from last year's fiasco. He loves the Antrel Rolle signing and said it was imperative to add a playmaking safety. He is eager to see what the safety tandem of Rolle and Kenny Phillips is capable of, provided Phillips returns healthy from knee surgery.

Tuck -- who had six sacks last season, down from the career-high 12 he had in 2008 -- also believes someone like Jonathan Goff, Chase Blackburn or Dillard will emerge at middle linebacker.

Perhaps the biggest addition, and main reason for Tuck's optimism, is new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who replaced Bill Sheridan.

"I really do feel the confidence in Perry is high," said Tuck. "We do feel very comfortable with our defensive coordinator."

Tuck said the talent on the Giants' defense is there for Fewell to mold. But the intimidating and aggressive defensive mentality that existed during the Giants' Super Bowl run must be rediscovered.

"The thing we have to do now is get back to our old selves," Tuck said. "It is more mental than talent. It is our mindset. Time will tell. I wish I was psychic and I could tell you that we are going to be like the end-of-the-season '07 defense. But who knows? We could come out and lay an egg again.

"But I don't think it will happen. We do have a lot of talent. We are getting healthy again. Hopefully we can get back to what Giant defense is all about."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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