EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- The plan early in the offseason was to move Mathias Kiwanuka back to defensive end.
With Osi Umenyiora certain to leave in free agency, the Giants were ready to put away Kiwanuka’s linebacker duties and return him to his natural position, to rotate in behind Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
It made all the sense in the world with Umenyiora leaving for Atlanta. But now the shift takes on even more significance with Pierre-Paul’s recent back surgery. Kiwanuka will start at defensive end until Pierre-Paul is ready to return.
Considering that Tom Coughlin can’t say whether Pierre-Paul will be ready for the season opener about 13 weeks from now, Kiwanuka could very well start at Dallas on Sept. 8.
Losing Pierre-Paul for any extended amount of time is a serious blow to the Giants' defense, but they have the luxury of plugging in Kiwanuka, who relishes the opportunity to show why he should be a full-time pass-rusher in this league again.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Kiwanuka said of how confident he is returning to defensive end. “That was the position I came into this league playing, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. Obviously, we would love to have [Pierre-Paul] back, and I’m sure he’ll be back ready to go at a certain point. But we’re not going to rush him back for any reason.”
The estimated timetable for Pierre-Paul’s recovery is 12 weeks, which would take him to a week before the season opener. But there really is no reason why the Giants should be anything but conservative with one of the cornerstones of the franchise.
Kiwanuka allows the Giants to not rush the Pro Bowl defensive end back. And Kiwanuka knows what it's like to start in place of an injured star end.
In 2008, he entered training camp as the starting strongside linebacker but ended up moving to right defensive end when Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Kiwanuka started all 16 games and had a career-high eight sacks that year.
“I remember Osi going down, and I think me and Kiwi had probably our best years as a professional,” said Tuck, who had a career-high 12 sacks in 2008. “The one thing about this unit I am not worried about is we will be ready to play when we need to be ready to play.”
Since returning from a bulging herniated disk that ended his season in 2010 after three games, Kiwanuka has started at strongside linebacker while also rotating in as a defensive end on passing downs.
He has a total of 6.5 sacks the past two years while working in a hybrid role. But last season, he saw his tackles dip from 84 in 2011 to 37, as defensive coordinator Perry Fewell mixed in different packages.
“We felt like, in the middle of the season, toward the end [of last year], that Kiwi wasn’t really comfortable with what we were asking him to do,” defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. “And so we felt that he would be more comfortable at defensive end.
“We were able to tell him that early, and he is really off to a good start. So he looks solid.”
Kiwanuka has always done whatever the team has asked of him. He’s been a defensive end, switched to linebacker, played a hybrid role and overcome a serious injury. Now he’s ready to show everybody what position he was drafted to play -- again.
“It’s been a long road for me,” Kiwanuka said. “I’ve been starting at multiple positions. I’ve been up and down and back and forth. Moving around and changing ... that’s not the big deal to me.
“The big deal for me is going out there and making sure that I do my job correctly and when I get the opportunity I make the best of it.”