Starts stopped, but Deon Grant didn't

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From the moment Tom Coughlin informed him that Kenny Phillips would start ahead him in the season opener, Deon Grant said it took him roughly a day and a half to adjust to his new role.

But those who spend the most time with Grant know better.

"Oh, it probably took him a couple of weeks," New York Giants safeties coach Dave Merritt said, laughing.

"It's still tough on him," safety Antrel Rolle said.

When Grant returns to Seattle, where he played the previous three seasons, he arrives as basically the Giants' third starting safety. While he may not be a starter in name, Grant plays nearly as much as Rolle and Phillips because the Giants love using all three safeties on the field together.

Grant has become one of the Giants' most versatile players, a 6-foot-2 safety who moonlights as a linebacker. Having made big plays this season with two interceptions and two forced fumbles and recoveries, the 11-year veteran is a key chess piece in Perry Fewell's defensive arsenal and is one of general manager Jerry Reese's best additions this year.

"Just the plays Deon has made as a WILL linebacker, as a safety on the back end, and the fact that the offenses can't all of the sudden pinpoint who is the strong [safety], who is the free [safety], who is down in the box and who is not, because we have all of those guys who can do it all," Merritt said, describing Grant's impact on a defense that has impressed during the Giants' four-game winning streak.

"If you look at [Grant's] snap total, he has played almost 280 snaps on defense whereas my two starters have played 300-and-something snaps. So he is a starter. And winning helps a whole lot."

Signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, Grant was supposed to provide the team with depth, experience and be an insurance policy in case Phillips wasn't ready to return after undergoing knee surgery last year.

Grant, 31, knew he was brought in to keep the seat warm until Phillips returned. But the safety, who quickly became one of the more well-liked veterans in the locker room, just didn't think Phillips would make it back in time to start the entire season.

After Coughlin broke the news to Grant on the Wednesday before the season opener against Carolina, Grant supported Phillips. But he couldn't hide his frustration to reporters, making it clear that he didn't view himself as a backup.

After all, Grant had started 144 consecutive regular-season games, the fifth-longest active streak entering the season behind Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Ronde Barber and London Fletcher.

"I know what I had shown and knew what I could do," said Grant, whose streak started in Carolina and extended through stops in Jacksonville and Seattle. "I didn't know that Kenny was ready at that particular point. I had some games under my belt [in the preseason] to show that I am for real, I really can still play this game."

Grant was so distraught, he decided not to have his daughter, De'Yon, come watch him in the season opener as planned. He didn't want to explain to his 10-year-old, who lives in Atlanta, why her daddy wasn't playing as much as he normally does.

"If she saw that situation, she would ask me a million questions," Grant said. "And at that point, I didn't feel like going through, as far as telling her what was going on."

The plan, though, was to play all three safeties often, regardless of who started. When the Giants drafted Chad Jones, an athletic safety out of LSU, in the third round in April, Fewell began plotting three-safety schemes.

When Jones was lost for the year in a car accident in late June, the Giants opted to expand their three-safety package instead of scrap it.

"Deon has a lot more experience. We're able to do a lot more than what I foresaw doing with Chad, but not a whole lot," Fewell said. "I think that we've grown as we've developed the package and we've developed roles that the different players can play."

In that season-opening 31-18 win over Carolina –- the team that drafted him in the second round in 2000 -- Grant intercepted a pass in the end zone in the first quarter to stop an early scoring threat.

Even though his streak ended, Grant started four games in mostly nickel packages this season. He picked off a pass against Chicago and delivered his best game of the season in a 28-20 victory over Detroit. Starting as an extra defensive back, Grant had a team-high 10 tackles and one quarterback hit. He came up with his biggest play of the season when he hit Nate Burleson to force a fumble. Landing on top of Burleson, Grant somehow found the ball underneath the receiver and recovered the fumble to stop the Lions as they were attempting a fourth-quarter comeback.

"He always seems to come up with a big play, whether recovering a fumble or an interception," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "He was a guy who wasn't mentioned earlier in the year when they talked about potential leaders, but he has absolutely assumed that role."

After Coughlin told him that his starting streak would end, Grant said he spoke to several friends and relatives. He said his mother and a good friend eased his frustration by telling him that there was a purpose to why he was in New York.

"To come and be a true leader," Grant said of his new role.

And the best thing is that Grant doesn't have to worry about explaining anything to little De'Yon anymore.

"No," he said with a smile. "Because it looks like I am starting."

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

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