Ends help Giants overcome woes on defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin could be forgiven for being a tad evasive and, oh, just a little vague.

Four days before his first playoff game with the New York Giants, the head coach was not exactly sure who would be lining up at linebacker and where.

"I don't know, we'll see," Coughlin said Wednesday. "I'll let you know when I see who's going to line up and how it's going to go. We need a couple of good, solid practice days in order to determine that."

We won't know for sure until Sunday, when the NFC wild-card game between the Giants and Carolina Panthers kicks off at 1 p.m. ET.

Dealing with Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (Pro Bowl, 103 catches, 1,563 yards, 12 touchdowns) and running back DeShaun Foster is tough enough, but the Giants' linebacking corps has been decimated by injuries.

Chase Blackburn was placed on injured reserve Dec. 26 with a neck sprain; Carlos Emmons landed there a day later with a pectoral tear. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, the team's second-leading tackler despite playing in only 13 games, is still wearing a cast on his sprained ankle. Reggie Torbor missed last week's game at Oakland with a sore hamstring. If Torbor can't go on Sunday, the Giants will play Kevin Lewis (cut in training camp, but re-signed on Dec. 26) in the middle, flanked by Nick Greisen on the weak side and Alonzo Jackson (signed from the Eagles' practice squad on Oct. 26) on the strong side.

The good news? The Giants' defensive ends -- Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora -- should more than compensate for any deficiencies behind them. While the offense, fueled by running back Tiki Barber and the emergence of Eli Manning at quarterback, is the Giants' calling card, it is the defense that will (or won't) allow them to progress in these playoffs.

Where would the 11-5 Giants be without Strahan and Umenyiora (pronounced YOU-men-YOUR-ah)? Offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, who wrestles with them both in practice, looked puzzled when the question came up.

"I really don't know," he said, frowning.

With their M&M defense -- hard on the outside, but soft on the inside -- the Giants will need every ounce of strength from their Pro Bowl bookends. The last two defensive end teammates to land a trip to Hawaii in the same season: the Dolphins' Jason Taylor and Trace Armstrong six seasons ago. The last Giants defensive ends? Jim Katcavage and Andy Robustelli -- in 1962.

Umenyiora, in his third season, recorded 14½ sacks, second in the league to the Raiders' Derrick Burgess. Strahan, who missed eight games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and put together a rousing comeback season at the age of 34, finished tied for seventh at 11½.

Their 26 combined sacks place them ahead of all the league's other pass-rushing duos: Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney of the Colts combined for 22½ sacks and the Steelers' Joey Porter and Clark Haggans produced a total of 19½.

The season began with offenses double- and sometimes triple-teaming Strahan and leaving Umenyiora, the right defensive end, alone against the left offensive tackle. As the season progressed, Umenyiora found himself drawing double teams more frequently. After Umenyiora broke out with two sacks against Seattle's perennial Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones, the secret was out. Now it is not uncommon for opponents to double both ends.

Truth is, Umenyiora has been a work in progress for all of his 25 years. In fact, the similarities between his career trajectory and Strahan's are remarkable.

Umenyiora was born in London and grew up in Nigeria. As a teenager, he followed siblings to Alabama and eventually played at obscure Troy State. Strahan, whose father was an Army man, graduated from American High School in Mannheim, Germany, and played his college football at obscure Texas Southern. They were both discovered by the Giants and drafted in the second round a decade apart.

"That's the most amazing part of it," Umenyiora said. "To have two players from the same team, who have that many similarities, who wind up in the Pro Bowl, it's kind of crazy."

"I've thought about it," Strahan said. "It can't be a reincarnation, because I'm still here, but maybe it's the second chapter in my life. We grew up around the world, basically, and I think that exposed us to a lot of things that have changed us."

Credit Strahan with drastically changing Umenyiora's world view.

As a rookie, Umenyiora wanted no part of extra film study or weight lifting. He was out the door at 4 p.m. each day, ignoring Strahan's pleas to stay after for extra work.

"He's like, 'You need to watch film, you need to lift weights, you need to do something to separate yourself from everybody else,'" Umenyiora remembered.

"He thought he knew everything," Strahan said. "I tried to explain it, but it went in one ear and out the other."

But when Strahan was injured and Umenyiora was confronted with a starting position, there was a new sense of urgency.

"First week I got hurt, he actually says, 'Will you come watch film with me?'" Strahan said, laughing.

"Michael, he's a student, and that's one of the greatest things he has given Osi," Barber said. "He's made him understand the intellectual part of the game."

And, perhaps unwittingly, Umenyiora has helped Strahan rekindle the fire that makes him a likely Hall of Famer.

"After 13 years you can get into a rhythm of just saying, 'OK, it's just another football game. I've done this before,'" Strahan said. "But when you have somebody who's new to it, who's excited about it, who's put in all the work to be great at it, it makes you say, 'Hey, I can't fall behind. I can't let Osi the new guy come in and beat me.'

"This training camp, going into his third year, before he has done anything, we are arguing about who is the better player. He's calling me Old Man, saying I'm washed up."

"It motivates you, and obviously it did with Michael," Barber said. "He looks as good as he's ever looked right now."

Neither player will say it, but it is quite possible that neither one of them would have made the Pro Bowl without the other. And it is their bond, strengthening with every day, that is the foundation of this team's defensive success.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.