ALBANY, N.Y. -- Five observations on the New York Giants, based on training camp practices of Aug. 4-5:
1. Entering his 12th NFL season, and with a résumé that includes two league sacks titles along with the single-season record for sacks, one might think left defensive end Michael Strahan is so far ahead of the learning curve that he can't be taught any new tricks. But Tim Lewis, a creative defensive coordinator who came to the Giants from the Pittsburgh Steelers, might disprove that notion. Under Lewis, the Giants will deviate at times from their base 4-3 defense and play some 3-4 fronts, the scheme from which most of Lewis' inventive ideas sprung while in Pittsburgh. So there will be occasions when Strahan will rush from a standup position. In those instances, Strahan probably will be aligned as a quasi-outside linebacker, but not always. In one front earlier this week, Strahan lined up in the middle of the defense and rushed from the inside. There are more new wrinkles, as well, that Lewis will bring from his seemingly endless bag of tricks and implement for a defense that statistically ranked No. 22 in the league last season. New outside linebackers Carlos Emmons and Barrett Green, both signed as unrestricted free agents, will get some pass rush opportunities while lined up at end on third down. Emmons has just five sacks in the past four years, and the bet here is he will beat that total in '04. Green will probably see some time as the nickel inside linebacker. Because he has some hybrid-type "edge" players, such as second-year defensive end Osi Umenyiora and rookie Reggie Torbor, the crafty Lewis will find ways to take advantage of their athleticism on the outside. He will also use strong safety Shaun Williams, a superior athlete who has never quite fulfilled his potential or made many big plays, to help pressure the line of scrimmage. Look for him to get some pass rushes from the slot or from inside. Lewis will rush defenders from all sorts of unusual angles and bring pressure from unexpected spots. In short, a defense that too often has taken on the persona of an historically conservative franchise is going to get juiced up considerably this season. One benefit Lewis gets is that, with Strahan the lone returning starter in the front seven, everyone is learning the new defense together.
2. In the last several seasons, the Giants' brass just kind of assumed that miracle worker offensive line coach Jim "Mouse" McNally would find a way to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad, to somehow craft a workable unit. But not even McNally, clearly one of the NFL's premier line mentors, had enough magic to overcome the catastrophic spate of injuries that doomed the line last season. McNally is gone now, and the task of revamping the Giants' line is on Pat Flaherty and Pat Ruel. The latter wasn't hired until early June, when it was announced that Flaherty is battling cancer. Make no mistake, the o-line is the area in most critical need of an upgrade. Left tackle is solid, with the very good Luke Petitgout, but the opposite tackle spot is anything but settled. At this early juncture of camp, undistinguished third-year veteran Ian Allen is running with the No. 1 unit, but it remains to be seen how long that lasts. Allen started 11 games in 2003, but no one knows if he is the answer. There remains a strong suspicion that the Giants eventually will move second-year right guard Dave Diehl, who started 16 games as a rookie, to right tackle. That would allow the staff to slide rookie second-rounder Chris Snee into the lineup at right guard. The other two spots, left guard and center, are manned by former Browns linemen Barry Stokes and Shaun O'Hara, respectively, both of whom were signed as free agents this spring. Neither will wow anyone, but they have 70 starts between them and know how to play the game. Wayne Lucier and Rich Seubert, who combined for 17 starts a year ago, are both recovering from '03 injuries. Especially in the case of Seubert, the timetable for his return is unknown. There is some concern Seubert might not be able to play until 2005. During the Thursday morning practice, the coaches began using some new combinations on the line, as Diehl worked at right tackle with the second unit to get him some time at the position. Expect the club to play a variety of combinations in the preseason, and the shuffling to continue, in an attempt to find the five best guys. We can't emphasize enough the significance of being able to fix the line.
3. Coach Tom Coughlin wants to reduce the workload of running back Tiki Barber this year. And he has made it abundantly clear that Barber must reduce his proclivity for fumbling. On the latter issue, Coughlin has altered the manner in which Barber holds the football, telling him to get it closer to his torso. To suggest that there were times Barber looked relatively uncomfortable in the two practices we saw, kind of like an old-school fullback covering the ball with both hands, would be an understatement. Clearly, the more time that Barber spends with the new technique, the more natural the act will become for him. We think. Coughlin isn't going to tolerate fumbling, though, so short of installing a handle on the ball, Barber, who has fumbled 35 times the past four seasons and lost 17 of them, has to find a way to quit putting the thing on the ground so often. Coughlin hoped to cut Barber's carries -- he totaled 582 the past two seasons, far too many rushes for a back who plays at only about 200 pounds and tends to wear down -- by getting something out of former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Of course, if he gets one carry out of Dayne, that would be more work than the 2000 first-rounder contributed in 2003, when Jim Fassel's staff kept him inactive for all 16 games. The problem is, Coughlin sees Dayne as a short-yardage and goal-line back. And Dayne, who maybe ought to invest in a full-length mirror, still fancies himself a scatback. Dayne didn't help himself during a live, goal-line session earlier this week when, instead of attacking the middle of the line, he ducked around end. The Coughlin Conundrum at tailback: If he can't resuscitate Dayne's flagging career, how can he cut back on Barber's carries? It doesn't appear that the other journeyman-type backs on the roster hold the answer. Notable is that, on Wednesday, the Giants auditioned free agent running back Stacey Mack, who played for Coughlin in Jacksonville. The Giants weren't ready to sign Mack yet, but they could be soon.
4. Good news in the secondary: The "Brothers Will," cornerbacks Will Allen and Will Peterson, look nearly whole again after a 2003 season marred by injuries to both cover guys. Allen did experience some pain in his surgically-repaired foot Thursday, and he may have to cut back a bit, but the issue doesn't appear to be serious. The corners missed 15 games between them in 2003, and their absences really forced the secondary into a scramble mode. If they are healthy, Peterson and Allen, who were both drafted in 2001 and have been starting together since the final month of their rookie seasons, will again provide the Giants with one of the top cornerback duets in the league. Allen is the better cover man, a smooth and fluid defender with excellent speed, and the ability to shut down receivers for long stretches. During the Wednesday practice, he looked to have retained most of his burst to the ball. Peterson, who played just five games in '03 because of a stress fracture in his back, is certainly the more physical of the pair. The Giants have quietly begun preliminary talks with Peterson's representatives about an extension. The team needs to begin developing a young nickel corner. For now, it appears itinerant veteran Terry Cousin will open the season in that key role.
5. New York has a very good starting wide receiver tandem in Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, but has needed to develop a No. 3 guy for the past few seasons. If he can stay healthy, which hasn't happened yet in his two-year career, star-crossed former second-round pick Tim Carter might finally fill the hole. The former Auburn star, still one of the fastest players in the NFL despite suffering a ruptured Achilles during his 2002 rookie campaign, has looked very good in camp. And, knock on wood, has been able to dodge the injury bug. Carter made a spectacular catch during the Wednesday afternoon practice, extending his body to haul in a pass and get his feet down just inside the deep right corner of the end zone. Carter had 26 receptions for 309 yards in 12 games last season, before being sidelined by concussions for the remainder of the season. That's an average of just 11.9 yards per catch. With his speed, Carter should average at least in the 15-yard range. Coughlin has said encouraging things to Carter, but the new Giants' boss disdains players who are always hurt, so the third-year veteran desperately needs to stay on the field. If Carter fails to grab the No. 3 job, don't count out another often-injured veteran, much-traveled JaJuan Dawson. A former Cleveland third-rounder, Dawson is now with his fourth different franchise in four years, and this might be his last shot. He lacks the raw speed of Carter, but Dawson is an intriguing guy, with good size, solid hands, and toughness through the center of the field. We've liked him ever since we saw Dawson playing at Tulane, on those occasions we visited my daughter there. One young wideout to watch is sixth-round pick Jammar Taylor, who has made a speedy recovery from knee surgery. The coaches really like Taylor, who has demonstrated some grit, but he's not quite all the way back physically yet, and might not be until sometime around mid-season.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.