Rivals share respect, understanding of each other

PHILADELPHIA -- They first met eight years ago, when the world was young and their knees and shoulders didn't ache nearly so much.

On Sunday, Giants left defensive end Michael Strahan and Eagles right offensive tackle Jon Runyan meet for the 13th time. It is a classic, cosmic collision featuring an extremely irresistible force and a thoroughly immovable object.

The Giants lead the NFC East with a surprising 8-4 record, while Philadelphia, the defending NFC champion, is struggling at 5-7 and is coming off a disturbing 42-0 home loss to the Seahawks. For these two proud men, however, records don't matter much.

It's personal for these division rivals. Very personal. Several weeks ago, the two Pro Bowl players agreed to sit down and discuss their most notable, most effective one-on-one opponent.

"Holds a lot," said Strahan of Runyan, laughing. "Extremely strong. Competitive, and probably the one guy that I've played who probably stokes my fire just about more than anyone else."

"It's not holding until it gets called," Runyan countered. "You can't hold him anyway, because I think his jersey is painted on."

They kid each other easily, but it is clear from the tone of their words that respect is a significant part of the equation. Strahan, at 34, plays these days at 6-foot-5, 253 pounds. Runyan, who stands just over 6-7, is 32 and weighs 320. Strahan, one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history, has a primary objective: reach the passer. It is Runyan's job to neutralize him.

"I would compare pass-rushing to playing chess," Strahan said. "You just try to set up a guy to do what you want him to do at the right moment. You have to want to get the quarterback more than he wants to keep you off of him. Your desire has to be greater than an offensive lineman's."

Yet, it takes much more from Runyan than desire to keep Strahan away from his intended target.

"The biggest thing," Runyan said, "is to get hands on people. I have athletic ability, but I'm not the most athletic tackle out there. I was big in math and sciences in school; those things came easy to me. I just play the geometry game, play the angles, get in front of them and take away their angles."

Cataclysmic collision
Strahan is an exceptional combination of speed and power, and he has the numbers to prove it.

In 2001, he set an NFL single-season record with 22½ sacks. In 187 career games, Strahan has recorded 127½ sacks. Through 12 games this season, Strahan has 9½ sacks, tied for No. 4 in the league. Osi Umenyiora, the Giants' right defensive end, is tied for the league lead with 11. He has benefited from opposing offenses' general philosophy of double-teaming Strahan, who is only five sacks behind the Giants' all-time leader, Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

In their first meeting this season, three weeks ago at Giants Stadium, Strahan was held without a sack -- but the Giants won 27-17. In their 12 meetings, Runyan's team has won seven.

Offensive linemen, like baseball umpires, are better served by anonymity. Runyan, nonetheless, has developed some nice numbers. He played in the 2002 Pro Bowl and is currently working on a streak of 140 consecutive games, including 16 playoff contests, all the way back to 1997, his second season with the Tennessee Titans.

According to the official statistics, Strahan has produced 11½ sacks in the dozen games he has faced Runyan. It's possible not all of those can be attributed to Runyan. The Eagles' protection schemes often call for the right guard to help Runyan and sometimes the tight ends and fullbacks are involved. All things considered, Runyan has held his own.

"I'll take that to the bank any day of the week," Runyan said, laughing. "And he makes a lot more money than I do."

After a standout career at Michigan and four seasons in Tennessee, Runyan was signed by the Eagles as a coveted free agent in 2000. This provided enormous incentive for Strahan.

"I was told that they signed him to stop me," said Strahan, who has spent his whole 13-year career with the Giants. "And it bothered me. Somebody could have lied, but it really worked. Still bothers me."

Fastball, curve, changeup
Pass-rushers are similar to pitchers. There are only a few basic pitches; it's how you vary their speed and location that matters.

Strahan acknowledged that he has three basic moves: (1) the straight-ahead bull rush; (2) the fake bull rush, swipe-your-hand-away-and-go-outside move; and (3) the fake bull rush/fake swipe and come back inside move.

"I always have to have a plan because he's the guy who you can't let him get his hands on you," Strahan said. "Once he latches onto you, it's over."

The element of surprise is critical.

"I run over you, the power sets you up," Strahan said. "If I power someone, keep bulling a guy, in your head, you're thinking, 'How do I let this little guy push me back to the quarterback? It's embarrassing.' So after two or three times of that, and when I come up and look like I'm going to power you, and you set your feet and you shoot your hands, then I can chop your hands and go outside.

"Then I'll come up and power you again. I'll come up, and I may chop your hands, and you may beat me twice on that, but then I'll come up a third time and I'll chop your hands and you think I'll go outside -- but then I'll come inside on you."

The shortest distance to the quarterback, obviously, is the inside route. During the game, Strahan waits and searches for the critical time when he can take that destructive path.

At the same time, Runyan, who is significantly bigger but slower, is trying to lure Strahan into the vortex that is his massive body.

"There'll be times when you hit each other exactly the same and nothing will happen," Runyan said. "You'll just be standing there -- and ultimately, that's just what you want. That is my battle when I play Michael, is getting to that point and being square and being low, and giving him nothing but to run through me. That is my objective."

Runyan's fondest memory against Strahan came in his second game with the Eagles in Week 9 of the 2000 season.

"He came up inside me, and I had him," Runyan said. "I took him all the way to the other tackle, and I put him on his back. I kind of fell off him and he got up screaming, and punching me in the back and hitting me in the back of the head. And he was standing over the top of me and I scooped his knee and I picked him up and slammed him.

"It was like, 'I'm here to play, too.'"

However, Strahan got redemption two months later in the playoffs, and the meeting changed Runyan's approach forever. The two teams had already faced each other twice and Strahan had managed only one-half of a sack. On that day at Giants Stadium, Strahan was dominant.

One of his two sacks was memorable.

"You see little old me mosey off the ball, give a little shake and shimmer, punch him, a mountain of a man … and the mountain crumbles down," Strahan recalled, beaming. "Then I basically step on his chest, hit Donovan [McNabb] in his chest, Donovan fumbles the ball and we recover. Now, I'm not trying to downgrade him, because he's a great player, but that was just an incredible thing to happen. Every time I see it, I smile and say, 'Wow, that was pretty good.'"

That game, which the Giants won 20-10 on their way to Super Bowl XXXV, prompted Runyan to rethink his position.

"He ran me over two times in a row and forced two fumbles in that game," Runyan said. "I'm coming out high and he hits you high and you're doing nothing but coming straight over backwards. That is not a good feeling.

"I don't get into the two-point stance anymore. I had to take out the thigh boards in my pads because they were digging into my ribs, because I start so low in my stance now. If you watch the film from behind, I play lower than most guards and centers."

The goal of both players: to control the leverage between them.

"It's a dance, and you want to be the lead," Strahan said. "I'm leading in the tango, and you try to be the guy who's swinging and dipping.

"You don't want to be the one who gets dipped."

Said Runyan, "There's a point where you can lean on a guy and use your body weight on him, but if you lean too far, he can use it against you. If you turn your shoulders, he's going to set that up and come right back inside on you -- that's his move."

Gaining command of that leverage, in the speed of a collision, can be a matter of a few inches, or a few pounds. In a fierce and sometimes brutal game between two battle-tested adversaries, superior footwork and finesse often prevail.

Both players have made concessions to the advancing years.

Strahan lost 20 pounds during the offseason because he felt the need to compensate for a loss of speed. Runyan consciously lost 10 pounds to help his body recover more quickly from games.

"The body just doesn't let you maul people anymore," Runyan said. "You've just got to dance with people like that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.