As the Michael Strahan era officially ended Tuesday and many looked back at a great career, one New York Giant was thinking about the future.
Like most fans, the Giants knew this day was coming, but the writing was on the wall even before Strahan's extended hold out last summer. That's why the team drafted Kiwanuka, a defensive end out of Boston College, in 2006.
At the time, defensive end didn't appear to be an immediate need worthy of a first-round pick, but the Giants knew that Kiwanuka's athleticism, non-stop motor and work in the film room would find a spot in their lineup.
After working predominantly as a situational pass rusher during his rookie season, Kiwanuka willingly made the transition to outside linebacker in 2007 with Osi Umenyiora becoming a force opposite Strahan and Justin Tuck getting more time in the defensive end rotation. Kiwanuka responded with solid results until a broken leg ended his season in Week 11.
While the expectation has been that Kiwanuka would be ready to take over for Strahan as the strong side end, he is able to do much more than just rush the passer. His invaluable experience at linebacker combined with the aggressive schemes of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could allow Kiwanuka to have a bigger impact than most realize.
The six-foot-5, 265-pounder will be all over the field and will help Spagnuolo and the Giants play the matchup game against opposing offenses. Justin Tuck will take over left defensive end on run down situations, while the recent signing of Reynaldo Wynn fills the backup role left open as everyone moves up a notch.
What that means is opposing quarterbacks will have to take note of where Kiwanuka is lined up. Expect to see him aligned as the strong-side linebacker on run downs. On third down and in obvious passing situations like the two-minute drill, Kiwanuka could put his hand in the dirt and work from the defensive end spot with Tuck sliding inside as a pass rushing defensive tackle, giving the Giants three down rushers.
Spagnuolo makes extensive use of a fire-zone blitz package that brings pressure from several different points on the field, which would also allow Kiwanuka to take shots at the quarterback as a stand-up rusher.
Kiwanuka has a lean build and sometimes struggles to hold up at the point of attack in the run game, meaning his best position on this Giants team is at strong-side linebacker. It allows him to use his speed and athleticism to run to the ball as his motor and closing speed make him a threat in back-side pursuit on runs going the opposite direction.
Granted, Kiwanuka is still raw when dropping into coverage, but he is tall and can get into the passing lanes (he has two career interceptions). His ability to play linebacker allows the Giants to keep Umenyiora and Tuck at the ends and put their best 11 defenders on the field.
But look for Spagnuolo to find ways to have the group playing to their strengths while mixing his looks. Linebacker Gerris Wilkinson will step in for the departed Kawika Mitchell and will also be a threat in the blitz package. The Giants like to drop defensive tackles into coverage in their version of the fire zone, which means that any combination of players could be coming at the quarterback on any given play.
Much was made of Tuck's ability to play inside or outside during the Super Bowl win. Combined with Kiwanuka's versatility and the emergence of Wilkinson, the Giants seem poised to put pressure on the quarterback as they did during their title run.
The only reason that's the case is because they prepared for a future without Strahan.
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