EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Born 21 days apart in March 1983, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka have become the New York Giants' answers at defensive end, an unlikely lot for both players, who arrived in obscurity at a position that looked so deep. What were Tuck and Kiwanuka possibly going to do with Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, two Pro Bowl ends strong in reputation and results, already holding it down?
Tuck was drafted in 2005, Kiwanuka in 2006. Last season, the Giants created ways to get both on the field en route to the Super Bowl championship. But before this season, Strahan retired. Umenyiora was lost because of a preseason knee injury. Tuck moved in at left end. Kiwanuka slid in at right end.
What the Giants are saying
DE Jerome McDougle
"Being in Philadelphia and being an Eagle, I was raised to hate the Giants. All of those guys were jerks, you know? But I've been impressed with the people here, and with Justin and Mathias in particular. They make the protection swing their way. When the quarterback takes just a little longer to get rid of it, they especially make him pay. They can play on all four downs, not just specific role players, and I really respect that. What's not to like about these guys? They play hard, and they're good. Sometimes in this league, you don't get both of those."
WR Amani Toomer
"Both are really good people, and they're a shining example of how you can never in this league be too upset about your situation because if you work hard and hang in there, things will change. They give us so much on the field, but off the field, that is a great example to have for the youngest players."
QB Andre Woodson
"They are very quick. They have great instincts in terms of knowing where the ball is going. They help our defensive backs and linebackers so much. They always seem under fire but know how to handle it. Very humble about their work, and we feed off that. They are different from the normal type of defensive ends that you see in the NFL, Kiwi with the wingspan and Tuck being so powerful. That's two guys a quarterback doesn't want to see. I think they both are motivated this week to really play the game in the backfield."
OL Kareem McKenzie
"Their speed helps free them up and free up other guys. They give offensive linemen trouble with inside and outside moves. They are very good at creating different lanes to the backfield. I usually go against Justin in practice. It's a help because he's about as tough to handle as any opponent you will face."
S Michael Johnson
"They are our beasts. They make plays that sometimes they aren't supposed to make. And that's what it's all about, making plays, being a playmaker in this league. Our whole line does that, and both guys are at the forefront. Kiwi is a softspoken monster. Tuck is an extremely hard worker."
Could they handle it?
Tuck sacked Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell on the Giants' first defensive play and rolled from there to a Pro Bowl season. Kiwanuka delivered 16 starts, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Both helped push the Giants to a 12-4 record, an NFC East championship and the conference's No. 1 playoff seed.
Can they handle it?
The Giants' defense aligned for 66 pass plays over two games against Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb this season and doesn't have a sack to show for it. Not just the sacks but the pressure decreased. This after the Giants in 2007 produced 12 sacks of McNabb, six by Umenyiora -- in one game. Add three more sacks in the teams' second meeting that season, and that's 15 sacks of McNabb in 2007. Zilch in 2008.
This is a thorny topic for Tuck and Kiwanuka.
"Hey, they've done a good job, kept more people in blocking, chipped more, done some good things, so give them credit," Tuck said of the Eagles' offense.
"This is really bothering us," Tuck admitted. "We haven't gotten the pressure on their quarterback that we normally do.
"Our defense puts a lot on the defensive line to dictate how the games go. We're up for it. We want to be known as the best in the country. To be that, you have to earn it in games like this."
Kiwanuka pointed to his playbook before offering his thoughts. Taped to its cover was this headline: "GIANTS 'D' LACKS SACK ATTACK."
He pointed to it again. He underlined it with his finger.
"We understand," Kiwanuka said. "I understand. This is something our defense does not like. We've got to get there on Donovan, get more pressure and get to him. In the 50 or 60 plays in a game, you aren't going to hit the quarterback every single time. And Donovan is Pro Bowl-caliber, a Hall of Fame quarterback, an elite-level guy to sack because he's smart and moves well and uses his protection well. But myself, each one of us, we know that we have to turn things up. We understand."
Increase the heat.
This is the signature of the Giants' defense -- pressure into the pocket from the front four and double the pressure from the ends. This is why Tuck and Kiwanuka were drafted, even though the Giants looked deep at end. They saw that Tuck was the all-time sacks leader at Notre Dame, saw that Kiwanuka was hammering quarterbacks at Boston College, and decided both were too valuable to pass. In the draft, the Giants always respect production. And versatility.
Tuck worked his way from special teams in his first two seasons to an increased role last season to a new contract before Super Bowl XLII to this commanding season. Kiwanuka was moved from end to linebacker after his rookie season. He played in 10 games last season before breaking his left leg.
When Umenyoria was lost this season, Kiwanuka was moved back to end.
"Some people would say that here is a first-round pick being moved around to start different positions, and that doesn't happen to first-rounders much," Kiwanuka said. "And at first, I started listening to that stuff and kind of lost myself. I think you have to respect this game, respect your team and your teammates, and learn to do what helps the team most. And once I got that mindset back into focus, I was OK, and things were OK.
"My focus this whole year is to get on that field in Tampa for the Super Bowl. I have a ring, yes. But I was hurt and missed being on that field last time. Helping to get us back and do what I can to be in Tampa has been my thing. It is my mission."
All around him understand that.
The Giants say Kiwanuka (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) has played more defensive snaps this season than any player. After gaining an extra week of rest because of the team's playoff bye, he should be particularly fresh, active, a handful. Tuck (6-5, 274) is known for his nimbleness, mixed with overwhelming strength. The Giants laud both players' work habits. Their intelligence. And their versatility, since both can play inside or outside on the line or drop into pass coverage.
Who has the answers?
The Giants believe that if Tuck and Kiwanuka can do this, not just the defense but the entire team will follow.
"We have a good mix on our entire defensive line, and Kiwi and I complement each other," Tuck said. "The spotlight is on us for this game. We know that. I think it's something you have to enjoy. We'll play ball -- and there will be nothing left behind from us on that football field after this game."