Pity Mathias Kiwanuka, a gifted pass rusher on a team glutted with them

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Mathias Kiwanuka. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Mathias Kiwanuka, who played linebacker in the Giants’ 49-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

In a game in which the Giants gave up the second-highest number of total yards in franchise history—a game that looked like a contest between mismatched high school teams that would yield similar results if played out 100 times—singling out Mathias Kiwanuka’s game in this space seems absurd.

Suffice it to say that like the rest of the Giants defenders, Kiwanuka—who has done yeoman work at linebacker this year—looked as bad as he has all season. He was a step or two behind in pass coverage, in the wrong place on running plays, and ineffectual as a pass rusher.

It wasn’t just the Giants players who came across as overmatched during last night’s telecast. The night before the game, the Saints allowed ESPN cameras access to a hotel planning session between quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton. Their jargon was incomprehensible, but the whole thing came across as an implicit challenge to the Giants’ coaching staff: Would they be able to counter this Manhattan Project-esque game-plan?

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When one of the very plays Peyton and Brees had discussed resulted in a Saints a touchdown and a 21-3 lead, the answer became obvious: No, they wouldn’t, and the resulting blowout leaves Giants fans questioning all facets of the organization.

So perhaps it’s fitting to focus on Kiwanuka, who, when he was drafted in 2006, became a symbol of the Giants organization's emphasis on finding and cultivating outstanding pass rushers. Yes, evidence of the fruits of this strategy has been absent for several games now, most acutely last night's, during which a poor pass rush exposed poor coverage and vice versa. But Giants fans remember that it was the selection of Kiwanuka that spawned the organization’s mantra in happier times: "You can never have too many pass rushers."

That’s how then-general manager Ernie Accorsi defended himself when critics pointed out that the Giants already had three talented defensive ends for two starting positions—Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Michael Strahan—with many other team needs to address.

Accorsi's words were vindicated the next year when the Giants' pass rush carried them to a Super Bowl title. Sure, there are only two listed “starters” at defensive end, but the Giants used three defensive ends on passing situations and led the league in sacks. In their Super Bowl upset of New England, nominal non-starter Justin Tuck was the most dominant player on the field.

Over the past several years, even the most stubborn traditionalists have come around to the fact that the N.F.L. is a passing league, and the only thing that can throw a wrench into today’s complex, machine-like offenses is a disruptive pass rush.

KIWANUKA, NOW 28, CERTAINLY LOOKS THE PART OF A DOMINANT pass rusher. He is prototypically angular and powerful, at 6-foot-5, 267 pounds, with an otherworldly first step and speed around the edge. Under different circumstances, it’s very conceivable he would have blossomed into a household name. But the Giants have taken pains to compile a surplus of guys that fit this profile, and Kiwanuka has been the surplus part.

Wanting to get him on the field in some capacity, the team has shifted Kiwanuka from defensive end to outside linebacker, a position that doesn’t match his physical attributes nearly as well. The constant switching, along with injuries, have precluded him from developing to his potential at either position.

Perhaps if Kiwanuka had been drafted before either Umenyiora (drafted in ’04) or Tuck (’05), the pecking order at defensive end would have been different. But the way things shook out, the player who spawned the phrase “you can never have too many pass rushers” only gets a handful of opportunities per game to rush the passer.

Bad timing is also to blame for Kiwanuka’s bargain-basement contract, a two-year deal that pays him $8.6 million over 2011 and 2012, which is remarkably low for a player of his talent in the prime of his career. Last year, Kiwanuka missed most of the season with a herniated disc in his neck. He has been healthy all year, but the injury depressed his market value during an off-season in which other pass-rushers netted huge paydays. (Carolina’s Charles Johnson got $32 million in guaranteed money, Oakland’s Kamerion Wimbley got $29 million, and Kansas City’s Ray Edwards got $11 million.)

If reports are to be believed, Kiwanuka has a clause in his contract that pays him extra for sacks. But the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul, the latest example of the Giants' adherence to the Accorsi mantra and the only Giants defender to acquit himself well last night, has limited Kiwanuka’s pass-rushing opportunities. So have injuries to other Giants linebackers which have rendered Kiwanuka, who has started roughly the equivalent of a season-and-a-half at linebacker, the most experienced healthy linebacker on the team.

The Giants’ inexperience at linebacker is a good a place to start when looking at what went wrong last night. Pass coverage is the hardest facet of the game for inexperienced linebackers because it involves making reads before the play and then quickly reacting to the subtlest of keys. It’s even harder when the other team has a coach who might go the Hall of Fame for his knack for exploiting defensive vulnerabilities, a tight end and running back who are among the league’s best receivers at their positions, and a quarterback who is leading the league in passing yards.

The painful thing for the Giants now is that while Kiwanuka is locked in by necessity at linebacker, the team has suddenly sprung a leak at defensive end. Umenyiora injured his ankle last night, and it's not known whether or how long it will keep him out. Tuck has been severely hampered by neck and groin injuries this year, with his play slipping to the point that he told reporters two weeks ago, “I do suck. I am a very honest person.”

If only the Giants had more pass rushers.