COMMENTARY| This is an on-going feature, looking at N.F.L. stars who, for varying reasons, may be facing up to a critical season. Of course, everyone is under pressure in the Not For Long league but these guys are looking at a make or break campaign. This week, we’re looking at one player from each N.F.C. East team.
Justin Tuck – New York Giants, Defensive End.
The fact that we can even think of discussing Tuck is remarkable, and an indicator of how things have changed of late. Tuck announced his arrival as a premier player with his performance in Superbowl XLII where, in my opinion, he put in an M.V.P. performance. After Michael Strahan’s retirement, Tuck quickly became the leader of the fearsome Giants pass-rush and, while Osi Umenyiora continued to air his various grievances publicly, Tuck and young star Jason Pierre Paul continued to cause havoc in opposing backfields. Tuck was again instrumental in the run to the Superbowl XLVI. Quarterback-centric decision making aside, Tuck may have been a two time Superbowl M.V.P., which is remarkable.
In this close season, the Giants lost Umenyiora to the Falcons (finally keeping his long talked of promise of leaving in free agency) and Pierre Paul has just gone in for back surgery, meaning he may not be ready in time for the season. Pierre Paul had already broken out as the team’s rising star and Tuck, who battled injuries in the previous two seasons, has been far less effective. The Giants pass-rush, for so long their most effective weapon, is reliant on lesser known players coming through. Though New York has had success in recent times with bringing through younger, often unheralded talent, what was strength of the team is now a concern. The Giants don’t priorities linebackers when they draft, meaning they are relying on players of a more workmanlike pedigree and their secondary is talented (particularly Prince Amukamara) but still a work in progress. They were poor in pass coverage last year and could do with adding a veteran presence. For years, the Giants have been able to cope with these issues, thanks to the pressure their front four generates. That’s a huge responsibility for Tuck.
Justin Tuck needs to have a comeback year, while staying clear of injuries, and he needs to inspire those around him. With the Redskins and possibly the Eagles running a lot of read option plays, Tuck needs to make sure not to lose containment on running plays. Over pursuit is a danger, especially if Tuck tries too hard to get into the backfield and create pressure. Robert Griffin the Third made Tuck look old a few times last year, so he needs to remain disciplined and lead by example. If Pierre Paul is out, or limited, Tuck may see a few more double teams than he’s become used to, it is very hard to beat a double team and remain disciplined.
VERDICT – I predict a tough season for Tuck, chasing potentially three (if Michael Vick starts in Philly) elusive quarterbacks and, depending on Pierre Paul’s health, facing some double-teams. The Giants, for all their recent championship success, have been in the eight to ten regular season win range, even with their star defensive line. I see them as similar to last year, record-wise, and being on the playoff bubble but, if any team in the division is likely to slip, it could well be them.