Missing weak-side linebacker Michael Boley, the Giants' defensive signal-caller who is looked upon as the nerve center of the unit, coordinator Perry Fewell went with a rookie rotation at linebacker to complement veteran Mathias Kiwanuka against the Eagles Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.
Free agent Mark Herzlich, the cancer survivor from Boston College, got his first NFL start and first defensive snaps at middle linebacker in place of fellow rookie Greg Jones. Sixth-round draft pick Jacquian Williams was listed as the replacement for Boley, who suffered a hamstring injury the previous week at San Francisco, and Spencer Paysinger, another undrafted free agent, also saw significant action.
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Fewell used a variety of lineup combinations that kept veteran strong-side linebacker Kiwanuka on the field while rotating Herzlich, Williams and Paysinger close to every other play. Herzlich and Kiwanuka often were paired as the linebackers in a nickel alignment with five defensive backs even on first down. When the Eagles were in third-down situations, Williams and Paysinger often came in together. When Fewell went with three linebackers, it was Herzlich and Paysinger with Kiwanuka more often than not.
Although Philadelphia took a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter, it had little to do with the rookie linebackers, who acquitted themselves well. They helped contain running back LeSean McCoy to 43 yards rushing on 14 carries through three quarters, and the Eagles converted only three of nine third-down plays. Most of McCoy's yardage came on one play when the Giants' linebackers had him stopped going left and McCoy reversed field and went 18 yards.
Starting the fourth quarter, Herzlich stuffed McCoy for no gain on a second-down play, then Williams tackled tight end Brent Celek short of the first down. The Giants then drove for the tying touchdown.
Herzlich was one of the first free agents the Giants called when the NFL lockout ended. He was an All-American at BC before contracting Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that caused him to sit out a season.
"The better I play, the better my story gets," Herzlich said last week. "I've beaten cancer, it's in my past, but at the same time, I continue to be proud of what I've accomplished."
Until Sunday night, Herzlich's action had all come on special teams, so it was really special to man the middle as he did at Boston College. "I'm itching to play defense," Herzlich said. "I've been playing special teams my whole life, too. To people who don't play in the league or follow it real closely, they think special teams is just something off to the side. We take a lot of pride in special teams. If I get a chance in defense, great; if I don't, I'll get my pride on special teams."
With four rookies in a six-man linebacking corps, the young guys have formed a special bond. "We're all competing to be here," Herzlich said. "One thing that's great about the linebackers is we all want each other to do well. We all understand winning as a team is more important than anyone's personal success."