Most people felt that Chase Blackburn would be on the bench by now, returned to special-teams duty and replaced on the defense by second-year linebacker Mark Herzlich. Instead, Blackburn has taken nearly every defensive snap this season while Herzlich has hardly seen the field.
Of course Blackburn has felt the heat from Herzlich. He used to be the flame himself.
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"You always know someone is behind you," said Blackburn, who for most of his career was the guy behind the starter. "There are two ways to accept everything, You can face it head on and get better and grow from it, or you can go in the tank and be worried about someone always lurking over you. There's two ways to take everything."
Like Blackburn, Herzlich came into the league as an undrafted free agent. Unlike Blackburn, Herzlich was projected to be a first- or second-round pick before he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Herzlich has beaten that disease and has mostly regained the form that made him one of the top linebackers in college football when he was at Boston College.
If both Blackburn and Herzlich were put in shorts and T-shirts for a combine today, Herzlich would likely beat Blackburn out easily. But when it comes to the Giants' defense -- a system Blackburn knows better than anyone with the possible exception of Perry Fewell -- it's Blackburn's job.
"To be honest, if I had to play behind anyone, I'd want to play behind Chase," Herzlich said, grateful for the tutoring that Blackburn has provided both him and fellow second-year linebacker Spencer Paysinger. "He understands that he's a mentor. He's played for a long time and he knows a lot of things that we don't know. He doesn't keep that to himself, he shares that and he kind of guides us. If I'm going to be a backup for any team, I'm so happy that I'm a backup for this team and behind him."
Herzlich was, in fact, the Giants' starting linebacker last year. For two games he held the job. He sprained his ankle in a loss to the Saints, though, an injury that prompted the re-signing of Blackburn. Since then, he's seen only a handful of plays on defense: a few in mop-up duty in the blowout of the Panthers in Week 3 and a couple on goal-line situations.
"You have to switch your mind-set to 'I'm a starter on special teams,' " Herzlich said of dealing with being a backup who would likely be starting for most NFL teams. "Rather than being the best linebacker on the field each game, I have to be the best right guard on punt or I have to be the best rover on kickoff returns. That's how you have to think about it."
Herzlich hasn't given up on his goal of starting.
"Last year, getting a taste of what it was like to start was awesome," he said. "I felt confident and I do feel confident that I can handle that responsibility and that role. Whenever that role comes for me, I'll be ready for it."
Blackburn has managed to hold off Herzlich so far. But eventually -- perhaps later this season or next season -- Herzlich likely will become the Giants' starter. When he does, he'll have Blackburn's imprint on him.
"I think Mark will be a good middle backer going forward," coach Tom Coughlin said, "because he's learning from a good one."