Wednesday was a bit of a strange practice for the Giants defense. They were on the field going through their regular preparations for the upcoming game against New England, but something wasn’t quite right. There was an absence that was palpable.
Bobby Okereke was missing.
The starting inside linebacker has become such an invaluable fixture in such a short period of time for this team that him merely having a day off from the workouts was jarring to the rest of the players.
“Obviously, everybody steps up and does their job, but having that vocal leader, the tone-setter, the guy who relays the calls throughout the defense, when you are used to having somebody do that for 11 or 12 weeks it’s kind of weird not having him out there,” fellow linebacker Micah McFadden told Newsday of the vacancy left by Okereke.
That they might have to play without him on Sunday is almost unimaginable
It’s not something Okereke can picture, either, even though he has a fractured rib on the left side. He suffered the injury in the first half of the win over the Commanders, didn’t even miss a snap because of it — a mix of adrenaline and Ben Gay got him through the rest of that day he said — and he doesn’t plan on missing any plays moving forward. He skipped Wednesday’s practice to heal up but says this little ding that would cripple most normal people wouldn't affect his job or his playing time on Sunday.
“It’s not too bad,” he said. “I’ve played through worse.”
This year, in fact. In the loss to Buffalo last month he suffered an avulsion fracture — essentially a piece of the bone was chipped off — in his left pinky that he said was more painful than this rib affliction. It was the same finger he dislocated when playing for the Colts last year. That injury cost him a handful of snaps that he still mutters about for preventing him from a perfect season having played every defensive down.
It’s tenacity and toughness like that which makes Okereke stand out as perhaps the best free agent signing by the Giants since they landed Antrel Rolle in 2010. There have been a lot of disappointments brought in on deals that wound up being lopsidedly awful since then, almost an entire roster that could be filled with poor decisions by the front office. Okereke, though, has been a find. His four-year, $40 million contract signed in the spring already looks like a bargain.
Okereke is tied for fifth in the NFL with 105 tackles so far this year. His four forced fumbles are the second-most in the league. He is the only player in the NFL with 100 or more tackles and six or more passes defensed.
“He's done a nice job for us,” coach Brian Daboll said. “He’s made a lot of plays, smart player, he’s a very good teammate. It's not always easy to become a leader when you're in the first year of a program where you come in as a new free agent. He’s done that. He's been a good leader for us, not just on the defensive side, but for the entire team.”
That he made the game-changing play in Sunday’s win over Washington with his rib already cracked, punching the ball away from running back Chris Rodriguez late in the third quarter with the Giants clinging to a 14-12 lead, only solidified his status as the centerpiece of the unit.
“He played like three quarters of the game with a broken rib,” marveled McFadden, who recovered Sunday’s loose ball. “He’s a tough [expletive]. He’s been dealing with stuff all year and has never flinched, never a guy who asked for a day off. A lot of respect for him.”
Okereke’s propensity for poking the football loose is something he has been working on since college. As his career at Stanford progressed, he said, he was able to become more comfortable with the system and start adding extra elements to his game such as understanding when and how to punch at the pigskin. He said he sat in on offensive meetings in training camp with the Giants when coaches would stress ball security techniques just so he would be able to recognize lapses in those skills from opponents. He called such flaws “danger zones.” Over the last two seasons only Bradley Chubb and Alex Highsmith (7) have more forced fumbles than Okereke (6).
“He's crafty at doing it,” Daboll said. “Got long arms, he's got good timing on it. He's done a nice job with it, but some of it is just his natural ability and his instinctiveness as the play’s going on. He’s pretty good at it.”
Daboll didn’t seem too stressed about Okereke’s rib injury, even with him missing Wednesday’s practice. He’s also listed as having a hip injury. Again, a non-factor.
“I’d say he’s trending in the right direction,” Daboll said.
Okereke was more emphatic than that. He flat out said he’s playing even though he’ll likely wear a flak jacket or other protection on Sunday.
“Just making sure it’s not in a position where it can snap and touch internal organs, but it should be all clear on that end,” Okereke said. “It’s just a pain tolerance management thing.”
Okereke gets paid to do a job, after all. What kind of a free agent signing would he be if he didn’t hold up that end of his deal?
Like far too many of them in recent Giants history, sadly.