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Everyone pitches in to fill shoes of Giants' Pierce

Antonio Pierce #58 of the New York Giants

Antonio Pierce #58 of the New York Giants during a NFL game against the Oakland Raiders. (October 11, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

In many ways, it's as if Antonio Pierce has never left.

"He's still here in practice, he's sitting in the meeting rooms, he's talking to the younger linebackers and he's still on the sidelines grabbing people and telling them, 'Hey, this is what's coming, this is what's happening,' " Mathias Kiwanuka said as the Giants prepared for the fourth game without their starting middle linebacker. "Without him, we wouldn't have been able to move past his absence."

It's helpful to have that kind of leadership on the sideline, but where the Giants need it is on the field. For years - even when Michael Strahan was putting together a Canton-sized pile of sacks - it was Pierce who was the dominant personality of the defense. He made the calls. He made the checks. He got people lined up in the right place. And he set the tone physically and emotionally.

None of those things can be accomplished from the sideline.

The Giants seem to have found a replacement for Pierce in Jonathan Goff; their middle linebacker of the future has become a player of the present. But when it comes to replacing the essence of Pierce, all the things he could do to help a defense, the Giants had to look elsewhere. And everywhere.

"Every guy on that side of the ball has leadership characteristics and each person brings something a little unique, a little bit different," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "I think that we all feed off it. It's important that we do that because it really isn't a one-man job out there on the football field."

Pierce made it into one, as have other middle linebackers who come to define their units. Think of Mike Singletary willing the other 10 Bears with his glare or Ray Lewis directing traffic as the soul of the Ravens. Those players are one-man bands, banging cymbals between their knees while they play a guitar and tackle running backs.

The closest thing the Giants have to that player right now is Michael Boley. He's wearing the radio in his helmet to get the calls from the sideline, he's making the calls in the huddle, and he's on the field more than any other linebacker.

He's also played only seven games as a Giant.

"Any time you have a leader like that and they go down, you have to look to someone," Boley said of his new role as defensive leader. "It's a work in progress. It's one of those things that it's tough to fill A.P.'s shoes."

The first thing Boley has had to do is earn the trust of his teammates.

"And that takes time," veteran linebacker Danny Clark said. "[Trust] is not just something we hand over freely. The more you go out there and prove to your teammates that you are accountable, that you can withstand the fire . . . that's something that he's done a great job of."

"Boley, he's the first one because he's got the headset on and he's making the calls and getting everybody lined up," Kiwanuka said. "He's done a real good job of filling that role."

But there have been others, too. Although Boley may be taking the largest share of Pierce's former responsibilities, the other players have been dividing the rest of them between them.

For communication, they turn to Boley. For emotion, they turn to Osi Umenyiora or, in last week's game against his former team in particular, Canty. For cerebral decision-making, they turn to Goff.

"When you lose a player of that magnitude, I don't think you can look for one person to stand up and do it," Kiwanuka said. "Everybody as a group has to step up. So you've got guys who are vocal so they take over the vocal part of A.P. You've got guys who are intense, so they take over the intensity part. Everybody has to play a little bit of a role."

Said Boley: "You get a little bit of [Pierce] from everybody."

Whether that division of labor can work remains to be seen. It worked last week against the Cowboys when the Giants played inspired (if not entirely airtight) defense. But does a team need a central figure to take control of everything the way Pierce did?

"In my opinion, I don't think you need that," Canty said. "You need a group of guys who really love playing together. That passion for the game and for each other is what's going to carry you through the ballgame, not just any one man."

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