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Giants' once-stalwart defense completely falls apart

Justin Tuck grimaces on the sideline during a

Justin Tuck grimaces on the sideline during a 2009 loss. (Dec. 27, 2009) Credit: David Pokress

The pieces just never fit for the Giants' once-vaunted defense this season. The first-year defensive coordinator, $35 million in guaranteed money to three new players and a young secondary added up to not a whole lot for a unit that was thought to be the team's anchor.

Yesterday's 41-9 thrashing by the Panthers further exposed the rift between coordinator Bill Sheridan and Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "What did I play, five snaps today?" Umenyiora said before hustling out of the locker room. "I don't know what happened. Last game at Giants Stadium. Probably as a Giant. Just the way everything has unfolded has been unbelievable. I never would have dreamed this in a million years."

Said Justin Tuck: "I don't really know what didn't fit with the defense, but it was something. I guess we'll find out."

Sheridan got off on the wrong foot during the preseason when he confronted Umenyiora in a meeting and the defensive end bolted before practice. Sheridan, the linebackers coach the previous four seasons, had alienated one of his key players early, and then injuries hampered his group. Free agents Chris Canty (seven games) and Michael Boley (five games) missed time; safety Kenny Phillips, then middle linebacker Antonio Pierce were lost for the season.

But even when healthy, the Giants were less than the sum of their parts. "We had a lot of expectations, but things just didn't work out the way they were built up to be," said tackle Rocky Bernard, the other big free-agent addition. "We worked really hard to make it work."

Sheridan seems to be assured of not returning next season, but the Giants have plenty of personnel issues to confront. They have glaring needs at safety and cornerback, where Phillips and the oft-injured Aaron Ross can't be counted on for 2010. Pierce, who has been the on-field leader of the defense since he arrived in 2005, seems as assured of not being back as Sheridan.

Even Umenyiora, considered untouchable and the heir apparent to Michael Strahan, isn't a lock to return, even if Sheridan does not. Umenyiora is signed through 2012.

"When we came in, we used to think all of us could end our careers as New York Giants," Tuck said. "There's still a chance that could happen, but I guess sometimes it's wishful thinking."

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