The temporary loss of Jason Pierre-Paul to back surgery earlier this week came as a bit of a "surprise,'' Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Thursday. But fixing a defensive line whose performance declined last season is a top offseason priority, especially since the departure of free agent Osi Umenyiora to Atlanta.
Veteran Mathias Kiwanuka previously was slated to move from linebacker to replace Umenyiora as the third man in the defensive end rotation with JPP and Justin Tuck. Now Kiwanuka will assume a starting role, and Pierre-Paul's uncertain status simply heightens the urgency and creates more of an opportunity for young players to join the mix.
Pierre-Paul might be able to return for the season opener, but there's no certainty with a back injury. Kiwanuka is confident he can step in. "There's no doubt in my mind,'' Kiwanuka said after the OTA that was open to the media this week. "That's the position I came in this league playing, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity. Obviously, we'd love to have him back, and I'm sure he'll be back and ready to go at some point. But we're not going to rush him back for any reason.''
Although Pierre-Paul saw his sack numbers decline from 161/2 in 2011 to 61/2 last season, he still had a tremendous season with 87 tackles, 17 quarterback hits, 23 QB hurries, 14 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed and one interception. Coughlin said Pierre-Paul played with some back trouble last season.
"We were trying to manage it, seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it,'' Coughlin said. "All of a sudden there was a circumstance that he was in some pain. The doctors recommended the surgery. It wasn't anticipated, but it is a fact now.''
Kiwanuka last played a regular role at defensive end in 2010. He had four sacks in three games before being sidelined by a neck injury the rest of the season. "Being able to have your hand on the ground and not have to worry about going from one position to the other makes it more comfortable when you're out there,'' he said. "I can't lie about that.''
Coughlin praised the potential of third-year defensive end Adrian Tracy and third-round rookie Damontre Moore. But the immediate burden falls on Kiwanuka to pick up the slack.
"We're going to have to step it up a lot,'' Kiwanuka said of the D-line. "We're not going to repeat what we did last year.''
Notes & quotes: For the third straight week, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has skipped voluntary OTAs along with free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz, but next week is a mandatory camp. Asked if he expects to clear the air with Nicks, Coughlin said, "That might happen, yeah, I would think.''