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Defenders appreciate Strahan's presence, guidance

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – There's a justifiably selfish place in linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka's soul that wants defensive end Michael Strahan to come back for one more year with the New York Giants.

It's that place that remembers being in the locker room after Super Bowl XLII in Arizona in February, celebrating the victory over the New England Patriots, yet feeling like an outsider.

It's that place that loved lining up as a defensive tackle alongside Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora – a latter-day version of football's Four Horsemen – on passing downs. For Kiwanuka, the idea of having Strahan brings on an almost Pavlovian response. Kiwanuka's eyes open a little wider and the tone of his voice gets just a little more excited.

"Dangerous," Kiwanuka said, adding a sly grin to his response. "When all four of us are out there lined up to rush and the offense is in a position where it has to throw the ball, something big should happen."

Even without Kiwanuka, who broke his left leg Nov. 18 against the Detroit Lions and missed the rest of the season, the Giants obviously had something big happen. On the way to winning the title, the Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks and that pass rush was a key to slowing down quarterback Tom Brady and New England in the Super Bowl.

While Kiwanuka, who returned to the non-contact work of the offseason Tuesday, got credit for helping win the title, anybody who saw him in the moments after the win knows he's not completely comfortable with any praise thrown his way.

"It's definitely a lot of emotions that go into it. Obviously, you're cheering your teammates on and you want them to do the best, but you'd almost kill to be out there and be part of it," he said. "Guys are good about picking you up and making you feel like you're part of the team and that (the injured players) contributed. But you're a man and it's your job and when you can't do your job it's tough."

That feeling was apparent as Kiwanuka walked through the Giants locker room after the Super Bowl. As players such as cornerback Sam Madison hugged him, Kiwanuka had this uncomfortable look on his face, as if he didn't know whether it was appropriate for him to act as if he actually played. In football, when you don't share in the pain of playing, sharing the joy of victory is often looked upon with contempt by other players.

The unspoken feeling is: What did you do to help us win?

Perhaps that's why in the "will he or won't he" story line surrounding Strahan, Kiwanuka's stance is clear.

"My biggest concern right now is winning another championship and Mike Strahan, with his knowledge and the high level he's playing at, gives us another chance to do that," Kiwanuka said.

Strahan, who had nine sacks last season, has deftly dodged the question about whether he'll return. Last week during the Giants ring ceremony, Strahan said the event was only about discussing the past, not the future.

The team, which signed veteran defensive end Renaldo Wynn Monday, could find out about his plans as early as next week when it holds a mandatory mini-camp. In the meanwhile, Kiwanuka and others like Tuck just wait to hear.

"Whatever Mike decides will be OK with me," Tuck said. "Who am I to say what he should do? But if you're asking me, I want him to come back."

Even though Tuck is first in line to inherit Strahan's starting left end spot, he understands the overall value of Strahan.

"We can go on without him, but we go on a lot easier with him," Tuck said. "All the things I've learned from watching him and understanding how the game is played at this level, you can't take enough away from that."

After getting only one sack in his first two seasons, Tuck had 10 last season, getting many of them when lined up at defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Tuck was able to take advantage of his long arms and quickness as an interior rusher.

But again, only after learning the tricks from Strahan.

"He's taught me so much about how to use your hands and how to set up moves," Tuck said. "You come into this league from college and you think you just keep doing what made you good in college. It doesn't work that way because it's so much more technical.

Tricks like finding the exact right spot to grab on an offensive lineman's shoulder pad to gain leverage.

"You grab that, it's almost like holding a steering wheel," said Tuck, estimating that he might be able to do that technique seven times in a game when the opposition throws 30 passes. "If I can do that, I'm going to hit the quarterback six out of seven times, guaranteed."

Then again, all of the Giants have a better chance to hit the quarterback if Strahan returns.