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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Difference-makers: Osi Umenyiora

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

The New York Giants you see before you — a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs — are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost 5-of-6 games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: DE Osi Umenyiora

The sack came right at the end of Sunday's playoff victory, with the game in hand and the Giants' defense focused only on maintaining what from its standpoint was a shutout. But it came nonetheless, as they always seem to when Umenyiora plays. It was a high-energy, hyper-athletic sack that required him to practically jump over the man who was blocking him and grab Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan up high before dragging both passer and blocker to the ground. It was not the type of sack you see other pass rushers make, and it reminded you why Umenyiora is not like other pass rushers.

Umenyiora
Yeah, it looked as though the Giants were going to be all right without ol' Osi in the mix. Umenyiora missed four games in December with an ankle injury, but with Justin Tuck on one side and the year Jason Pierre-Paul was having on the other, you figured they could generate the edge rush they needed while Umenyiora hobbled around the training complex. But when you actually watched the Giants play without him, you could tell something was missing.

Aaron Rodgers picked them apart one week, Tony Romo the next, albeit in a Giants win. Rex Grossman didn't put up huge numbers, but he picked up every third-down conversion he needed in Week 15 as the Redskins dropped the Giants to 7-7 and into what looked like major trouble. A defense that lives off its pass rush was hurting for Umenyiora's absence. Dave Tollefson is a good, professional defensive lineman who can make a play and fits well in the Giants' scheme, but what he is not — and what Umenyiora is — is one of the best pass rushers in the world.

So when Umenyiora returned for the regular-season finale against Dallas, the whole thing looked different. The Giants were able to rotate all of their defensive ends, to play Tuck at an interior line position on third downs if they wanted to, to drop Pierre-Paul into coverage to confuse Romo, who by the way was sacked not once but twice by Umenyiora. Sunday brought more of the same, as a fully operational Giants pass rush made Ryan's day miserable and kept the Falcons' offense off the scoreboard.

"I think earlier in the year, when we were trying to find our identity and kind of struggling on defense, a lot of individual stuff was showing up," Tuck said after the game. "Now it's just all about team effort and playing together as a team."

Umenyiora's on the train. The contract dispute from last summer and the knee injury that cost him the first three games of the season have been shoved into a distant corner of his memory. Challenges await in the offseason, and there's no way to know whether the next game he plays will be his last as a Giant. Umenyiora said last week, though, that he doesn't care. He's enjoying this run. He's feeling healthy — or healthy enough, at least, to play playoff games — and most importantly for the Giants, he's making an impact. This is about more than just having all of their players back healthy. Few players make an impact the way Osi Umenyiora does.