New York Giants LB/DE Mathias Kiwanuka was perhaps the best player on the team that nobody talked about last season. While players like Jason Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz had breakout seasons and garnered all the media attention, the seventh-year veteran out of Boston College quietly had 84 tackles in his first full season at the strong-side linebacker position, which was good for the fourth highest total on the team.
Although Kiwanuka was drafted as a defensive end, he has long been recognized as the most versatile player on the Giants defense. Kiwanuka is very quick off the edge and has deceptive strength, which allows the team to use him in several different roles. He possesses the unique ability to play linebacker in a 4-3 defense, or as a down linemen on the defensive line. However, with the immense talent and depth the Giants have had at the defensive end position throughout Kiwanuka's career, the team has had issues finding a way to get him on the field.
Last season, Kiwianuka played relatively well at the strong-side linebacker position. But this offseason, many fans have debated whether defensive coordinator Perry Fewell would be best suited shifting the teams 2006 first-round pick back to defensive end. Below, we will examine three reasons why it is imperative that Mathias Kiwanuka plays the majority of his snaps at the strong-side linebacker position in 2012.
Mathias Kiwanuka Would Be the Fourth Defensive End On the Depth Chart – Out of every area on the Giants' roster, defensive end is perhaps the most talented and versatile position. Although it is debatable whether Mathias Kiwanuka is the fourth best defensive end on the team, he would almost definitely be the fourth defensive end on Perry Fewell's depth chart.
With a healthy Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, Kiwanuka could be the third best defensive end on the team. The argument can be made that because Kiwi is good against the run, while still being an explosive pass rusher, he is a better all-around DE than Osi Umenyiora. However, within the context of the Giants' defense, the third defensive end is utilized as a pass-rushing specialist, mostly on third down.
As explosive of a player as Kiwi is off the edge, Umenyiora is by far a superior pass rusher as a down linemen. With nine sacks in only nine games last season, Umenyiora proved that he is still and elite pass-rusher in this league. So for the purposes of the Giants defense, Kiwanuka would be the fourth defensive end on the depth chart. It would make little sense to take away his responsibilities as a LB to put him in a reserve role elsewhere.
Kiwi Is the Team's Best Strong-Side Linebacker – Even if one could make the argument that Mathias Kiwanuka would be an important asset to the team as a DE, he is unquestionably the team's best strong-side linebacker. Some have made the argument that because of the Giants depth at linebacker, it may be prudent to move Kiwi back to his natural position and let the younger players get a chance to prove themselves.
Many casual football fans see linebacker as one position. However, in reality, linebacker is actually three completely different positions within one category.
The strong-side linebacker (SAM) plays on the strong-side of the offense, generally lining up on the tight end. If there is no TE, the SAM splits the space between the end of the line of scrimmage and the slot receiver. His responsibilities include, but are not limited to, filling his gap on run plays, covering tight ends and backs out of the backfield (in man coverage), or dropping into short zones on passing plays. The SAM gets his initial read from the tight end on whether the play is a run or pass.
The middle linebacker (MIKE) usually lines up directly over the center and his primary responsibility is to stop the run. The Mike linebacker should be involved in almost every tackle when the ball is on the ground. On pass plays, normally he just drops into short zones over the middle of the field, or may have to cover a back out of the backfield on a blitz. The Mike normally reads the guard position to get his initial run/pass read.
Finally, the weak-side (WILL) linebacker is generally on of the more athletic players on the field. He lines up on the weak-side of the formation and his primary responsibility is to contain and plug up cut-back lanes on rushing plays. In the passing game, the Will linebacker is expected to cover anyone from a slot receiver to a back out of the backfield. His initial run/pass key normally comes from the tackle position.
As you can see, in a 4-3 defense, each linebacker position has different responsibilities with different reads on every play. With that, the Giants depth chart is deep at both the weak-side and middle linebacker positions. However, on the strong-side, it could be argued that Greg Jones is the next best SAM on the roster after Kiwanuka. So if defensive coordinator Perry Fewell decides to make Kiwi more of a down linemen in 2012, it would entail putting some of the younger, more inexperienced linebackers in an unfamiliar role. That would most likely be more trouble than its worth.
Continuity – In Mathias Kiwanuka's previous six seasons, last year was the first one in which he had a defined role within the defense. In his previous years, Kiwi was used as a third defensive end (2008 as the exception) and as a linebacker. Kiwi was constantly being moved around and was never able to fully commit himself to either position, which limited his productivity.
For the Giants to be successful on defense, it is imperative that Perry Fewell retains the ability to move Kiwi around to different places on the field. Kiwanuka is a dangerous player that must be accounted for by opposing offenses, so by moving him around it can create confusion at the line of scrimmage for quarterbacks. Look for him to be a down linemen in the team's NASCAR package.
That being said, there must be some sort of balancing act in how Kiwi is utilized. He can not be moving from DE one week to LB the next and then back to DE after that. He has to have a defined role within the defense that clearly lays out his responsibilities on every play. He should progress nicely in his second season at the SAM linebacker, but for that to happen, he must be afforded the opportunity to see the vast majority of his snaps at that position in 2012.
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