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A Now-Healthy Armstead Ready to Roll After Bye

NEWSDAY

Of the New York Giants’ two biggest defensive worries, one has been resolved to satisfaction. Conrad Hamilton, the new starter at right cornerback, is doing a pretty fair if not dead-on impersonation of Jason Sehorn.

Now it’s up to the Jessie Armstead of ’98 to start looking like Jessie Armstead ’97.

Surely you’ve noticed the massive difference between the two linebackers. A year ago, he made plays. A game was hardly complete unless Armstead clobbered a quarterback on a blitz, caused a fumble, led a goal-line stand or snatched an interception. Or did all of the above.

This year, Armstead has done that, too, but over the course of seven games. Not four quarters.

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He was escorted down this road to recession by an ankle injury in the season opener that robbed him of speed and reduced him to being ordinary, something new for Armstead.

“I wasn’t my usual self after I got hurt,” Armstead said. “Everybody could see that.”

No one relied on the bye week more than Armstead, who now proclaims himself 100 percent healed. That’s what the Giants need to know as they proceed precariously toward the season’s midway point.

The fate of the Giants will be determined in the final nine games by the performance of their defense, not the offense. Maybe you thought otherwise. But the inconsistency of Danny Kanell, the invisible running game and the inability to reach the end zone isn’t anything new. Just check the film from a year ago.

The difference is that before, the defense was able to wipe up after the offense. There was never any problem too big or small for the defense to handle. If the Giants had to win a 10-7 game, they did.

It’s asking too much for the offense to show anything more in the final nine games than it gave in the first seven. Believe it: The offense will struggle. The Giants will often fail to follow the simple directions from the red zone to the end zone. Under-used receiver Ike Hilliard will continue to be ignored, the running backs will still average 3.4 yards per carry and Kanell will have his 10-for-27 afternoons.

None of that will change, so get used to it.

But there’s room for improvement on defense, primarily because there’s room for improvement within Armstead. “I know I’ve got to have a big second half,” he said.

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For five weeks he was a mirage. It was startling to see Armstead miss tackles and assignments, reach the quarterback late and get beaten in pass coverage. He was a terror last season, the best of a six-year career that began when the Giants used an eighth-round pick in ’93 on an undersized 6-1 linebacker from the University of Miami.

Armstead is now one of the better defenders in the NFL, an ascent based less on talent and more on toughness. That’s how he overcame his height disadvantage. That’s also why he refused to sit when it was evident the ankle required rest.

“I can’t stand there on the sidelines,” Armstead said. “That would hurt me more than the ankle.”

Compounding the problem was the calf injury suffered by backup linebacker Scott Galyon, whose inability to suit up didn’t give Armstead or the Giants much choice. He had to play.

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“He couldn’t burst,” linebackers coach Mike Haluchak said. “He’s a side-to-sideline linebacker who couldn’t do it.”

The last two weeks by Armstead have been encouraging. Maybe that’s where his season is headed. In an otherwise bad Atlanta loss, he had a sack and forced two fumbles. Then against the Cardinals, Armstead grabbed an interception and was the best defender on the field for the first time all year.

“Everyone who knows me knows I’m a competitor,” Armstead said, “and have been ever since I came to this organization. I’m not a guy who has a good year, then a bad year. I will have a good year.”

Based on his history, how can you doubt him? He has never known failure on any level of football. He was a 180-pound linebacker in high school who became a Parade All-American. At just 210 pounds--he’s now 240--he flourished at Miami. He overcame his low draft position to be voted the Giants’ Rookie of the Year.

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“I’ve always had to be tougher than anyone else to make up for the physical difference,” he said.

He’s easily the best Giants linebacker since Lawrence Taylor, and last year, Armstead earned all of the nice awards and made his first Pro Bowl.

He can be that way again, now that a miserable start and a relaxing bye week are behind him.

“The week off gave me time to get back to where I was, to get some rest,” he said. “I want to do the things I’m used to doing, like running and making plays. This ankle injury was something that was in the way. That’s all it was, in the way.”

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Maybe from here, the defense improves. It had better. Starting today in Washington, the Giants will play a five-game stretch against three NFC East teams plus the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.

“We’re on a critical run,” Coach Jim Fassel said. “Everyone knows that.”

The offense will have days like the game before the bye, when the Giants gained 390 yards on Arizona, and also like a few weeks ago, when they rushed for 56 yards against the Cowboys. Their next good effort is anyone’s guess.

It’s the defense that must return to consistency, bailing out Kanell and Co. and saving a ragged season that seems headed for an 8-8 finish. The Giants know they can manage without Sehorn. But not without Armstead.

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