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Umenyiora Isn't the Only Comeback Story on the Giants Defense

Umenyiora grabs the headlines, but Barry Cofield's return is just as important

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    It's been Osi Umenyiora week around the NFL and the defensive end deserves every word of praise thrown at his feet. 

    His eight sacks and seven forced fumbles have given notice that the combination of problems from last season -- injury, attitude, miscellaneous -- are ancient history. Seven of those sacks and six of those forced fumbles have come in the last three games. They've been essential to the Giants' winning streak and they've opened up all kinds of doors for a defense that was closing in on a breakup without a jolt of life.

    All of that is why Umenyiora's being talked about as a potential Defensive Player of the Year and why he might finally secure the contract he's been agitating for since the moment he signed his last deal. That's all well and good, but you'd be wise not to focus exclusively on Umenyiora's flashy play when it comes to doling out credit for the improvement on defense this season.

    Save a little bit of it for Barry Cofield. The defensive tackle was a key part of the defense during the Super Bowl run and the 2008 season, but last year he was one of many Giants defenders who saw his productivity slip to the point where you needed to put a mirror under his nose to make sure he was still alive. Teams that used to find nothing but trouble in the middle of the defensive line found acres of daylight as Cofield offered little to no resistance and pass rush was nothing but a rumor when number 96 was on the field. 

    It's a new year and a new Cofield. Pro Football Focus grades him as the best player on the entire defense (you need a subscription to see the full ratings, but their weekly recaps are free and a nice resource), and his work against the run has been particularly notable. The Houston game turned because Arian Foster wasn't able to gain any yardage when they handed the ball to him and the Lions futility was exacerbated every time Jahvid Best touched the ball and found a wall of blue greeting him behind the line. 

    Cofield's play has a trickle down effect. Teams have to game plan against him, which means that he occupies blockers and creates opportunities for other players. That's a big part of the reason why Jonathan Goff's transition to starting middle linebacker has been a successful one and why Chris Canty's second year with the team hasn't resulted in any angry diatribes from the fans at this point.

    His pass rush has returned with gusto as well, forcing opponents to choose between getting beaten from the outside in or from the inside out. No good choice there and we're not so sure that Cofield isn't part of the reason why Umenyiora's piling up numbers last seen when Cofield was wreaking havoc.

    In the end, it doesn't really matter who is helping who out more. What matters is that both men are operating at a high level and that the defense is doing the same.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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