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Can Justin Tuck Get His Mojo Back?

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Can Justin Tuck return to form as one of the NFL's elite defensive ends? Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
Can Justin Tuck return to form as one of the NFL's elite defensive ends? Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

It wasn't too long ago that Justin Tuck was widely regarded as one of the premier defensive ends in the league. From 2007-2010, Tuck was a mainstay in the conversation about the best pass-rushers in the NFL, and it seemed apparent that he had inherited the torch from Michael Strahan as the Giants' defensive leader, both on the field and in the locker room. His numbers during that four-year span speak for themselves: 192 solo tackles, 39.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, an interception and a touchdown.

Tuck's entrance into the league from Notre Dame was a quiet one, as he was selected in the third round despite the fact that at least one pre-draft projection placed him somewhere in the middle of the first round. Tuck spent his entire first season behind both Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora on the depth chart, and put in most of his field time on special teams. After an injury in 2006 that sidelined him for a majority of the season, Tuck returned in 2007 and immediately made an impact on the Giants' pass rush, recording 10 sacks despite the fact that he started only two games at defensive end. With Strahan and Umenyiora still holding the two starting spots at the position, Tuck was able to wedge his way into the defensive rotation and show the Giants — and the rest of the league — that the Big Blue pass rush arsenal was something to be feared.

That intensity carried the Giants straight through their unprecedented postseason run and resulted in a Super Bowl title. Tuck impressed on the biggest stage of all, sacking Brady twice, forcing a fumble and keeping the Patriots quarterback on his heels for most of the game.

Coming off the high of the previous season's Super Bowl win, Tuck returned in 2008 with a new starting job at defensive end after the retirement of Michael Strahan, and submitted another stellar season of work with 12 sacks and three forced fumbles. Despite a dip in his sack total in 2009, Tuck continued his rise to prominence as one of the league's premier defensive ends, even with a nagging shoulder injury that bothered him on and off all season. In 2010, he had what was arguably his best season to date, numbers-wise, with 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Perhaps more important than his on-field production during this stretch, however, was the true emergence of his leadership abilities in the locker room and his transformation into one of the team's true captains.

The 2011 season saw Tuck battling injuries once again, and he was sidelined for four games during the regular season. His production also saw a sharp decline as well, as his tackles were cut nearly in half and his sacks were reduced from 11.5 the previous year to just five in 2011. The curious part of this drop-off in production is that 2011 happened to be the season when Jason Pierre-Paul (JPP) broke onto the scene with a monster year at defensive end that saw him rack up 16.5 sacks.

Did JPP's emergence as an overnight star on the defensive line overshadow Tuck?

There's an argument to be made for that, as well as one to be made for his injury problems during that season. But whatever the reason behind his lack of production, he still managed to turn his game up to 11 during the 2011 postseason run, and recorded another two sacks in the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI win.

Last season was really when most Giants fans began to worry about Tuck's level of production. Despite being healthy and only missing one game in 2012, Tuck's numbers continued to drop, and his four sacks and 27 tackles were a career low for him as a starter at defensive end. In his defense, there was hardly anyone who made a tremendous impact on the defensive line last season, as the pass rush was mostly nonexistent for the majority of the year. Nonetheless, Tuck's sudden disappearing act was beginning to get the attention of many fans, media members and even former-Giants-turned-media-members.

That's where we stand right now heading into the 2013 season. Among the many question marks the Giants have hanging over their heads going into this season, one of them will be whether or not Tuck can dig deep and summon the player that quarterbacks around the league feared just a few seasons ago. Is it an issue of motivation that has Tuck struggling to produce at the same high levels as he has in the past, or is it simply an issue of the league and age catching up to him?

If it's motivation that's the problem, Tuck seems determined to overcome that. Just recently, he participated in a seminar with famed life coach and motivational speaker Tony Robbins where he walked across hot coals. Turning to outside help is the first step in trying to gain back some of that motivation and fire that he might have lost in the last few years, and Tuck, along with the rest of Giants' nation, is hoping that those coals can ignite the competitive fire again.

Tuck has tried just about everything to regain his old form, and the Tony Robbins seminars were certainly no joke, sometimes lasting from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. That dedication to getting back to the top of his game is something that you have to admire about Tuck, and it shows that he is serious about once again becoming the kind of defensive leader that helped the team win two Super Bowls. The only thing left to do is to produce on the field when game time comes.