NEW YORK -- Ray Handley didn't need this headache, not this week. With the 7-0 Washington Redskins and their traditionally strong special teams to deal with Sunday night, the Giants coach must find some return men and return tacklers.
Reyna Thompson, whose breakneck style in covering punts and kickoffs has made him the most respected special-teams player in the league, has been placed on injured reserve with a broken shoulder blade and will be lost four to six weeks.
Dave Meggett, the elusive returner from Towson State who has given the Giants a new dimension in his two-plus seasons, has been confined to a stationary bike with a painfully sore right heel and is questionable.
And if that isn't enough to keep Handley and special-teams coach Mike Sweatman scrambling this week, Matt Bahr has a strained adductor muscle in his kicking leg, prompting emergency-only workouts at place-kicker for 255-pound rookie linebacker Corey Miller.
Bahr is expected to be fine for the showdown with the Redskins, but Meggett is another matter. The 5-foot-7 scatback injured his heel in the Giants' victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers eight days ago, and yesterday he stayed on the sidelines during practice, walking gingerly with his right foot wrapped in ice.
"It's a very painful injury," Handley said. "It's very difficult to treat. . . . He can't plant or push off, that type of thing. It's just a matter of time before we know if he can do it."
If Meggett can't go against Washington, the Giants lose a crucial element of their third-down offense and their return teams become much less dangerous. Mark Ingram would handle punts in Meggett's absence, and Ingram and either Stephen Baker or Rodney Hampton would take kickoffs.
The void created by Thompson's injury, however, is more imposing. Thompson, who fractured his scapula when he made a fourth-quarter tackle of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jeff Graham, is a Pro Bowl player who often sets the tone for the Giants' defense with a sweeping tackle or stinging hit.
But now, the Giants have to rely on Roger Brown, Ed McCaffery or Odessa Turner to handle the left end on punts. None of the candidates is expected to duplicate Thompson's effectiveness and reckless abandon.
"Reyna is a Pro Bowl special-teams players, and there was only one of them in the NFC last year," Sweatman said. "We'll do the best we can, that's all."
With the Redskins' reputation for solid special-teams play dating to their George Allen days, the Giants' injuries come at the worst possible time. Washington not only covers kicks well, but it also has the league's best punt returner, Brian Mitchell, who is averaging 17.2 yards a shot.
Thompson shut down the league's No. 2 return man -- Pittsburgh's Rod Woodson -- in the Giants' last game. But he won't be around to harass Mitchell on Sunday, and that could make a world of difference.
"Mitchell's a north-south type runner who attacks the seams," Sweatman said of the second-year return man. "He really puts pressure on a coverage team. He has a lot more awareness this year of how to play the game, of how to follow his blocking."