COMMENTARY | The New York Giants lacked leadership on the defensive side of the ball last season. They were burned for 6,134 yards, a single-season franchise record, on the way to finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs. It was a stinging blow for a defensive-minded team.
As a result, the Giants shook up the roster a bit. The team shed leading tackler Chase Blackburn, veteran Michael Boley and sack-master Osi Umenyiora in the offseason, made a few key signings (i.e. Cullen Jenkins and Dan Connor) and added fresh bodies in the NFL draft. However, the Giants will lean on their returning players to spearhead the defense this upcoming season. Here's a look at five key returning vets and what they bring to the table.
S Antrel Rolle -- Since joining the Giants in 2010, Rolle has been the consummate team player, doing everything from playing nickel cornerback to strong safety. Moreover, the nine-year pro has become a vocal leader on an off the field, speaking his mind and backing up his words. In three seasons with the team, he's played through injuries and pain and never missed a game. That's why alarm bells went off when Rolle sprained his ankle in training camp and was sidelined for the preseason. The Giants hope to have him back in time for the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
"He's one of the building blocks," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell told Giants.com. "He's a brick. He's always there. He's tough. He's the motor that sails us. His presence is always valuable for us."
DT Linval Joseph -- Jenkins has more professional experience (nine years), but Joseph is the longest-tenured defensive tackle on the team, and perhaps the most underrated defensive player. Since being drafted by the Giants in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, Joseph has improved every season. The Giants are counting on him to help patch up a run defense which allowed 4.6 yards per carry and 129.1 yards per game and ranked No. 25 in the National Football League last season.
CB Corey Webster -- Webster may be the key to the entire secondary. Last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Webster was burned for 988 yards in coverage and a league second-most eight touchdowns as the G-Men finished ranked No. 28 against the pass. However, the ninth-year pro has a pair of Super Bowl rings with the team and is only a couple of seasons removed from a career-high six interceptions. Cutting down on big plays -- New York gave up a league-high 29 passes of at least 30 yards last season-- starts with Webster covering his man.
DE Mathias Kiwanuka -- The versatile Kiwanuka plays where he's needed, whether it be at linebacker or defensive end. According to the team's official website, he has started 61 games - 31 at defensive end and 30 at linebacker -- in his first seven seasons with the Giants. This season, however, he's projected to play mostly at defensive end, which is his natural position. In 2012, Kiwanuka had 37 tackles, down from 84 the year before. A return to his natural position should inspire Kiwanuka, who is adept at defending the run and pass, and give the defense a boost.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul -- Ultimately, it all comes down to the play of Pierre-Paul, who had a breakout season with 16.5 sacks and 86 tackles in 2011. Last season, he wasn't the same, collecting a pedestrian 6.5 sacks and 66 tackles. Pierre-Paul played 2012 with a balky back, but had surgery in the offseason to fix the problem, so perhaps the beast will be back this year. A rejuvenated JPP will energize a defense which is predicated on the pass rush. Currently, Pierre-Paul is on the physically unable to perform list, but the Giants hope to have him on the field and wreaking havoc in Week 1.
Adam Martini is a freelance sports writer with more than 15 years of experience covering amateur and professional sports for several print and online media outlets. He tracked the New York Giants for Yahoo! Contributor Network during the team's Super Bowl run in 2011-12. Adam can be found on Twitter @Pegcitysports.
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