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BALTIMORE – Antonio Pierce rubbed a hand over his face and let out a sigh. Just one series into the preseason and the linebacker already was grinding his teeth over the performance of the New York Giants' defense.
Pierce, who preached to teammates before the game about establishing themselves as a unit, spent the first few minutes howling in frustration as the Ravens' tandem of Steve McNair and Jamal Lewis gouged the Giants' D for 80 yards and a touchdown in 12 plays.
"It's embarrassing," Pierce said after New York pulled out a 17-16 win last Friday. "We went out there to set a tone, and they rolled through us."
Surely, he couldn't have been all that upset. After all, the Giants played without defensive end Michael Strahan and linebackers LaVar Arrington and Carlos Emmons – in a preseason game, no less – but in Pierce's mind, that opening drive was at least a hint of some pressing issues. The middle of the Giants' defensive line, which looked problematic heading into training camp, fell flat in its first test.
And the key offseason upgrades – Arrington, cornerback Sam Madison and safety Will Demps – were ineffectual, possibly, Pierce admitted, because the 11 guys slated to comprise the first-team defense haven't gotten significant practice snaps together. Also, both Arrington and Emmons have missed parts of training camp with injuries.
"Obviously, that's important – we need to get a couple of games underneath our belt with all these guys before the regular season," Pierce said. "Look at the schedule. We start off with a bang. But I guess we can't even think about that. Now we've got to fix what happened [against Baltimore]."
Indeed, New York's first-half schedule looks brutal, with the season's first seven games coming against teams expected to make a playoff or Super Bowl push. The strength of that opening slate makes the return of Arrington and Emmons all the more vital, particularly with that duo flip-flopping to new positions (Arrington to the strong side and Emmons to the weak side).
Emmons, who missed seven games last season with injuries, was out much of last week after suffering a stinger in practice. Arrington missed practice last week with swelling in one of his knees. Neither player is expected to be out for an extended period of time, but both have put enough wear and tear on their bodies that their health already has become a touchy issue.
"The thing is, with a guy like LaVar, we're just shooting for [the season opener]," Pierce said. "If he's not healthy enough or whatever is going on with him, then it's best for the team for him not to be out there. It's a disappointment, but you've got to play with who's here."
Clearly, both Arrington and Emmons were missed on Baltimore's opening drive, when Lewis took advantage of spacious running lanes and McNair operated with almost no pressure and scored the opening touchdown with a nice red-zone scramble. But Giants coach Tom Coughlin waved off the absences after watching the Ravens, insisting that when it comes to blaming poor performance on injuries "you can always say that."
"I will never use that – you know, this guy was here, that guy was there," Coughlin said. "I thought we were soft up front, to be honest with you."
Considering the issues beyond health, that "soft" remark might be the most damning statement of the preseason, particularly for a defense that looks shaky at tackle even in the best circumstances. While other Super Bowl contenders in the NFC made additions to shore up depth and overall talent at the defensive tackle spot – Carolina's signings of Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, for example – the Giants stood pat despite losing Kendrick Clancy in free agency. And while Clancy was no Pro Bowler, it's looking like he will be missed.
That the Giants didn't sign an adequate replacement – or splurge on the first day of the draft for a guy like LSU's Claude Wroten – was at least a mild surprise. The defensive line was exposed against the run in last season's 23-0 home playoff loss to the Panthers, who rolled up 214 rushing yards against a New York linebacker corps hammered by injuries.
The loss of Clancy and the failure to find a plugger in the offseason highlighted one of the biggest concerns facing the Giants heading into training camp: whether an undefined set of tackles could get the job done. The current starters – underachieving former first-round pick William Joseph and Fred Robbins – combined for 45 tackles and 3½ sacks last season. That duo, along with the untested pair of Damane Duckett and Jonas Seawright, will have to make strides to keep the run defense from falling off a ledge – or at the very least provide some protection for Pierce.
Against the Ravens, the early signs were less than encouraging.
"We didn't attack the way we need to as far as pushing the line of scrimmage back," Pierce said, refusing the notion that it was a forgivable preseason sin. "This film goes out to all the other 32 teams. They see it. They evaluate you and they see how you play. We didn't play the way we need to play. We didn't set any tone."
It's far too early to start sounding alarms, but the Giants have few options left to shore up the unit this late into training camp. As it stands, there doesn't appear to be any starting-caliber defensive tackles available or likely to be cut – unless Dan Wilkinson could be coaxed out of retirement (not likely). That means improvement must come from within.
Seawright has intriguing size and has shown some flashes of nastiness at times in practice, and Duckett did manage a sack and fumble recovery against the Ravens. But in reality, nobody on the depth chart appears to have the kind of presence that will help take the focus off Strahan and defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
At this point, the best-case scenario may simply be getting the surrounding pieces like Arrington and Emmons healthy, and hoping that a fully loaded group of linebackers – and a hard-hitting safety in Demps – can help manage a rush defense without an impact run-stuffer in the front four.
"Truthfully, it shouldn't matter if we have all the pieces or not," cornerback Sam Madison said. "Look at last year. These guys didn't have all the pieces, and they didn't get to the destination they wanted to get to. If somebody isn't in there that we're depending on, then somebody has got to pick up the slack this time around. That's the bottom line."
New York's top priorities are sorting out the defensive tackle spot and getting Arrington and Emmons healthy enough to be practice fixtures. After that, as Pierce noted, it will be a process of weeks (and maybe longer) before finding some level of chemistry among the defense. But after watching the Ravens average 5.3 yards per carry Friday night, the only thing the Giants learned was what they can't afford to see.
As Pierce put it, "Guys getting five yards a pop on the run."