For an organization revered for the play of its defensive greats, 2012 presented a stark and ominous reality for the New York Giants. The days of Lawrence Taylor or Michael Strahan terrorizing the opposition never seemed more distant than last season, when Big Blue ranked a dismal 31st in total defense.
Despite low expectations that a rebuilt unit will do any better in 2013, pressure is mounting on defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
Aside from a wave of injuries, a lack of talent on defense is the only factor which threatens to sabotage New York's season.
General manager Jerry Reese retooled the defense this offseason with the hope that some fresh faces would provide a lift.
Fixtures such as Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty, Michael Boley, Kenny Phillips and Chase Blackburn departed New York. Rather than replacing them with proven assets, the Giants filled void after void with question marks.
Based on these personnel decisions, it's difficult to imagine this defense achieving anything other than mediocrity. Instead of striving to be average, however, the Giants must look toward regaining respectability.
Altering the defense's identity is the best way New York can offset its weaknesses.
A "bend but don't break" mentality is the best way for an overwhelmed defense to survive in this league.
The Giants had 35 takeaways in 2012, good for second best in the league. To repeat this type of output, the defense will need to be more opportunistic and fortunate than ever before.
Forcing turnovers and red-zone efficiency will be paramount in 2013. While this is essential next season, the biggest question surrounding this defense is: Who will execute this strategy?
Currently, there are very few clear answers.
None of New York's starting linebackers from 2012 will be returning in 2013. While this could have been a positive sign based on how weak the unit was last season, the present corps may be just as one-dimensional and overmatched.
Mark Herzlich and Dan Connor will vie for the starting job at middle linebacker. While they are solid against the run, expect the worst if a running back or tight end catches them one-on-one.
As one slow-footed linebacker steps in for another, the onus for New York will fall on the younger players.
To offset some of their deficiencies, the Giants will expect Jason Pierre-Paul and Prince Amukamara to elevate their level of play. Realistically, All-Pro-caliber seasons from them should be enough to carry the defense out of the doldrums.
The Giants will breathe easy if Amukamara can turn into the shutdown corner that the team hoped for when they drafted him in 2011. Pierre-Paul's ability to regain his 2011 form is another crucial component.
Neither of these factors is guaranteed, however.
Meanwhile, while Amukamara has shown flashes of brilliance in his two-year career, consistency has eluded him.
While the Giants wait to discover if their first-round picks from 2010 and 2011 will grow into leaders on defense, they can explore other ways to lessen the burden on their beleaguered unit.
Taking the air out of the ball on offense is one risky but effective tactic.
New York has the talent in the backfield to re-establish a solid ground game. The success of David Wilson and Andre Brown could go a long way in keeping the defense off the field for extended periods of time.
Effective ground-and-pound football is especially important late in games.
The Giants, a team typically involved in tight affairs, will have to hold their breath when they need a stop. Wilson and Brown's effectiveness down the stretch might relieve the pressure on the defense in these situations.
A commitment to running the football, the emergence of young leaders and a few favorable bounces in red-zone defense are the key elements in New York improving defensively. Accomplish these goals will be difficult, but the Giants will be contenders if their defense is up to the challenge.