The first action the newly revamped New York Giants defense will see will come against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that is consistently competitive and seemingly always in the hunt for the postseason.
Last season, the Steelers ranked 21st in the league in offense, averaging more than 330 yards per game. Though they ranked near the middle of the pack, it should serve as a good first act for the Giants, whose defense allowed the second-highest yardage total in 2012, shy of only the historically awful New Orleans Saints.
The 2013 Steelers are led by, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has a different-looking cast of weapons around him. Rookie Le'Veon Bell takes the place of Rashard Mendenhall at running back, while Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will get more looks with Mike Wallace fleeing via free agency. Tight end Heath Miller is injured for the preseason and the start of the regular season, as is longtime backup Matt Spaeth, so expect a host of youngsters to try and fill the role of red-zone go-to option for Big Ben.
The Steelers are known for pounding the rock, which should test the Giants fresh linebacking corps. And Big Ben's tendency to escape the pocket and make throws on the run should give the Giants pass defense -- which allowed the fifth-highest yards through the air in 2012 -- quite the workout.
"This will be a good barometer for where we’re at there. I think, just watching practice and being in the meetings and hearing the coaches’ feedback on everything, our defense looks amazing," punter Steve Weatherford said. "So, it will be interesting to see them actually go against somebody that they can be real physical with because we’re trying our best out here to try and take care of each other, as hard as that is because you’ve got guys competing for positions on this team."
Herzlich has been the No. 1 contender for the job since OTAs, and through the early stages of camp the third-year pro has the strongest grasp on the job.
Connor, on the other hand, is the seasoned vet in this competition. His best chance to seize the job will be on the field.
Two players in the secondary to keep an eye on are Prince Amukamara and Corey Webster. Amukamara is expected to enjoy his breakout campaign this year, and he'll be tasked with shadowing Brown early on.
Webster, the veteran who took a salary reduction to remain with the Giants after a shaky 2012, will have to cover a speedy up-and-comer in Sanders.
Along the defensive line, the rookies Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore will be two players to watch. They'll see extended time in their first preseason games, and both have garnered positive reviews thus far in camp.
Hankins, in all likelihood, will not beat out the veterans Cullen Jenkins or Linval Joseph for the starting gig, but he's certainly the heir to the throne. A strong outing could translate to a larger role in the defensive tackle rotation.
Moore, the third-rounder who was once thought to be a first-round talent, certainly has a chance to earn time in the defensive end rotation, with Justin Tuck a bit scuffed up and no sure bet on when Jason Pierre-Paul will return. Moore has been "off to an outstanding start," according to defensive line coach Robert Nunn, who expects the rookie to "contribute early." He'll have to show it in game-time action, though, first.
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