Following their first game of the 2013 preseason, the New York Giants have more questions than answers at the linebacker position.
Perry Fewell's defense lacks talent and durability at the second level. With very little done to rectify this flaw during the offseason, New York's linebackers must overachieve in order to reach even the most modest levels of success.
General manager Jerry Reese has spent years neglecting his linebacking corps. This decision is finally starting to catch up to New York in the most obvious of ways.
The defense New York fielded in 2012 was one of the worst in franchise history. Ineffective play at the point of attack allowed teams to run rampant on the Giants. Big Blue allowed 129.1 rushing yards per game, a deficiency that handcuffed them on countless occasions.
On Saturday night in Pittsburgh, New York's linebackers failed to show they have improved in this area.
Mark Herzlich was given the first crack at impressing his coaches. Herzlich was just a step slow at filling gaps against the run, an overall improvement from his lackluster performances last year. The former Boston College standout very tenuously has the inside track at middle linebacker.
For Herzlich, who has spent much of his career toiling between special teams and defense, 2013 is a crucial year.
A major deficiency of New York's mike linebackers is that they are two-down players. The mismatches they can cause for their own defense ultimately leads to more harm than good at times.
An influx of instability at middle linebacker is a just the tip of the iceberg for the Giants.
Players platooned at outside linebacker have taken two very different paths to get to where they are today.
Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry are two names that resemble a "household" status. Unfortunately, that's because they are regarded as major flops after being selected early in their respective drafts.
Rivers (ninth overall, 2008) and Curry (fourth overall, 2009) are the epitome of low-risk investments on the part of Reese. Historically, low risks yield little reward.
Jacquian Willams and Spencer Paysinger are vying for a starting spot at weak-side linebacker after entering the league as unheralded prospects.
Paysinger (undrafted) has been predominantly featured on special teams thus far in his career, while Williams (sixth round, 2011) has struggled to consistently stay in the Giants rotation due to injury.
Chances are none of these aforementioned players will truly distinguish himself between now and September 8, when the Giants travel to Dallas for their season opener.
Inferior playmaking ability in the second level has driven Tom Coughlin's coaching staff to uncharacteristic levels of experimentation.
What should New York expect from its linebackers this season?
In previous years, we've seen New York play to its strengths by fielding a three-safety package. This season, it appears the club is looking to tinker with its defense in order to mask a weakness.
So far this summer, we've seen Fewell flirt with a 3-4 scheme along with some unique packages. The concept of mixing and matching pieces to see what works is acceptable at this point in time; however, New York's lack of versatility at linebacker makes this seem like a desperate ploy.
If the Giants want to answer the questions they have at linebacker, they must revert to "playing into their strengths" rather than "masking their weaknesses."
A steady rotation along the defensive front will be huge in helping the linebacking corps. Consistently swapping big bodies will allow the Giants to make plays at the line of scrimmage and contain gaps more effectively.
Fewell's innovative three-safety package could also help revitalize this defense. Will Hill's return from a suspension a month into the season could determine how this plays out. This look gives the Giants a little more versatility if used properly.
It's likely that each member of New York's linebacking corps believes he should start Week 1 against the Cowboys, and you can't really blame them.
The competition is tight yet uninspiring. Players impress, only to falter on their very next play. Such is the climate right now for the linebackers of the New York Giants.
New York is a far cry from employing all-time greats like Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor. Instead, all they're left with are questions.