Defense looking inward for answers

Mathias Kiwanuka admits the foul taste of last year's debacle has yet to disappear, and it won't until the New York Giants' 2010 season officially begins.

"It's still not over," Kiwanuka said of last year's 8-8 finish. "It is still a big issue in the locker room. Players are still talking about it. We can [only] joke about it now to the point where you are not immediately angry any time you hear when somebody talks about it."

There's also one other issue Kiwanuka and the Giants hope will not linger like the stench from sweaty practice gear. That's the absence of Antonio Pierce. A major key to the Giants' success this season will be their ability to overcome the loss of their defensive captain. Pierce was released in February after he missed the last seven games due to a herniated disk in his neck. The Giants are still searching for a replacement.

"To be honest, that was hard to get over," Kiwanuka said last week of Pierce's departure. "You look at how much A.P. has given to this organization and how productive he still was on the field. We are going to be successful on the field this year, but it won't be because A.P. is gone. It will be despite the fact that A.P. is gone. Life will go on."

General manager Jerry Reese will take the first step toward filling the Pierce void with this week's draft. The Giants own the 15th pick, and one name mentioned often is Alabama's stud middle linebacker Rolando McClain. The Giants almost certainly will come out of this draft with a linebacker, whether they choose to pick one in the first round or later.

"Whoever comes in, that is a huge void," said Giants safety Kenny Phillips last week. "A.P. was everything for our team. Not to expect a rookie to come in and be A.P., but he will play a big role in the defense."

But Reese reminded reporters last week that Pierce's replacement very well could come from the Giants' current roster, not from the draft. The general manager specifically mentioned Bryan Kehl, Gerris Wilkinson and Jonathan Goff as linebackers who can step up. And he spoke in depth about last year's second-round pick, Clint Sintim, living up to lofty expectations as well.

"I think there are some linebackers on our team that need to prove that they can do it," Reese said. "Just like last year, I thought there were some receivers [already on the roster]. I do have some confidence in some guys on our roster that haven't played a lot. I want them to step out of the shadows and show us what they have. But that won't preclude us from continuing to look to upgrade that position."

But finding someone to not only play like Pierce but lead like Pierce is about as easy as trying to slow down Peyton Manning. Pierce may not have been the most athletic linebacker, but he was the defense's quarterback for the past five seasons. He got teammates lined up in the right spots, and he knew Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb as well as anyone in the NFC East.

"He has been in our division for a number of years," Kiwanuka said of Pierce, who played for the Redskins and Giants the past nine years. "He could tell you within two guesses of what every call would be. Until we get somebody at that level, we've just got to do it as a group. We have more than enough leaders to stand up. [Linebacker] Chase Blackburn is just as knowledgeable in our division about other teams and in our defense to get us in the right position. It is just a matter of who is going to step up and be that fearless leader that we had and somebody who can call out anybody at any time and had that credibility to do so because they had already put in that hard work and effort.

"What you got and miss with A.P. was that every morning he was the first one in there and at night he was the last one out, so when he called somebody out, there was nothing you could say about that."

Now Pierce is no longer at the facility. And the Giants hope his ghost won't haunt them this season.

"There is not going to be a problem [in the locker room without Pierce]," Kiwanuka said. "There is an initial feeling of 'Why did that happen?' [Pierce's release] but then you realize you have to move on. You realize he is not the first veteran that you had to see walk out the door. David Tyree walked out a few years ago and that was tough. But you move on."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the NFL for ESPNNewYork.com.