The Giants kept eight linebackers on their cut to 53, but there is only one, really, who is in a position to give the defense’s most questionable unit the stability it seeks.
It isn’t Michael Boley, who had just a so-so 2009. And it’s not Jonathan Goff, despite the youthful fire and raw ability he’ll bring to the middle linebacking spot.
The stability must come from Keith Bulluck, the former Titan, who now will command the strong side after the failure of second-year player Clint Sintim to master that spot over the course of training camp.
They tried Bulluck in the middle for a month, but Sintim’s shaky play on the outside forced defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to move Bulluck back to a position he dominated for the better part of 10 years in Tennessee. He’s at home there, and he showed in the latter part of the preseason that his mobility is back after last year’s surgical knee repair.
It’s been a good camp for him, complete with the knowledge of a new position that could keep him on the field all three downs.
“For me, I would say it’s probably the best preseason camp that I’ve had just because I basically had to go back to basics,” Bulluck said. “I’ve had to learn that new defense. I’ve had to learn new terminology, learn new people, new coaches and players. So for me it’s been overwhelming mentally, and I think that I’ve handled it.
“I’ve gotten to understand the Giants, and I’ve gotten to understand how coach (Perry) Fewell is going to be calling the defense and what his expectations are of his Mike linebacker and his outside linebackers. So I think with all that knowledge and getting these couple days off, I just get to relax my brain for a little bit, my body as well, and come back next week with a fresh start.
“So I would say it was good. It was definitely good, especially coming off just having ACL surgery eight months ago. I’ve been out there running around, moving around. The last few games have probably been the equivalent to the amount of reps that I’ve had all camp.”
Any uncertainty about where Bulluck will make his living was taken away with the move back to the strongside the final week of camp. But against the Jets, where he played the entire first half, he stayed on the field in the nickel, moving into the middle as Goff came off. That will, in all likelihood, become a regular routine for him. And with hard-hitting safety Kenny Phillips coming on in many of those situations, the defensive potential against both run and pass should be stronger than last season.
“Yeah. I think so,” Bulluck said when asked if he feels like he’s ready to take on the same three-down responsibilities he had in Tennessee. “The only thing that’s helping me is reps. In these last two weeks I’ve gotten a lot of reps. I think it’s given me an opportunity to see where I’m at to go back and watch the film to see where I need to get better, to see the technique that I may not be using or I may need to use. I’ve been using the film from the last two weeks to see where I’m at, but yeah, definitely. I definitely will be more of an asset than I will be someone to help this team lose. So it’s up to the coaches. If they feel I’m ready, I’ll definitely have myself prepared to be out there. But that’s what I am. I am a three down linebacker. I’m not used to coming off the field.”
It’s no longer a matter of comfort level for Bulluck.
“I’m comfortable on the football field,” the former Pro Bowler said. “Outside is where I’ve been trained in base defense the last eight-to-10 years, and the last five years I’ve been playing middle linebacker in the nickel package. So it really doesn’t matter to me. What I’m told, that’s exactly what I’ll do and I’ll be effective at it either way.”
The linebackers did make several good plays as the preseason ended, with Goff making two goal line stops and an interception, and Bryan Kehl making another on fourth down of that Patriots threat Thursday. Boley showed movement and activity while making seven stops. But as that unit stands now – Chase Blackburn is just returning from an injury, Kehl is more of a special-teamer, fourth-rounder Phillip Dillard isn’t polished enough yet, and Sintim just never got it -- Bulluck is the one the rest need to follow.