By Ernie Palladino
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The missing man in this case is an important one.

No, we’re not talking about the Jets’ Dimitri Patterson, who for some unknown reason decided to attract the ire of Rex Ryan by disappearing for 48 hours. It’s not Stephen Hill, the Jets’ third-year wide receiver who may be permanently missing by the opener following a perfectly horrendous preseason. Nor is it the various members of the Giants’ offense who still bear little resemblance to the West Coast — or any other effective offense, for that matter — as they ended the exhibition schedule.

No, we’re talking about someone who has legitimately missed camp with a sprained toe. Jon Beason, the veteran middle linebacker who arrived at the Meadowlands last year and immediately solidified the defense, is an important factor.

Considering that cornerback Prince Amukamara  was on the sideline with a groin injury on Thursday night and Jason Pierre-Paul played with an iffy back, they really cannot afford to have Beason sitting out any longer than necessary. Though a case of food poisoning set his rehab back a week, Beason still maintains he’ll be back for the opener in Detroit. And that’s good news considering how the Giants sorely need to start the season as healthy as possible.

Like any other season, the Giants’ health will dictate a lot about how far they’ll go. So far, the news is not good. Beason, on PUP since injuring the toe in the offseason, is only the longest of the casualties. Guards Geoff Schwartz and Brandon Mosely have already been sidelined with toe and back injuries, and tackle Will Beatty still has yet to look up to par after battling back issues last year. The result was an inconsistent starting line that kept Eli Manning on the run virtually the entire preseason.

Ndamukong Suh might be licking his chops right now over the prospects of destroying that offensive interior on Sept. 8. And certainly Matt Stafford could have an easier time of it if Amukamara hasn’t returned, or if Pierre-Paul’s prediction that 2014 will be even better than his 16.5-sack sophomore season doesn’t come together immediately.

One can easily see how important Beason is to this defense. He’s a run-stopper, but also a wonderful field general. He wears the transmitter in the helmet, and he’s the one who will keep the Jameel McClains, Jacquian Williamses, Spencer Paysingers and Mark Herzliches of that middle level together.

He did it last year. After coming to the Meadowlands for a seventh-round draft pick Oct. 4, the former Panther became an instant leader on defense. He finished with 98 tackles — second on the team — including 11 in his first game on defense, a week after he debuted on special teams two days after his arrival. He highlighted his season with 19 tackles against Washington.

He’s purely a run-stopper, as most middle linebackers of today are. But he is also no stranger to dropping back into the short zone on pass defense.

The sooner Beason gets back, the better off a defense that allowed 54 runs of 10-or-more yards last season will be. As scary as that number is, consider that 18 of those runs came before Beason appeared in the defense. Opponents also recorded five of the seven longest runs allowed before Beason’s arrival.

He’s a significant piece, one of the defense’s biggest leaders. Now that the preseason is over, the clock is truly ticking on Beason’s return.

The sooner, the better.

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