New York Giants: 5 Burning Questions Facing Giants in the 2012 NFL Season
The last time the New York Giants entered the season as defending Super Bowl champions, they dominated the competition on their way to a 12-4 record. That may be too much to ask for this time around, as last season's Lombardi Trophy triumph masked some serious deficiencies.
For Big Blue to recapture the NFC East crown and have a chance of a title game repeat, they will need to improve a running game that ranked dead last in the league in 2011. They'll also need better play from the offensive line and the linebacker corps.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the Giants as they get set for the start of the 2012 season.
Will Jason Pierre-Paul Replicate 2011 Performances?
Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE
After a quiet rookie season in 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul dominated the NFL during his sophomore campaign. In the process, No. 90 redefined the athletic expectations at the defensive end position.
A total of 86 tackles, 16.5 sacks and two forced fumbles is a tough act to follow, but the Giants defense needs Pierre-Paul at his playmaking best if they want any chance of a repeat. Few players in the league can match the ex-South Florida standout's combination of elite pro size and top-notch range and agility.
Pierre-Paul has overtaken fellow linemen Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora as the impact player for the Giants defense. Expectations are understandably high around the league and how the still raw Pierre-Paul reacts to that pressure will be key to the success of coordinator Perry Fewell's unit.
Will David Wilson Improve 32nd-Ranked Rush Offense?
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The Giants will be counting on Wilson to reignite a running game that was stagnant in 2011. For that to happen, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride must find ways to feature the speed that helped make Wilson the 2011 ACC Player of the Year at Virginia Tech.
That may be tricky for an offense that has featured a power-base scheme during most of Tom Coughlin's tenure. Wilson offers a different kind of weapon to what the Giants have used while Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs shared the backfield load.
More of a classic scat-back, Wilson utilises outstanding change-of-direction quickness and offers legitimate game-breaking speed. He is also an excellent receiver and gives the Giants' ground attack its first featured, multipurpose weapon since the days of Tiki Barber.
However, he is a bit of a freelancer and it will be interesting to see how he responds to Coughlin's disciplined offense and tough demands on running backs. They helped Barber become elite and will make-or-break this year's first-round pick.
Will a Revamped Offensive Line Fare Better Than 2011's Group?
Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE
In 2011, age finally appeared to catch up with one of the league's most accomplished offensive lines. The clockwork precision that had categorised Big Blue's veteran front five went missing as players were forced into different positions and new combinations were thrown together.
The tackle positions are the biggest question mark heading into the new season. Long-time starter on the right side Kareem McKenzie was released, with veteran retread Sean Locklear and former left tackle David Diehl seen as the replacements.
Over on the left, youngsters Will Beatty and James Brewer will compete to be Eli Manning's blindside protector. The Giants need the edges set, considering their division opponents boast the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
The G-Men also need improved play on the interior. In particular, 2011 free-agent David Baas has to do better than he did during his first season in the NFC East.
At the moment, this looks like a patchwork group, but veterans like Diehl and Chris Snee have a habit of playing their best when it matters most. If they can find the right blend of experience and youth, the Giants should be okay up front this season.
Can Victor Cruz Replicate 2011 Form?
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A preseason star in 2010, Victor Cruz exploded onto the first-team scene in 2011. Just as Pierre-Paul changed the way people viewed his position, Cruz redefined big-play expectations for slot receivers.
The prolific 25-year-old enjoyed a dream season, catching 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. He was a matchup nightmare for every defense the G-Men faced and made Giants fans forget about losing 2009 Pro Bowl star Steve Smith to hated rivals the Philadelphia Eagles.
The question is, can Cruz possibly reach those heights again? He is now sure to be a marked man for every opponent on the Giants' schedule. The Giants had better hope he can replicate his 2011 form, because Cruz's knack for making big plays in the seams is vital to their passing game.
Hakeem Nicks' injury piles even more pressure on Cruz, as does the current lack of a third receiver and the loss of clutch tight end Jake Ballard. However, even with the surprise factor gone, the Giants should be able to use the attention Cruz will surely garner to create favourable matchups elsewhere.
Have they done enough to strengthen the LB position?
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It's still strange to see the Giants routinely struggling at linebacker, given the franchise's history of stellar play at the position. This year's attempts to fix the problem include trading for former Cincinnati Bengals first-round draft choice Keith Rivers.
The 26-year-old missed the entire 2011 campaign thanks to a wrist injury and has struggled to stay healthy since entering the league in 2008. That's hardly the kind of addition many would feel the Giants need to boost the linebacking unit.
Veteran special-teamer Chase Blackburn probably mans the middle after coming on strong during that fantastic postseason run. However, it's difficult to escape the feeling the Giants could have done more to strengthen arguably their weakest position.
Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka are capable on the outside. Having said that, splitting time at defensive end places a lot of demand on Kiwanuka, and Boley is not the most consistent.
There are question marks in the secondary and the defensive line rotation needs to stay healthy. However, it's these linebackers who will determine whether the Giants improve their 27th-overall defensive ranking from 2011.
If they falter, there might be too much pressure on the front four to carry the defense and on Eli Manning and company to outscore the opposition for the Giants to get close to a Super Bowl return.