Top 10 Difference Makers for the 2009 Giants
There are a lot of questions surrounding the 2009 Giants. Will the receivers step up and fill the void left by Plaxico Burress?
How will the defense fare under new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan? Will the Giants running game suffer from the unproven players in the passing game?
These are just a few of them, but what one factor will prove to be the most determining for Big Blue in 2009?
Aside from the much discussed struggles in the receiving corps, the Giants have many other questions throughout the team. Steve Spagnuolo is gone and former linebackers coach Bill Sheridan will have a lot to prove in his first season as defensive coordinator.
With many of the same players and a few key off-season acquisitions on defense, Sheridan will be expected to keep the defense running at the same level Spagnuolo had them running at. But this big question mark doesn't even make it into this top 10.
The additions of Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard, C.C. Brown and Michael Boley to the players who were already there gives Sheridan more than enough to work with on defense, but that doesn't mean that there isn't any uncertainty on the defense.
Following a Super Bowl victory and an early loss in the playoffs last season after leading the NFC with a 12-4 record, expectations are as high as they have been in years for the New York Football Giants, yet, so is the uncertainty.
Head Coach Tom Coughlin will have to get his team to believe in the players they have. Yes, especially at receiver, but that shouldn't be hard.
As long as Coughlin realizes what are the most important factors to his team's success then the 2009 Giants should continue to dominate. And here are ten things Coughlin and Giants fans should realize heading into the '09 season.
10. Kenny Phillips
After being taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft Phillips wasn't expected to play much with James Butler and Michael Johnson already set to hold the safety positions, but Phillips performed anyway.
He showed the Giants that he was worthy of the first round selection recording 67 tackles, six pass deflections and one interception while splitting time with Butler and Johnson.
With Butler gone, Phillips will most likely be starting along side Johnson in 2009, and his performance will be very important in determining the Giants pass defense that ranked eighth last season in passing yards allowed per game. Expect Phillips' numbers to rise with the increase in playing time.
9. Hakeem Nicks
Nicks has the most pressure any rookie receiver has had in a long time.
Before playing a snap in the NFL, Nicks is expected to step in a replace a Super Bowl-hero receiver. The failure of the Giants to trade for Braylon Edwards or Anquan Boldin, two proven receivers, and to take a rookie instead only adds to the pressure. But the truth is, Nicks isn't the most important player in the Giants receiving corps.
He could develop into a fine receiver for years to come, but he doesn't have to have a rookie-of-the-year type season for the Giants to be successful this season.
8. Kevin Boss
Boss has had an unexpectedly interesting career thus far. Not much was thought of him when he was selected in the fifth round, pick 153, in the 2007 NFL Draft.
He was thought of as a complement to then starting tight end Jeremy Shockey at best, but a 45-yard catch in Super Bowl XLII and a full season as starting tight end later, Boss is the Giants go-to man at the tight end position.
Heading into his second season as a starter, his performance will just as important as last season when he was replacing fan favorite Jeremy Shockey.
If Boss can perform better than his 384, six touchdown 2008 season (which wasn't bad by any means) then that will take a lot of pressure off the receivers to fill the void left behind by Plaxico Burress. Boss should have a lot of fans' attention again in his second season as starting tight end.
7. Eli Manning
Due to the lack of proven receivers, Manning will have to react to the defensive pressure opposing teams will be adding as a result to the uncertainty in the passing game.
Another problem for Manning will be that he will have little time to develop a chemistry with the new faces catching the ball. Along with Burress, another familiar target in Amani Toomer is gone, leaving Manning with a group of receivers he has rarely worked with.
Manning has developed a good chemistry with Steve Smith, but as for the other receivers he doesn't know what to expect from them. He will have time to develop something with them during training camp and preseason, but nothing is better than the experience gained during regular season games. Manning will have to develop something to make the running game more effective.
6. Aaron Ross
Not since Jason Sehorn has a Giants corner back received so much attention and praise. Ross has been a fan favorite ever since being selected with the 20th pick of the 2007 draft.
Ross started every game last season except for the week 17 match up against the Minnesota Vikings, after the Giants had already claimed the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Statistically he had an almost identical season to his rookie year and still failed to prove he could cover any receiver he faced at times last season.
This season he will once again be the starter across from Corey Webster, who has developed into a solid corner under Spagnuolo. If Ross doesn't step up and become the play making corner fans are expecting him to be, their patience might start to run dry. Ross will have to prove this season that he has learned how to cover better and can develop into a shutdown corner for years to come.
5. The Offensive Line
Much like the case of Manning, with an unproven receiving corps, the Giants offensive line will have to be ready to see a lot of blitzes from opposing teams, at least in the early part of the season. Until the receivers prove that they should be feared, which could happen right away, opposing defenses will be much more focused on the run and getting pressure on the quarterback—much like the latter part of last season.
Although they still led the league in rushing yards per game (157.4) last season, the Giants struggled rushing in four of the final five weeks, only averaging 100.4 yards per game. In consecutive games against Philadelphia and Dallas during this stretch, the Giants rushed for 88 and 72 yards respectively. These totals were much too low compared to the rest of the season.
However, if the Giants offensive line performs like they have in recent years, the opposing defense's focus on run stopping and pressuring the quarterback shouldn't be a problem.
4. The Outside Linebackers
This was a toss up between Antonio Pierce and the Outside Linebackers, but Pierce has proven himself with the Giants for years now, so this season the OLB's will have to prove themselves.
Although Pierce's tackles have decreased each of the past three season (137 in 2006, 103 in 2007 and 95 in 2008), the Giants overall defense has improved during that time (25th ranked in total yards allowed in 2006, seventh in 2007 and fifth last season). This proves that Pierce doesn't have to do anything but play solid football which he has done every year since joining the Giants in 2005.
As for the outside linebackers, there is a question as to who could start at the strongside linebacker position, opposite of Michael Boley this season, assuming he starts. Although Boley did seem to struggle a bit last season and recently underwent surgery that will sideline him 8-10 weeks, the Giants signed Boley to a five-year deal in hopes that he can live up to the 109 tackles, four forced fumbles, three sacks and two interceptions he had in 2007.
Danny Clark will most likely start the season at strongside linebacker as he played in all 16 games and started 15 games there last season, but watch out for Clint Sintim if he overcomes his injury.
With the questions surrounding this position, it will be interesting to see how everything plays out, but this won't be the most determining factor for the Giants success in 2009.
3. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck
Yes, two of the key players in a defensive line that Tom Brady still has nightmares about will be back on the field for the first time since that game. Umenyiora and Tuck not only have Super Bowl XLII to brag about (not that they would), but they also recorded 23 of the league-leading 53 sacks the Giants recorded in the 2007 season-the last season these two were both on the field.
Umenyiora missed last season after going down with a knee injury during the preseason, but Tuck didn't miss a step. With fellow feared defensive lineman out and while taking over for long-time Giant Michael Strahan, Tuck followed up an impressive 10-sack 2007 season with an even more impressive 12-sack 2008 campaign.
With Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard also causing havoc, expect Umenyiora and Tuck to return to 2007 form. And with them doing so, expect the Giants defense to be among the top in the league once again.
These two will be very important to the success of the Giants in 2009, but they are not the most influential players on the team.
2. Steve Smith
As mentioned before, of the current group of receivers the Giants have, Steve Smith is the only one that Manning can count on to be consistent, and that's exactly what he will have to be this year.
Looking at his numbers won't tell you how important of a target Smith is for the Giants, but watching them every week will. Smith had 574 yards and one touchdown last season, but the threat of him cutting across the middle opened things up for Burress, Toomer and Hixon last season.
Smith won't have to be a big-play receiver, catching the long ball week after week, but he will be expected to be the slot receiver that he showed that he can be last season. With Smith cutting across the middle and the defense knowing how much of a threat that he is in doing so, this will open things up for the rest of the receivers.
If Smith isn't able to perform week after week, it could be very harmful to the entire passing game. However, he still isn't enough to be number one on this list.
1. Ahmad Bradshaw
With Derrick Ward gone and Brandon Jacobs almost certain to get injured due to his physical style of play, Ahmad Bradshaw will be the most influential factor to the Giants success in 2009.
Bradshaw has waited for two years now to get his chance, and now he most certainly has it. During his wait Bradshaw did shine at times.
He first burst onto the scene with an 88-yard touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills in 2007, showing off his blazing speed. He then showed it again in Week 2 of the 2008 season, pulling off a 31-yard touchdown run against the St. Louis Rams and again in Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens breaking off for a 77-yard run.
His contributions will be a large factor of Big Blue's success this season. His speed and elusiveness will be huge for the Giants in 2009. These skills will also make him a great target for Manning to throw to out of the backfield.
Having two 1000-yard rushers last season was a large part of the Giants' success. If they can pull it off again, the Giants passing game will be fine, and the team will once again be among the top in NFC.