Giants fans, we have reached a critical juncture in the NFL preseason. By game three, the starters receive their most extensive game action of the summer. Quarterback battles are won and lost. Coaches get an idea of who their starters will be come Opening Day.
By the final game of the preseason, rosters are rounded out with backups and specialists, and a few “surprise” cuts end up being made.
After the amazing run to Super Bowl victory against the Patriots and a 12-win follow-up season that ended in an uninspired Divisional Playoff exit last year, the Giants have set the bar for what needs to be accomplished. The organization and the fans expect eleven wins or better and Super Bowl contention every year.
So if they are going to achieve their goal of another Super Bowl title, there are three big issues/positional battles that could determine success or failure for the 2009 New York Giants.
No question about it, Eli Manning is the starter; being the highest-paid player in the league warrants it that way. However, my concern is with the backups.
David Carr still looks uncomfortable, like he never recovered from the beating he took in Houston. Sure, he was credited with a touchdown drive against Carolina, but the defense gave him a short field and the score was a result of a short pass to RB Danny Ware, who did most of the work on a catch-and-run for 36 yards.
Andre Woodson is quickly looking like he is not going to make it, as he has made some head-scratching decisions with the football.
The wild-card in the battle to back up Manning is rookie Rhett Bomar. We forget how talented he was before he was dismissed from the Oklahoma program, but he has yet to see any significant action.
Look for Manning to get a good amount of work against the Jets this week, who employ an aggressive defense that should simulate the regular season. The other three should be worked in to see how they react as well. Perhaps one of these guys can help improve on the disconcerting 28 percent preseason third-down conversion rate.
However, by the time the final preseason game comes around against New England, we should see an equal dose of all three backups, competing for two roster spots. If Bomar plays well, I expect him to make the 53-man roster, while Carr or Woodson looks for a job.
Manning has been durable since his ascent to starting quarterback in New York, but if he misses extended time the Giants do not have a proven option to take the reigns at this point.
Health of the Defense
A well-stocked, nine-deep defensive line is starting to get stripped a bit. Injuries have struck down defensive tackles Jay Alford and Chris Canty for extended time. Alford will rehab the MCL for the rest of the preseason and then determine the severity of the partial ACL tear.
To make matters more difficult, Alford also doubles as the short-snapper on PATs and field goal attempts, a role to be filled by current long-snapper, Zak DeOssie.
Canty, a big offseason acquisition from Dallas, is going to see how bad his hamstring is. He is going try platelet-rich plasma therapy to see if the hamstring can heal quicker, thereby preventing a trip to the IR.
The Giants do have Barry Cofield, Fred Robbins, and Rocky Bernard to work in the middle, so I don’t believe there is a reason to go into all-out panic mode just yet. Plus, there is a glut of pass-rushers on the roster and DE Justin Tuck (currently battling some minor foot pain) will slide inside on obvious passing downs.
Look out for undrafted free agent DE Maurice Evans out of Penn State. He has been making some plays this preseason and he has a chance to stick on the roster if he can keep the momentum going.
In addition to the defensive line, the back seven has been bitten by the injury bug, too. All three of the projected starting linebackers (Danny Clark, Antonio Pierce, and Michael Boley) have missed time this summer with a variety of ailments.
This past Saturday against Chicago, Pierce’s replacement (Chase Blackburn) looked completely over his head at the middle. However, rookie third-round pick Clint Sintim has looked solid in all facets; coverage, pass-rush, and athletic ability in particular. He could take Clark’s strong-side starting job.
With Boley recovering from hip surgery and being suspended for the regular-season opener, Bryan Kehl and Gerris Wilkinson need to hold down the fort at the weak side.
To keep the hits coming, CB Aaron Ross re-injured his hamstring in the last training camp practice on Tuesday. Corey Webster and Kenny Phillips have also been fighting through some of their own health problems (hip and knee, respectively).
Any team can overcome a few injuries here and there, but when a cluster of them send virtually the entire starting defense to the trainer’s room, this could be too much to deal with. A return to health by the bulk of the unit in time for the Sept. 13 opener against Washington will be imperative to success.
Rightfully so, a lot was made about the loss of Manning’s favorite target in the passing game in 2008, Plaxico Burress. When that kind of chemistry is broken up down the stretch run into December and January, it can be very difficult to recover.
This year, Manning has had the entire offseason to develop a rapport with his receivers. Remember, Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady each experienced success on offense by spreading the ball out to middle-tier receivers.
While it would be nice to see a “go-to” receiver emerge, it is not necessary, especially with a strong running game. Instead, each receiver should work on establishing a niche.
Steve Smith displays good possession receiver skills; I think he could fill Amani Toomer’s old role. Domenik Hixon is capable of big plays downfield, but needs to have better concentration.
First-round pick Hakeem Nicks shows flashes of ability, but his start to camp was limited by a hamstring injury, so he is just hitting his stride. Ramses Barden is 6’6” and an intriguing red-zone option, but seems to be a better athlete than a pro receiver right now (remember Clarence Moore, Ravens fans?).
The team is also high on Mario Manningham, who could also factor in the return game. Ex-Miami Dolphin Derek Hagan has performed better than expected in camp and has a shot at stealing a roster spot. That means Sinorice Moss and David Tyree are the two guys on the bubble. If they don’t perform well, there is a good chance either could be traded for a conditional draft choice or outright released.
In any case, this is a group that lacks experience, but each receiver brings something different to the party. Eli Manning has had an entire offseason to figure out which receivers he can lean on in a big spot. Who those guys are will be a question that is hopefully answered by Cutdown Day.
A backup quarterback has to emerge as merely tolerable. The defense needs to get healthy. The receivers need to carve out roles for themselves. If these three issues can be adequately addressed, then the Giants have a Super Bowl-caliber team. If not, it could all fall apart quickly.
As August winds down, it will be very easy to take the temperature of this team going forward. All you have to do is look at the Tom Coughlin Mood Ring. When it is a rosy color, things are going well. When it is a shade of red that doesn’t occur in nature, there are problems.
Keep an eye on these developments, because they will be the difference between glory and agony in 2009.