|Healthy and more experienced, Bradshaw steps into the role of No. 2 back this year.|
|David Bergman/SI |
20 at Dallas
27 at Tampa Bay
4 at Kansas City
18 at New Orleans
1 at Philadelphia
8 SAN DIEGO
26 at Denver (T)
21 at Washington (M)
3 at Minnesota
Justin Tuck, Defensive end: The phrase that kept emerging in internal discussions of the Giants'defensive collapse late in 2008: worn down. Tuck experienced itfirsthand. "The last four or five games," says the fifth-year end, "offensesreally started [double-teaming] me and [defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka], andgetting pressure was tough. We sensed that if we just had one more guy out therewho could put some pressure on, they couldn't just worry about two guys. But wedidn't, and you saw how we ended the season.... I was justworn down."
Relief comes in the form of free-agent pickups Chris Canty (a DE in Dallas's3-4, he's slated for DT in New York) and Rocky Bernard (DT, Seattle) and, moreimportant, in Osi Umenyiora, who missed all of '08 with a left-knee injury.While Tuck went from 10 sacks in 2007 to 12 sacks in '08, he says he's farbetter off with Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl end, on the other side. "In theSuper Bowl year  we had [Michael Strahan] and Osi, and we could rotate.Come the fourth quarter, when offensive lines were beat up, we were all fresh.We were still on our first winds. Last year I didn't have that."
Tuck also looks forward to another break Umenyiora's return affords him."Osi's our leader," he says. "Without him I saw it as a necessity to step up andlead. I did my best, but that's not me. This year I'll fade into thebackground. Not entirely, but by not getting all the attention I can sneak up onpeople again."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The already formidable running game will carry an even greater load, and that includes backs catching more passes.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to pinpoint the Giants' offensivedeficiencies when, minus Plaxico Burress, they flamed out in December. As theheadline in the New York Post read, big blue butterfingers shoot selvesin foot. Nor did it take a stroke of genius to come up with a remedy. As AhmadBradshaw -- the Fire in the Earth, Wind and Fire backfield that led the NFL inrushing last year with 2,518 yards -- declared in camp: "This year they'll dependon us running backs to get the offense started and feed the passing game. Weneed to step up. We will."
Earth, in the form of 6' 4", 264-pound behemoth Brandon Jacobs, was inagreement, boldly predicting that he and his backfield mates would still be the"best running team in the league" even without Wind -- a.k.a. Derrick Ward, whocontributed 2,190 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons. "That's notbragging," Jacobs said. "We can be just as good or better than Earth, Wind andFire." (Ward signed a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract with theBuccaneers.)
While Jacobs was the Giants' unquestioned starter in 2007 and '08, theslashers Bradshaw (5' 9", 198) and Ward (5' 11", 228) were crucial toNew York's ground game, largely because of Jacobs's propensity to wear down. Hispunishing, bowl-you-over running style has its advantages (witness theAug. 22 preseason game, in which he twice flattened Bears linebacker BrianUrlacher) and its drawbacks (nine missed starts over two years). Jacobs hits hispeak in a game at carries 16 through 20 (5.6 yards per attempt); after thatthere's a substantial drop-off (4.1 on carries 21 through 25).
Hence the time-sharing. In 2008 Jacobs accounted for 43.6% of the team'srushing attempts, ninth-lowest among starting tailbacks. Ward accounted for36.3% of the workload, a figure that only four other backups topped lastseason.
With Ward's departure, Bradshaw slides up the depth chart, a move he wassupposed to make last season, his second in the NFL, but failed to because of anagging calf strain -- and inexperience. "Mentally, Ahmad is way ahead of where hewas last year," says Jacobs. "He's not thinking anymore, he's just playing. Thatcomes from messing it up one or two times and knowing that you can't mess it upa third time." If Bradshaw does mess up, Danny Ware (6 feet, 234), a third-yearback who has looked good as a receiving and special teams threat during thepreseason, could make a run at the No. 2 job.
Jacobs, too, hopes to play a bigger role in the passing game, which wouldlessen the physical punishment he takes (and the amount of run-blocking an agingand banged-up line is called on to do). He relishes getting the ball on theedges and in the defensive backfield, where he'd face tacklers 100 poundslighter than those on the defensive line. So in the off-season he worked onstrengthening his hands and on his pass-catching skills.
One play in the preseason game at Chicago provided a glimpse of his receiverpotential: Jacobs caught the ball six yards past the line of scrimmage (beyondUrlacher, 295-pound run-stuffer Tommie Harris and 310-pound nosetackle AnthonyAdams) and churned another 10 yards through an outsized secondary before hewas dragged down from behind by a linebacker and a cornerback. If Jacobs catchesjust one pass per game, he will have 10 more receptions than he had lastseason.
As for the wide receivers, they're liking what they're seeing. "Ahmad had itright," says fifth-year veteran Domenik Hixon, who'll be a full-time starter inthe post-Plaxico era. "If those guys open it up for the passing game, we're allgood to go."
-- Adam Duerson