|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 it
firsthand. "The last four or five games," says the fifth-year end, "offenses
really started [double-teaming] me and [defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka], and
getting pressure was tough. We sensed that if we just had one more guy out there
who could put some pressure on, they couldn't just worry about two guys. But we
didn't, and you saw how we ended the season.... I was just
Relief comes in the form of free-agent pickups Chris Canty (a DE in Dallas's
3-4, he's slated for DT in New York) and Rocky Bernard (DT, Seattle) and, more
important, 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 far
better off with Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl end, on the other side. "In the
Super 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 and
lead. I did my best, but that's not me. This year I'll fade into the
background. Not entirely, but by not getting all the attention I can sneak up on
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' offensive
deficiencies when, minus Plaxico Burress, they flamed out in December. As the
headline in the New York Post read, big blue butterfingers shoot selves
in foot. Nor did it take a stroke of genius to come up with a remedy. As Ahmad
Bradshaw -- the Fire in the Earth, Wind and Fire backfield that led the NFL in
rushing last year with 2,518 yards -- declared in camp: "This year they'll depend
on us running backs to get the offense started and feed the passing game. We
need to step up. We will."
Earth, in the form of 6' 4", 264-pound behemoth Brandon Jacobs, was in
agreement, 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, who
contributed 2,190 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons. "That's not
bragging," Jacobs said. "We can be just as good or better than Earth, Wind and
Fire." (Ward signed a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract with the
While Jacobs was the Giants' unquestioned starter in 2007 and '08, the
slashers Bradshaw (5' 9", 198) and Ward (5' 11", 228) were crucial to
New York's ground game, largely because of Jacobs's propensity to wear down. His
punishing, bowl-you-over running style has its advantages (witness the
Aug. 22 preseason game, in which he twice flattened Bears linebacker Brian
Urlacher) and its drawbacks (nine missed starts over two years). Jacobs hits his
peak in a game at carries 16 through 20 (5.6 yards per attempt); after that
there'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's
rushing attempts, ninth-lowest among starting tailbacks. Ward accounted for
36.3% of the workload, a figure that only four other backups topped last
With Ward's departure, Bradshaw slides up the depth chart, a move he was
supposed to make last season, his second in the NFL, but failed to because of a
nagging calf strain -- and inexperience. "Mentally, Ahmad is way ahead of where he
was last year," says Jacobs. "He's not thinking anymore, he's just playing. That
comes from messing it up one or two times and knowing that you can't mess it up
a third time." If Bradshaw does mess up, Danny Ware (6 feet, 234), a third-year
back who has looked good as a receiving and special teams threat during the
preseason, could make a run at the No. 2 job.
Jacobs, too, hopes to play a bigger role in the passing game, which would
lessen the physical punishment he takes (and the amount of run-blocking an aging
and banged-up line is called on to do). He relishes getting the ball on the
edges and in the defensive backfield, where he'd face tacklers 100 pounds
lighter than those on the defensive line. So in the off-season he worked on
strengthening his hands and on his pass-catching skills.
One play in the preseason game at Chicago provided a glimpse of his receiver
potential: Jacobs caught the ball six yards past the line of scrimmage (beyond
Urlacher, 295-pound run-stuffer Tommie Harris and 310-pound nosetackle Anthony
Adams) and churned another 10 yards through an outsized secondary before he
was dragged down from behind by a linebacker and a cornerback. If Jacobs catches
just one pass per game, he will have 10 more receptions than he had last
As for the wide receivers, they're liking what they're seeing. "Ahmad had it
right," says fifth-year veteran Domenik Hixon, who'll be a full-time starter in
the post-Plaxico era. "If those guys open it up for the passing game, we're all
good to go."
-- Adam Duerson