Previewing The Giants

The Giants have enough talent on the roster to get back to the playoffs this year. But it can all go down in a hurry if the injury bug rears its ugly head again.

Unless you were living in a cave or decided to become a rabid Saints fan, you all know what happened to the Giants at the end of last season.

Splat! Crunch! Phlam!

Outscored 85-16 the last two games, the penultimate one with playoff possibilities still alive. A 5-0 start squandered amid a plethora of injuries and communications problems on the defensive side. Basically, an 8-8 record and only Tom Coughlin's second non-playoff season since his arrival in 2004. A season that left everyone dissatisfied, from head man John Mara on down.

Could this year be a repeat of that one, or worse? Absolutely. Could it be better, an above .500 year with a return to the playoffs? Absolutely.

Nothing like a wishy-washy prediction, right? Well, that's only because it's just that hard to pin the Giants down on anything. So much is going to depend on the ability of this already aching team to stay healthy, that it's virtually impossible to predict where they'll wind up in the division. Suffice to say, though, that Dallas could be the NFC East front-runner right now. And with a tough opening schedule that includes a road trip to Indianapolis and home games against Tennessee and Chicago, it's easy to see how the Giants could fall well behind the pace if they're not playing to their potential.

As they finalize preparations for their opener against Carolina Sunday, let's take a look at how this roster stacks up.

QUARTERBACK:  Hard to argue with Eli Manning. He's not the most exciting quarterback in the league and never will be. But he can get it done. He played through a bad heel last year and still got the ball to receiver Steve Smith enough for a 100-catch season. Now he's got a nice little gash on his head, but that shouldn't bother him. He's got a bunch of good targets, so he just take his customary place just below the elites of the league, which will be good enough to win.

RUNNING BACKS: Ahmad Bradshaw takes over for Brandon Jacobs as THE man this year. If his preseason was any indication, he's over his foot problems and should be a force against some of the stronger defensive fronts because of his sharp cutback ability. Of course, Jacobs is still a necessary part of the offense, but this year his pounding style will come in after defenses get done chasing Bradshaw. If offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is smart, he'll send Jacobs between the tackles every chance he gets for maximum punishment effect.

RECEIVERS: Make no mistake, the Giants have not been a traditional run-first team for quite a while now. Their passing game sets up the run, and they should have a good one with playmaker Hakeem Nicks seeing twice as much action as he did during a 47-catch, 790-yard, six-touchdown rookie season. He's over his knee issues, as exhibited by several wonderful moves he made in the preseason. Steve Smith will still be the go-to guy, especially on third down, where he is so dangerous. Mario Manningham and new returnman Darius Reynaud will play supporting roles, but it will be interesting to see if they get 6-foot-6 Ramses Barden on the field at all. When first drafted last year, he was considered a potential Red Zone threat, ala Plaxico Burress. But his inability to pick up the system kept him on the sidelines all last year. Between injuries and inconsistency this training camp, he still hasn't shown he's ready. But the Giants might just have to force him into situational duty. It's time. A two-tight end depth chart of proven Kevin Boss and a huge question mark in Travis Beckum could put an added blocking load on fullback Madison Hedgecock or cause backup tackle Will Beatty to serve in a "heavy" formation.

OFFENSIVE LINE:  This unit only got back together this week, which should send up red flags. C Shaun O'Hara will deal with Achilles tendinosis all season and could be in and out of the lineup, forcing even more movement. The big issue will be the line's return to a physical run-blocking style, which somehow vanished last year. Perhaps it's a matter of finding the fountain of youth, considering O'Hara, Rich Seubert, and Kareem McKenzie have all passed the big 3-0. If Seubert falters early, look for former Eagle Shawn Andrews to step in quickly on the left side.

DEFENSIVE LINE: This is going to be an interesting unit. Plenty of talent, lots of depth, and if defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has his way, loads of personnel combinations. He has shown himself a bit of a mad scientist in the preseason, and he told the media the other day that they've only seen a small sampling of what he has in store. Can't argue with  rejuvenated Osi Umenyiora, newly-named captain Justin Tuck, and versatile Mathias Kiwanuka at defensive end, with first-rounder Jason Pierre-Paul's raw ability behind them. Chris Canty is healthier now than he was last year, so his big wingspan should effectively harass quarterbacks while Barry Cofield clogs the middle. They had DE Dave Tollefson playing inside quite a bit in the preseason. Even Rocky Bernard, trying to fend off the free-agent bust tag, had his moments. But if Bernard falls into last year's rut, there's always second-rounder Linval Joseph and his strong, penetrating style waiting for a chance.

LINEBACKERS: The coaching staff loves the fire Jonathan Goff plays with in the middle, and that's part of the reason he'll wear the radio helmet that receives the signals from the sideline. But he and his counterparts, Keith Bulluck and Michael Boley, must not let tight ends and running backs traipse all over them in a repeat of last season's troubles. Bulluck, back in his natural home outside, adds veteran leadership to a unit that must still be regarded as the defense's weak link until proven otherwise. There's not a lot of quality depth here, as Bryan Kehl is so-so and Clint Sintim has second-round bust written all over him.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Hey! Kenny Phillips is back! For how long, nobody knows. He didn't get that many snaps in the preseason as the coaches took the cautious approach in his return from microfracture knee surgery. He could be a physical force, which would give them two starting safeties (along with Antrel Rolle) who can whack people around and create those turnovers Fewell so desires. Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster are fine on the corners, and Thomas will go inside on three-wide sets to cover the slot receiver while either CB Bruce Johnson or S Deon Grant come in as the extra DB. Whatever you do, don't count on Aaron Ross for a whole lot this year. After having his 2009 season ruined by hamstring problems, the former starting cornerback is now battling plantar fasciitis, which is very painful. He could be in and out of the lineup, as his doubtful status for Sunday already indicates. If the starters' health holds up, unlike last year, this could be a very strong, bend-but-don't-break unit. Keep in mind that Fewell's version of the Tampa-2 is not all read-and-react. It's aggressive, so look for plenty of gambling on interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Lawrence Tynes got much better length on his kickoffs in the preseason, putting several at or near the goal line. But even that won't help if the coverage doesn't improve. They gave up several long returns, one notable one after the Giants scored an opening touchdown against the Patriots. Reynaud should help the punt return game long in search of a replacement for injured Domenik Hixon. Matt Dodge has quite a leg and can boom punts 60 yards or more. But he does tend to be inconsistent, and his directional work is not polished. So opposing returners will have a chance to gain field position. Reynaud can serve as gunner, too.

PREDICTION: Rough deal here. Dallas is good, Washington is on the way up with Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb. The Giants won't have double-digit wins because the offense will never be a scoring machine. But if the defense stays healthy – a big if at this point – it should keep things close enough for them to pull out a few games in the fourth quarter. As they open a new stadium, we'll be kind and figure them for 9-7 and a wildcard playoff spot. There's a lot of talent on the roster. But just keep in mind that it can all go down the tubes as quickly as last season if a few key people get hurt.

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