Giants 2005 version of Thunder and Lightning

In 2000, the Giants running game was back. Not since Rodney Hampton was rumbling to 1,000-yard seasons basically in his sleep in the early- to mid-‘90s had New York fans been able to enjoy themselves so fully while watching the ground attack operate. See Hampton take the handoff and sit back while the chains continued to move.

In the Giants run to the Super Bowl in 2000, they had a tremendously balanced rushing attack as Tiki Barber enjoyed a breakout season and rookie Ron Dayne burst onto the scene.

It's five years later, Barber's better than ever, Dayne's in Denver and the Giants are about to give the old Thunder and Lighting attack another try – this time with 256-pound monster rookie runner Brandon Jacobs. How Jacobs fares this season, especially in the short-yardage role, will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Giants can improve on last year's rushing numbers. Behind Barber's record-breaking 1,518 yards, they finished the 2004 campaign with the NFL's 11th-best rushing attack, averaging 119 yards per game and 4.5 yards per pop.

TGI takes a closer look at the key questions facing New York and its rushing attack as Big Blue continues prepping for the '05 season.

Can Brandon Jacobs pick up the tough yard? Dayne's struggles trying to move the sticks in short-yardage situations and score near the goal line have been beaten to death. As has our belief that it was misuse by the coaching staff more so than shortcomings on Dayne's part that ultimately was to blame. All together now for the final time: ‘Ron Dayne is not a short-yardage back!' Regardless, one of the Giants' biggest problems needs to be rectified and needs to be rectified right off the bat.

Jacobs has the size, attitude and toughness to move the pile when need be, but also the ability to spell Barber. He's been very impressive during camp's first week and surely will be given plenty of opportunities to succeed in various roles this season. But first and foremost is in short-yardage.

He was able to get in the end zone 19 times last season. That's impressive. There's no statistical way to measure how deflating and devastating having to settle for a field goal from the two-yard line or having to punt the ball after failing once again on a third-and-one near midfield is on an NFL club. For the Giants to seriously contend for anything this season, that has to stop. And fair or not the onus for that is going to fall on a rookie that wasn't selected until the fourth round.

How much will improved O-line help? The Giants believe their offensive line is head and shoulders above what it was last year. For starters, they have a legitimate right tackle in Kareem McKenzie, who's proven to be able to blow folks out of the way in the run game during his time with the Jets.

All their interior blockers figure to be better as well. Chris Snee was just a rookie last year and missed most of the second half of the season. He's a true road grader and run-blocking specialist the Giants are extremely excited about – and not just because he gets to spend Thanksgiving at the Coughlin household. Being around Snee and hearing those in the know discuss Snee, one thing is pretty certain: he's going to be good.

In the middle, Shaun O'Hara is back for his second year at center for Big Blue. Is he headed to the Pro Bowl? Not likely. Is he capable of doing his part to make things easier for Barber and Co.? Of course.

The other major improvement comes at left guard. Not only is David Diehl back at guard where he belongs, but Rich Seubert, who was no less than New York's best run-blocker when he broke his leg close to two years ago, is challenging him. Everybody's pulling for Seubert, who's one of the most popular players in the locker room, and he has full designs on reclaiming the starting left guard spot that was his.

From a depth perspective, Big Blue's O-line also boasts two former starters and solid players in the run game currently playing in reserve in Jason Whittle and Wayne Lucier.

Finally, if Luke Petitgout stays healthy on the left side – and veteran Bob Whitfield fills in if need be – there's really no reason why the OL won't be much improved, making the run game run smoother in the process.

Can Tiki stay healthy? The obvious answer is ‘Yes, not a doubt in the world.' But in this game, sometimes freak things occur. Barber has been fortunate to avoid those at all costs, primarily due to his extreme workout regimen. To say they need it to happen again, after he's coming off his first Pro Bowl season, would be redundant.

Since Barber took over as the Giants go-to back in 2000, he's missed a grand total of two games due to injury. They need that type of health and production from their top offensive threat once again this season.

Another reason this is so key is because the Giants have a bunch of question marks behind Barber on the depth chart. While Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ryan Grant have potential – and Mike Cloud is more productive than given credit for – no one, we repeat no one, is going to be comfortable in the run offense unless number 21 gets the bulk of the carries.

Camp closeup

Strength of unit: Tiki. Tiki. Tiki. Barber continues to elevate his game and performance level to the point where he's considered one of the game's top backs – and rightly so. At 205 pounds, he can run like a battering ram and loves to initiate contact with defenders. His ability to bounce off would-be tacklers is a big reason the Giants were able to average 4.5 yards per carry last year. Knowing Barber, he isn't satisfied with that.

Weakness of unit: No proven backup. However, the Giants believe they'll be able to find someone to spell Barber among the several reserve backs they have on the roster. Until proven otherwise, the short-yardage and goal-line games will be considered a weakness.

Key additions: Brandon Jacobs is the main guy. The draft experts had plenty of names for the Giants. But New York really only had one – Brandon Jacobs. They figured because he transferred from Auburn and due to his size that he'd be available in the third or fourth round. They gambled on waiting until day two and still got their man. They truly look at him as a tailback, and he's shown early in camp that he has the running skills and speed to turn the trick. But he's going to earn his early paychecks moving the chains in short-yardage situations.

Key losses: Really nobody. Five years ago, no one would have been able to predict that Ron Dayne would unceremoniously walk away from the Giants – and then take months to find a new employer. Yet that's exactly what happened. Besides a few of his teammates, no one in the Giants organization misses him all that much.

Darkhorse: We're going to have to go with Derrick Ward on this one. Relatively unknown when he signed on last season, Ward opened some eyes when he took a kickoff to the house against Washington. Anytime the conversation turns to the RB mix, Tom Coughlin is always sure to mention Ward, who despite the anonymity, probably has as good a shot as anyone to be Barber's primary backup.

On the hotseat: Mike Cloud. He just doesn't excite you the way Jacobs, Ward and even rookie free agent Ryan Grant do. It wouldn't at all be surprising to TGI if Cloud doesn't make it out of camp.

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