Call the New York Giants' second-year star, and salsa dancing sensation, a wide(-eyed) receiver.
"Anytime you look at a defense, and see a wide receiver playing defensive back, your eyes get really big," said Cruz, who after catching zero passes as a rookie in 2011 had 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns this year.
Cruz was referring to what appears to be a mis-matchup with Julian Edelman, a three-year veteran who has moved, at least part-time, from pass catcher to pass defender this season. The chances are that the two men will be paired up across the line of scrimmage from each other fairly often on Sunday night. Especially when Cruz is aligned in the slot, which he often is when the Giants go to a three-wideout formation, which they use more than 50 percent of the time.
For his part, Edelman, a former college quarterback (Kent State) who was drafted in the seventh round in 2009, has said several times this week that he is getting a lot more comfortable moonlighting in the secondary. But with Cruz going against Edelman, who is playing defensive back for the first time since he was 13, the Giants appear to have a significant advantage. And that, according to some NFL observers, and privately in the minds of most New York receivers, is hardly the only edge for a New York passing game that statistically ranked fourth in the league in the regular season.
"When we go three (wide receivers) across," said New York wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, "we're tough against anyone. I really do believe this (matchup with the New England secondary) is one we can exploit."
Indeed, it may require every scintilla of Patriots coach Bill Belichick's defensive genius to somehow camouflage the holes in his secondary and blunt a New York passing game that seems to be cranking on all cylinders. The Pats' secondary, at least on paper, is a fairly motley crew, a dubious assemblage that has drawn lots of close scrutiny in the run-up to the game. During the regular season, the Patriots rated next-to-last in the league in defense versus the pass, surrendered nearly 5,000 yards and 26 touchdown passes, and essentially played secondary roulette because of injuries and shoddy performances.
In addition to Edelman, the secondary includes:
— Cornerback Devin McCourty, who was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010 when he registered seven interceptions, then was accountable, according to one Patriots assistant, for more than 1,100 yards this season. The former first-round pick, who dropped off to only two interceptions in 2011, often was moved to safety in the second part of the season to compensate for liabilities. A Patriots coach joked that he thought perhaps McCourty and his twin brother, Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason, had secretly switched places this season.
— Free safety Eugene Chung, arguably the unit's best player and certainly its top hitter, who was limited by injuries to just eight starts.
— Cornerback Kyle Arrington, who tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions but whose resume includes having been waived four times in his NFL career, entered the league as an undrafted free agent and had just two college interceptions.
— Others: Fellow wide receiver-turned-occasional-safety Matthew Slater, a special teams ace, has not played defensive back since high school. Nickel cornerback Antwaun Molden, who had never started a game before this season, was claimed by the Patriots on waivers earlier this season. Safety James Ihedigbo, who started 12 games, had never started before this year in four previous seasons, and was known principally as a special teams standout with the New York Jets. Safety Sergio Brown was strictly a special-teamer before this season. Safety Nates Jones, like Arrington, had been released four times before this season.
Maybe the most noteworthy of the collection of spare parts and misfits is corner/safety Sterling Moore, who has become a key player for New England. He saved the AFC Championship Game by swatting the would-be winning touchdown pass from the hands of Baltimore wide receiver Lee Evans. Moore was a prep baseball player who only went out for the football squad at Deer Valley High School (Antioch, Calif.) because some friends urged him to try it. He signed with Oakland as an undrafted free agent, was released twice by the Raiders and signed with the Pats' practice squad after auditioning for the team at a casting-call workout on the West Coast in October.
Moore, who was packing boxes for a shipping company before the Patriots signed him, subsequently was elevated to the active roster.
Beyond the perceived dearth of big-time players, the New England secondary is exceptionally callow. Six of the players in the regular rotation have played three or fewer seasons. Five have been released at least twice each. In the 18 games that the Patriots have played, counting two playoff contests, they have employed 11 starting combinations and a dozen different starters. Two of the onetime starters are on injured reserve and one is no longer with the team.
To say the Pats have been forced to scramble for defensive backs is understatement.
"Still, (it's) like a dream," Moore said this week of the rags-to-riches journey to a Super Bowl berth.
On Sunday evening here, though, things could turn nightmarish for Moore and his secondary colleagues. Nicks also rang up more than 1,000 yards for the Giants in 2011, and No. 3 wide receiver Mario Manningham, who is especially effective in the red zone, had 39 catches and four touchdown grabs.
None of the New York receivers will acknowledge it publicly — coach Tom Coughlin would come down hard on anyone who provides the Pats additional motivation — but privately they allow that they don't see how New England can cover them.
Said one of the receivers to The Sports Xchange: "We could make it ugly for them."
Nicks and Cruz are tough run-after-catch receivers, and Manningham has sneaky-type speed, is more quick than fast and is technically sound. Quarterback Eli Manning, who threw for 4,933 yards in the regular season, is especially effective in the middle of the field, where the New England coverage lapses have been damaging much of the year.
The Patriots surrendered 300-yard passing games in 12 of their 18 games this year, and 400 yards on two occasions. New England has played five games against the nine other top 10-rated passing offenses (the Patriots themselves were second in the league), and allowed 300 yards or more four times. Ironically, the lone top 10 passing opponent the Pats held under 300 yards was the Giants.
But things could be different this time for New York, which registered 250 passing yards against the Pats in a 24-20 victory on Nov. 6.
Belichick has demonstrated considerable faith in his challenged unit, and explained this week that Edelman takes advantage of the "spacing" in playing against the slot, the position he most often takes on offense. Edelman contended during Media Day that his experience on the offensive side has benefitted him on defense.
"I'm getting better," Edelman said. "We're all getting better."
Bug-eyed at the prospect of going against the Pats' secondary, Cruz might disagree.
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.