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Giants wideouts eye big finish
So far, this has been a largely trash talk-free zone leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, so civilized that the New York Giants’ acclaimed receivers are doing a Victor Cruz salsa dance around any notion they will target specific members of the very vulnerable New England Patriots pass defense.
“Seriously,” a questioner boldly asked Cruz, the Giants’ undrafted breakout star, “you’re going into this game hoping you’re matched up on every play against Edelman, right?”
That would be Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ receiver who was once a quarterback, then a punt returner and now doubles as a nickel cornerback, a jumbled role which means the former Kent State standout often finds himself twisted by the NFL’s better pass catchers.
Cruz really didn’t want to add insult to the Pats’ myriad injuries on defense — the reason that Edelman was ordered to start attending defensive meetings in November.
But he and his fellow Giants’ wide receivers – Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham combined for 3,251 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns this season – know they have the big game’s most obvious edge against the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense (428 yards per game) that also finished 31st against the pass (293.9).
“Any time you look at a defense and you see a receiver playing defensive back, you automatically open your eyes and want to exploit those matchups," said Cruz, the undersized but powerful slot receiver who caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011. "We have to see where we can exploit them. It should be an interesting time to see how they play us.”
Now that is a quality end-around.
Manningham, who finished behind tight end Jake Ballard in receiving yards with 523, along with four touchdowns, couldn’t help himself. Last week, he openly boasted the Giants would absolutely exploit Edelman.
This week in Indianapolis, he has played nice. Sort of.
“It’s not like that,” said Manningham as he tried to soften his previous trashing of Edelman, part of the Pats’ patchwork defense that has used 16 defensive backs at various times in the secondary. “I respect him as a player.”
Then again, “He plays wide receiver,” Manningham added when pressed further. “He’s not a real defensive back. Did he get drafted as a defensive back?”
Nicks, who’s overcome a hamstring strain and shoulder injury to rack up 18 catches for 335 yards and four TDs in Big Blue’s three playoff wins, avoided the smack completely. He simply smiled this week and bit his tongue.
“They’re a solid secondary,” he said Wednesday. “Obviously they’ve been doing something right to get to this point where they’re at today.”
Nicks is correct: The Pats aren’t total patsies. At times this postseason, they’ve produced startling plays. It was an undrafted rookie safety, Sterling Moore, who manhandled Baltimore Ravens wideout Lee Evans in the end zone of the AFC title game, robbing him of a potential game-winning scoring catch with 22 seconds remaining.
“I feel like they are capable of making plays, but there are also some things that you can take advantage of within our offense,” Nicks said. “That’s what we look forward to.”
It’s what makes Kevin Gilbride’s job such a blast. Four years ago, the Giants offensive coordinator approached Super Bowl XLII with a formidable receiving corps of Steve Smith in the slot, along with team receptions leader Plaxico Burress and wily veteran Amani Toomer. And it was little-used David Tyree who came up with the signature catch with 1:15 remaining, spurring the Giants’ 17-14 upset of the Patriots.
Gilbride knew what he had in Manningham and Nicks. But when Cruz exploded to NFL stardom by catching two spectacular TD passes from Eli Manning in a Week 3 victory over the Eagles, Gilbride knew he finally secured a dependable slot receiver to replace the departed Smith.
And a complementary set of pass catchers the coordinator will match up against any in the NFL.
“What’s best about this is that they’ve sort of come out of nowhere,” he said with a huge laugh. “I mean, Victor Cruz … everyone is taking credit now, but not many people knew he could do what he did. As coaches, we thought there was a chance.
“So to see that growth and development, with Hakeem growing into the dynamic player that he is, to see what Victor has evolved into, to see Mario when he’s healthy, it’s fun.”
As the Giants (12-7) rebounded from 7-7 to win five in a row for this championship opportunity, the receivers have developed a salient bond of trust: If one is double-teamed, another will be open, and that guy will make the play. “We’re just hard to stop,” Manningham said.
“We’ve built a brotherhood,” Nicks said. “We spend time with each other on and off the field. We’ve built a relationship where we like to help each other out, whether it’s running routes or breaking down points on film.”
None of this has been lost on Edelman, who’s coming off a rough outing in the AFC championship victory and knows he’s a virtual bull’s-eye on Super Sunday.
“I am not really worried about what Mario Manningham is saying right now,” Edelman said of the lack of respect he and New England’s defense has not enjoyed this week. “I am more focused on doing my job, and that is preparing right now. We will see if that opportunity comes ahead of us in the game.”
“What ranking?” countered Patriot cornerback Kyle Arrington, who had seven interceptions this season. “It’s postseason. All that stuff goes out the window. Accolades, individual awards, records, stats – just throw it out. It’s a fresh start.”