- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALBANY, N.Y. -- The task for New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, as he works this summer to keep his Super Bowl champions from getting complacent, is to remind them of all of the things about which they have no right to be complacent.
In a meeting on the first day of camp, Coughlin showed his team a few stats. Under the heading "Worst to Best," he reminded the Giants that they ranked last in the league in rushing offense in the 2011 regular season and 27th in total defense. He put up the number 400, which is the number of points the Giants allowed en route to a 9-7 regular-season record -- more than all but seven teams in the league, not one of which reached the playoffs.
"There's a lot of improvement to be made," Coughlin said after Saturday's practice. "And the challenge has been, 'Which team are we?' Are we the 7-7 team, or are we the Super Bowl champions?"
They are both, of course. They are the team that went 7-7 in its first 14 games, playing inconsistent defense, running the ball into the backs of its linemen and asking quarterback Eli Manning to bring it back from behind in the fourth quarter almost every week. But they are also the team that galvanized itself after its Week 15 loss to the Redskins and won six in a row, including the Super Bowl. Coughlin wants his charges to remember both parts and give them equal weight. The latter part, he says, gives the Giants the confidence to know they can fight through any challenge. The former reminds them of how much work they have to do.
"I think last year was a tale of two teams," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "The first half was the tale of a team that didn't play well together, had egos, was injured, didn't have a full complement of players. And the second half was us coming together. 'All-in' became our slogan, and guys really checked their egos at the door and sacrificed whatever personal things we had to become that great team."
The knowledge that they're capable of being the best team in the league is a helpful thing for the Giants to carry with them. But the tone here at Giants training camp is not one of cockiness or a Super Bowl hangover. The Giants are a serious, professional bunch whose hope is to maintain the intense focus of those final six games and apply it over the course of at least 16 this time around. Tuck said the Giants can trust in "the mental compass of this team" to make sure the issues that plagued them last year don't resurface, and as they go through their preparations for 2012, that is the priority.
"We've got to find a way to get our work done," Tuck said. "That's the only way you win championships."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can Will Beatty play left tackle? The offensive line is the biggest question, and the key to the line is Beatty, who still has yet to establish himself as the reliable starter the Giants believe he can be at left tackle. He missed the final six games of the regular season with an eye injury and says the good thing about that is he didn't beat up his body as badly as the rest of his teammates did, but he did miss the reps and the experience he would have accrued had he been able to complete his first year as a starter. So he remains a question.
"That's definitely something that he's got to work at," right tackle David Diehl said. "When you miss that much time of football, you've got to get back at things, and he missed some time during minicamp due to a back injury, so he's got his work cut out for him to come into this season. But we all know he's physically capable."
2. Who replaces Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham? They weren't starters, but Jacobs had 167 touches last year and Manningham caught 39 passes. They will need to be replaced, and the candidates to do so are young and unproven. First-round pick David Wilson is competing with D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott to be the backup running back behind Ahmad Bradshaw. Second-round pick Rueben Randle is competing with Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden to be the No. 3 wide receiver. Training camp and the preseason will be a tryout camp for the guys at those positions. Starting wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are excellent, as is Bradshaw if he can keep his feet healthy all year. But this offense likes to spread it around, and some of the players in these competitions must step up as reliable options.
3. Is Terrell Thomas back? The Giants' secondary was more good than bad last year, but it did have its bad moments. Thomas, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason and missed all of 2011, believes he's healthy and ready to reclaim his position as an emerging star at cornerback. If he's not, the Giants will look to 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara to man the cornerback spot opposite Corey Webster. But Amukamara comes with plenty of his own questions, and the Giants need this camp to help them figure out exactly what they have on the back end of that defense. The pass rush remains excellent and the linebacking depth is improved, but if there's a spot at which the defense is a bump or a bruise away from being very wobbly, it's that secondary.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Where the Giants are strong, they are as strong as anyone in the league. The pass rush, led by defensive ends Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, is fearsome when only two of that threesome are healthy. If all three can stay healthy this year, they should be devastating. "That's our strength, no question," Tuck said. "We know it. It's a lot of pressure on us, but we thrive on it, and hopefully we can build on last year and play 16 games together this year so we can see how scary that can be."
They're also obviously quite strong at quarterback, where Manning has established himself as the most clutch player in the league. He led seven fourth-quarter comebacks last year, including one in the NFC Championship Game and one in the Super Bowl. He never misses a game, works hard at making those around him better and has become the unquestioned leader of the team. In a quarterback-driven league, the Giants wouldn't trade their guy for anyone.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The one potential downside to that last thing, however, is that the Giants may have come to count on Manning too much. Manning himself said that, while knowing you can make a fourth-quarter comeback is nice, the Giants need to stop making them so necessary.
"It kind of means, when you're doing that a bunch, that you're not playing real well the first three quarters," Manning said. "So let's step it up and play with that kind of energy and enthusiasm and that 'Hey, we need to score here' kind of attitude in the first three quarters. Obviously I still want it at the end, and there's going to be some games where you need it. But let's not overuse it, because sometimes you're going to get a bad break. Sometimes the ball's going to get tipped. Sometimes a bad play is going to happen and then you're just out of time. So let's not always put ourselves in that situation."
The Giants didn't actively go out and get many solutions to the problems that put Manning in those situations so often last year. They're relying on the guys they have to play better and stay healthier. And if they don't ... well, you just can't count on seven fourth-quarter comebacks every year, no matter how good your quarterback is.
It looks as though Chase Blackburn will begin the season as the starting middle linebacker, though newcomer Keith Rivers could overtake him if he shows the ability to play the middle. The second-team middle linebacker right now is Mark Herzlich, who also could overtake Blackburn if healthy and leave Rivers in a utility linebacker role. This is suddenly a position of great depth for the Giants, who have four second-year linebackers they like as well as Rivers and starting outside linebackers Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Don't assume rookie Wilson wins the backup running back job just because he was picked in the first round. The Giants love him, but they'll be perfectly willing to keep him in the background and develop him if he doesn't show enough in camp and someone such as Ware does. Wilson is getting a lot of practice reps, so they will be able to make a thorough judgment on him, but he's still behind Ware on the depth chart.
Former Giants safety Deon Grant said last week that he expects to re-sign with the Giants at some point during camp, but I did not get that vibe from the Giants. They feel good about their linebacker and cornerback depth, and barring injury, I don't think they'll feel the need to bring back Grant and run all of those three-safety sets they ran the past couple of seasons.
Beatty said he came to camp lighter this year (310 pounds) than last (319). He believes he can put the weight back on as muscle now that he's able to work out again. After he injured his back and developed a sciatic nerve problem during minicamp last year, he was unable to work out the way he usually does in the summer.
While the Giants' pass rush is keyed around their defensive ends, they believe second-year defensive tackle Marvin Austin can help them generate more pressure up the middle on first and second downs. "He's a fast-twitch guy, especially for a 320-pounder," Tuck said of Austin, who missed his senior season at North Carolina in 2010 due to suspension and his rookie NFL season in 2011 due to injury.
Should something happen to Beatty or Diehl, the Giants hope 2011 fourth-round pick James Brewer can be a reliable first option as backup at either tackle position. Their hope is that he develops into a reliable right tackle who can eventually replace Diehl, though they're not expecting that this season.
Fullback Henry Hynoski caught passes out of the backfield early in camp. He's good at it, and especially given the Giants' questions at tight end, it's an option you should probably expect them to use in the passing game.