Sunday, November 22, 2009
Young targets come in handy for Giants
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Lawrence Tynes delivered the winning points on a 36-yard field goal and Eli Manning provided plenty of fireworks with 384 passing yards, but the Giants' receiving corps was the impetus for New York's 34-31 overtime win over Atlanta on Sunday.
No one had to remind the men in the Giants' locker room, celebrating the club's first win in exactly six weeks, that the receivers came up big in a must-win situation that held playoff implications. New York receivers had six receptions of at least 25 yards as the Giants snapped a four-game losing streak.
"They ran routes well, made great adjustments to the ball and great decisions, and just kept coming up with big plays," said Manning, who threw for three touchdowns for the first time since Week 4. "Every time we needed a play, it seemed like they came up with something. As a [quarterback], you can appreciate that."
Perhaps most gratifying for the Giants -- and an organization under siege for the manner in which it had slumped since its 5-0 start -- was that the remade receiving group looks so different than it did only a couple of years ago. And figures to be a force for a long time.
Kevin Boss helped the Giants' cause with five catches for 76 yards, including a pair of touchdowns.
The Giants began the 2007 season -- which culminated in their upset victory over then-undefeated New England in Super Bowl XLII -- with Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer as their starting wide receivers and Jeremy Shockey the No. 1 tight end. On Sunday, Burress was sitting in jail because of his offseason plea to a weapons violation, and Toomer was not on an NFL roster. Shockey, who was injured and didn't start Super Bowl XLII, was dealt to New Orleans in 2008.
In their place were youngsters Steve Smith and Mario Manningham at the wideout spots and the resourceful Kevin Boss at tight end. The three, who total just eight seasons of NFL experience (counting this year), combined for 15 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's nail-biter.
Rookie wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, the team's first-round draft choice and a key player in nickel situations, added five catches for 65 yards.
"I think we kind of thrive on being in difficult [spots]," said Manningham, a second-year veteran who had six receptions for 126 yards. "The pressure seems to bring out something special in us, I guess."
In a game in which New York squandered a 14-point lead in the final 12 minutes of regulation, adversity seemed to bring out the very best in all the Giants' receivers. Eight of their receptions came in third-down situations, good for 124 yards. Manningham, Smith and Boss each had at least one reception of 26 yards.
Smith had a 51-yarder that helped set up a 2-yard touchdown run by tailback Brandon Jacobs in the third quarter. Boss caught a 28-yard scoring pass and added a 4-yard touchdown catch for the first multiple-touchdown game of his career. Manningham posted catches of 27, 29 and 33 yards. The 29-yarder came on the fourth play of the game-winning drive, on the first possession of the extra period. Nicks also had a 7-yard catch in a third-and-2 situation in that series.
"They just went out and went after the football," Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes said. "They made some tremendous catches."
And they made several terrific adjustments to the ball in the air, which allowed Manning to throw to some unusual spots. At least five of Manning's 25 completions (in 39 attempts) came on plays in which he delivered the ball to the back shoulder of the receiver. The Giants' pass-catchers especially worked the boundaries well, and no fewer than three of their receptions of 25 yards or more came on fade routes.
That the receivers played so well in a game that meant so much -- the Giants and Falcons were both 5-4 coming into the contest -- only enhanced their collective performance. That they all did so in replacing such accomplished veterans certainly bodes well for the future, and for Manning and coach Tom Coughlin.
Said Manning, who threw an interception on the game's opening possession and then was pinpoint-accurate: "When you're throwing the ball to tough spots, and the guys are out there making great catches it adds to everyone's confidence."
The New York defense -- which sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan twice but failed to staunch the Falcons' offense in the final quarter -- had its confidence dented once again. Cornerback Aaron Ross, the club's best cover defender, played for the first time in 2009 after a long battle with a hamstring injury. Ross lined up some at safety, which has been a problem area for the New York secondary, but not even his presence seemed to make a difference in the closing minutes.
And as has been the case for more than a month, the Giants' defense once again did not consistently terrorize the quarterback with a strong rush. After eking out just 97 yards in the first half, the Falcons scored touchdowns on three of their four possessions in the second half.
In the final 12 minutes, Ryan tossed touchdown passes of 4 yards to slot receiver Eric Weems and 11 yards to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who finished with eight catches for 82 yards and seemed to be constantly open between the hashes. Said linebacker Michael Boley, who often had the responsibility of covering Gonzalez: "We tried a lot of different stuff, [but] he kept making plays."
The same could be said about the revamped Giants receiving corps, which seems to have all but made up for the losses of Burress, Toomer and Shockey.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.