Cruz again taking aim at Rex's Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In his first Monday night performance as a pro last preseason, Victor Cruz toyed with Rex Ryan's defense, caught LeBron James' eye and became an instant cult hero among Giants fans.

A year later, Cruz was back on "Monday Night Football" this week and cameras were focused on the wide receiver again. But this time, Cruz was seen receiving a tongue-lashing from offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

"You know that if he doesn't yell at you, that means he doesn't love you," Cruz said with a smile. "When he is yelling, he expects the best out of you."

A lot has changed in a year. Cruz is no longer an undrafted rookie free agent fighting for his NFL life. This preseason, he's battling with Domenik Hixon for the third wide receiver spot and a chance to fill the void left by Steve Smith.

Cruz practically earned a roster spot against the Jets last year with six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns against Ryan's defense in their preseason rivalry game. On Monday, another sensational effort against the Jets could win him a major role in the Giants' offense this season.

There's pressure this preseason to perform but a different kind of pressure on Cruz.

"I was a little bit on eggshells last year," Cruz said. "Obviously being a free agent, you don't know if you are going to make the team, every day is a struggle for you, you got to make a play. Last year was a much harder year for me emotionally than this year."

This season, Cruz pretty much has his roster spot secured -- but it's a job with a lot more responsibility. He not only is working on becoming Eli Manning's slot guy, but he also plays special teams on punt coverage.

Coach Tom Coughlin has praised Cruz this season for emerging as a contributor on special teams by making a couple of tackles on punt returns and for going over the top of a defensive back for an impressive 21-yard catch on a fourth-and-4 in the first quarter against Chicago last Monday.

"He has caught the ball, more in practice than in the games, obviously, and he is very quick," Coughlin said of Cruz, who has four receptions for 50 yards in the preseason. "He has demonstrated that again and he has caught the ball in some difficult spots."

But like any young player, Cruz has much to learn. During the Giants' 41-13 win over the Bears, Manning could be seen at times directing Cruz where to line up.

Then following a third-and-13 at the Bears' 27-yard line in the second quarter, Cruz was chewed out by Gilbride after failing to run the precise depth on a route to open up more space for Mario Manningham, who was only able to gain eight yards on the play.

"It is a constant sense of urgency in not only what you think you are supposed to do but how you are supposed to do it," Coughlin said. "How you are supposed to adjust it and it is just not for him, it is for everybody, not just Victor. The specifics, the details, the absolute part of it so that there is no hesitation on the part of the quarterback."

During practice this week, Manning failed to connect on a bomb to Cruz, and the two spent several minutes going over the route.

The humble Cruz tries to soak in every piece of information he can. After having his rookie season end six weeks into last year due to a hamstring injury that placed him on injured reserve, Cruz did not have the normal offseason to work with coaches due to the lockout.

But the Paterson, N.J., product did train with Manning at the quarterback's organized workouts at Hoboken High School and got valuable reps he might not have gotten in a minicamp with so many receivers on the roster.

Cruz has been watching film and studying Smith's route-running and decision-making against various defenses.

"I try to take bits and pieces from his game and add it to mine," Cruz said.

One DVD Cruz had not watched in a while was his performance against the Jets last preseason. The wide receiver said he understands he likely won't be able to duplicate those gaudy numbers against the Jets on Monday night.

But at least he isn't playing for a roster spot anymore.

"This year is a little more attention to detail and some things are working for me," Cruz said. "Different kind of eggshells. ... They don't crack as hard [this year]."