Not a lot the Giants' passing game can do

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz thinks this is the week for the New York Giants' passing game. Been a tough year. Very few big plays, lots of sacks allowed. Cruz hasn't caught a touchdown pass since September. Hakeem Nicks hasn't caught one all year. But this Sunday in San Diego, Cruz says, this is the game.

"I believe this is an opportunity for us to get ourselves going again in the passing game," Cruz said Thursday after practice. "I think we see some things we can open up against. I think this week we'll get some opportunities to hit some big plays against the style of defense they run."

Hey, it's supposed to rain this weekend in San Diego, too, so anything's possible, right? The narrative around this place for months has been that the passing game would eventually get going -- that a big week was coming for Eli Manning and his receivers. Given their track records, it's not crazy to think that at some point they'll just snap out of it.

"There's still a lot of talented people on our team," guard Kevin Boothe insisted. "For whatever reason, the big, explosive plays haven't been there."

The Giants (5-7) have just five passing plays this year of 40 yards or longer, which ranks 24th in the league. They're tied for eighth with 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards, so it's not as though they never go downfield. It's just that they don't seem able to take the top off a defense the way they did when the passing game used to sizzle.

And with due respect to the second part of Boothe's quote, the potential reasons are myriad. It starts with the protection, which has been awful. Manning has already taken a career-high 31 sacks and there are still four games left in the season. Left tackle Will Beatty on Wednesday bemoaned the ability of the line and the blockers to provide Manning with a clean pocket, musing, "Oh, how great would it be if we could give him that pocket again?"

Unprecedented pressure combined, early in the season, with a complete lack of a running game set Manning down a dark path of interceptions and slumped shoulders as the Giants started 0-6. Things have picked up since, as the Giants have won five of their past six games and Manning has had three games with a completion percentage over 60 and two over 70. He was an efficient 22-for-28 for 235 yards Sunday night in Washington. But he hasn't yet strung two good games together, and part of the problem is that Nicks' play has stubbornly refused to improve along with that of the team.

Nicks is playing in a contract year, but he has performed poorly and was left inactive two games ago after his agent instructed him to get checked for a hernia earlier in the week and he had to miss practice time. Without Nicks as a legitimate big-play threat, teams have been able to double-team and severely limit Cruz. Rueben Randle has broken loose for six touchdowns, and tight end Brandon Myers has a touchdown catch in each of the past two games, but the halting progress of the passing game remains a major problem.

"You always try, and we have," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said of getting Nicks more involved. "But it's a two-way street. You still have to get open. You still have to win. The coverage has to accommodate it. Sometimes the opportunities haven't been there. Sometimes, when he's had the opportunity, we haven't always capitalized on it. Sometimes the ball has gone other places. A lot of factors come into play, and sometimes it's just luck."

Yeah, but not for four whole months, it's not. If you're into the first week of December and still waiting for your passing game to get going, there's a pretty good chance it's not going to happen.

I asked Gilbride if he felt limited in terms of what he could call and execute in the passing game because of all of the problems that have limited it this year. He didn't say no, but he bristled when I suggested he had effectively said yes. His answer was a general one about how coaches and teams always have to adjust to what they're able to do well, and as an example he mentioned the vastly improved run game since Andre Brown returned from his injury. The Giants would be foolish, he said, not to rely on that.

"There's no question you take into consideration what your strengths are," Gilbride said. "Is your strength your running game? Is it your pass protection? Is it your receiving corps? You capitalize on whatever that strength is to the best of your ability, and every game is different."

Maybe, but a lot of Giants games this year have felt very much the same. And one of the common denominators has been the inability of the passing game to effectively beat teams deep. It's possible that it'll come around at some point in these final four games. It's possible that the involvement of Myers as a receiver the past two weeks indicates an ability to stretch out a bit further down the field than the Giants could a few weeks back. It's possible that Cruz's prediction will come true, and they'll strafe the Chargers' secondary Sunday. Listen to the players, and you can almost convince yourself.

And then you go out and listen to Gilbride talk about the way the Chargers disguise blitzes.

"They do a terrific job of disguising," he said. "You have to go in saying, 'I might have to throw some hots, we're going to have to throw some sights.' Which isn't a bad thing, but normally we're able to adjust to the protections. Eli has done a good job of studying, and he's able to take the tools that we have available for him and solve more protection problems. You're just not going to get it done in this game because of their ability to disguise."

And you think that maybe this isn't the week after all. That maybe that week just isn't coming in 2013.