I'm going to start with the positives, because I get accused too often by overly sensitive New York Giants fans of being too negative about their team. And when they look bad, I promise I'll continue to point that out. But in their second-to-last preseason game Monday night -- a meaningless 17-3 loss to the New York Jets -- I saw a lot of things on the Giants' defense that I really liked.
I'm going to start with Justin Tuck, even though that seems obvious, because he's the Giants' best defensive player and it all starts with him. If Tuck is flying around the field, pressuring quarterbacks and making plays on the edge, the rest of the Giants' defense works off of that. And I think Monday night's Tuck was a Tuck who looks ready for the season. As a result, the defensive tackles looked energized, swingman Mathias Kiwanuka was active and effective, Aaron Ross (pressed into starter's duty after the injury to Terrell Thomas) made several nice plays in pass coverage and the Giants' defense more than handled the Jets' starting offense in the run game and the passing game.
I was especially impressed with Ross, who is a starting-caliber cornerback more than capable of filling in for Thomas if he's able to stay healthy (which, granted, has been a big issue with him). The Giants showcased their depth at safety by moving Antrel Rolle into a slot cornerback role (and bringing Deon Grant in at safety) in the nickel package, and that should work fine until and perhaps after Prince Amukamara returns from his injury. And I think Jonathan Goff looked very strong against the run as he continues to grow in his role as the starting middle linebacker. As I have continued to stress when discussing positives and negatives of all four teams this month, the preseason has no predictive value whatsoever, so I'm not saying the Giants' defense will be great because it was great in this game. But to see their established players putting up strong individual performances this late in the preseason should encourage Giants fans that those players are healthy and their minds are right.
Now, not all can be rosy in this Giants' preseason, and so a good night on defense came with hiccups. Kiwanuka left the game with a groin injury he later described as "not serious," and Tuck left with what the team described as a "neck burner," which they obviously hope isn't serious. But while the Giants' first-team defense was in the game, they looked fired up and ready to go.
Now, about the offense and the special teams ...
1. The running game will be critical. Ahmad Bradshaw's playing time was limited because of a minor back injury, but he looked very good when he did play, especially on a 29-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass in the second quarter. Brandon Jacobs looked outstanding, as he has all preseason, running with spark and power and looking as though he could easily regain the No. 1 running back role should Bradshaw get injured or struggle with fumbles again. Sadly, though, Jacobs spoiled his effort with an idiotic play that got him ejected from the game. Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson baited him into a fight. Jacobs, who fancies himself a boxer, threw a couple of punches, and both players were thrown out. Jacobs is a proven hothead who last season threw his helmet into the stands when he got upset during a game, and it's possible the book on him is that he's easy to rile up and prod into a stupid mistake. He surely did nothing in this game to dispel that.
2. Eli Manning and the interceptions. One was on a fourth-down play where he was trying to take a chance because it was fourth down. The other was just a poor decision. And the fact that there were two of them is, of course, what stands out when we're talking about a guy who threw 25 picks last season. Now, he looked good throwing to Hakeem Nicks (and to Bradshaw), but the lack of depth of receiving options has him looking confused at times. He doesn't always seem to remember that Victor Cruz is on the field, let alone see that he's open. So it may be that there's work to be done for Manning to get used to his new receiving corps. It may also be that he'll look totally different come the regular season, as so many established players who struggle in preseason do. The good thing is that you know a poor preseason performance won't affect Manning's confidence or attitude, even if the same can't be said about the fans watching him. Fact is, Manning's got the job, and if he's going to have a bad season, the team is too and there's nothing anyone can do about it. I think he'll be fine.
3. Not-so-special teams. Rookie Jerrel Jernigan looks as if he already needs a vacation. Muffs, fumbles ... not the kind of stuff you like to see out of your return man. They may need to look at other options. And the kick and punt coverage continues to look terrible, which actually does mean something since those teams are populated by guys playing for roster spots and increased playing time. One bright spot is that both punters looked good again, which I continue to believe means good things for Steve Weatherford and bad things for Matt Dodge. We'll see on that, but whoever gets that job is going to look a lot better if they can cover his kicks.
4. Cruz versus Domenik Hixon. It was all Cruz early in that No. 3 wide receiver spot, with Hixon coming in late in the game again. I continue to believe the Giants have been trying to ease Hixon back from his knee injury and that he's the favorite to earn playing time in that No. 3 wideout role as the season goes along. But the fact that Cruz and Mario Manningham have seen so much time there makes me think they're going to continue easing Hixon back in once the regular season begins and want to know what they have there in terms of other options. Especially since they're not getting much out of the tight end position.
5. Offensive line improvement. New center David Baas appears to be over the issues that plagued him in the first preseason game. And left tackle William Beatty might not look super-smooth over there with his grabby arms and constantly-moving feet, but he's more or less blocking his man. Left guard David Diehl struggled a couple of times early on, as he failed to pick up a few interior pass-rushers on the blitz. But that got better as the game went along. And the run-blocking is just outstanding across the board.
Finally, I'm not too troubled by this inability to punch the ball into the end zone that has everybody so upset. It's preseason. They moved the ball well. Pretty good chance they'll call different plays when it counts, no?