The New York Giants signed veteran running back Peyton Hillis last week for depth. But the way they've been losing running backs this season, it's no surprise that Hillis might find himself in position to play a more significant role in Monday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings than initially thought.
Brandon Jacobs, who ran for 106 yards on 22 carries in the 0-6 Giants' most recent loss nine days ago in Chicago, missed practice Saturday with a hamstring injury and is listed as questionable for the game. The "questionable" designation technically means a 50-50 chance to play, but the fact that Jacobs didn't practice represents a setback. When the Giants held him out of practice on Monday, they said it was a precaution, and their plan was to have him practice for the rest of the week. That plan changed, and now we're left to wonder whether Jacobs will play at all and, if so, how much they can expect from him.
With starter David Wilson out with a neck injury, Andre Brown ineligible to return from his leg injury until Week 10, Da'Rel Scott released thanks to his own hamstring injury and rookie seventh-round pick Michael Cox likely still not ready to contribute much on offense, it's the new guy, Hillis, who could get the ball on early downs if they don't have Jacobs or if they have to limit him.
The Giants would feel at least some level of comfort with Hillis, even though his first practice with them was a mere three days ago. He is a veteran who's had success in the league, rushing for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns as Cleveland's starter just three years ago. He spent time earlier this season in Tampa Bay, where former Giants assistant Mike Sullivan is the offensive coordinator, so they believe he knows their offense and its terminology. He has the size (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) they look for in their running backs, and he's known to have great hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Tom Coughlin specifically mentioned that he caught the ball well in Tuesday's workout for the team.
Add in John Conner, who looked in Chicago like the kind of blocking fullback the Giants need to run their power running game with regular fullback Henry Hynoski also out for the season (man, they've lost a lot of backs!), and the Giants feel they have a recipe to run the ball effectively with Jacobs, Hillis or some combination of the two. The big questions about Hillis over the past couple of years have been about durability, but when we spoke with him last week, he seemed eager for the opportunity. I imagine he'd be able to tough out at least this first game.
The most important part of a Giants running back's job is pass protection, and the extent to which Hillis showed in practice Thursday, Friday and Saturday that he could handle the protection schemes could determine how many carries he gets. If Jacobs is hurt and they don't trust Hillis to pick up blitzes, they have an issue. Conner could be used in blitz pickup in a case like that, but that's an imperfect solution that would lead to an unbalanced, pass-heavy game plan. I don't think that's a bad way to go against the Minnesota secondary. The Vikings have seven interceptions this year, and only two are by a defensive back. And that defensive back, Harrison Smith, was placed on injured reserve last week. The Giants should be able to throw on the Vikings and would be wise to try it -- assuming, of course, that their protection can hold up.
With Jacobs banged up, newcomer Hillis on Monday night could find himself a bigger part of that -- and of the running game itself -- than anyone could have imagined a week ago.