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Giants' running game key to possible (but improbable) Super Bowl repeat

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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The Giants need David Wilson to complement Ahmad Bradshaw after the loss of Brandon Jacobs. (US Presswire)  
The Giants need David Wilson to complement Ahmad Bradshaw after the loss of Brandon Jacobs. (US Presswire)  

ALBANY, N.Y. -- There are no speed bumps here to slow down the defending Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants.

No holdouts. No contract squabbles. No talk of dynasties. No arrests or suspensions or $10,000 fines for talking about injuries. Heck, there's no Tim Tebow within 100 miles, either. In short, there are no distractions, which is how you'd draw it up if you were trying to repeat as NFL champions.

"To come in and have a basically anxiety-free camp is absolutely fantastic," said Steve Tisch, the Giants' chairman and executive vice president.

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Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't concerns because there are -- or, at least there's one that has the club's attention. I'm talking about the league's 32nd-ranked running attack, which better improve if the Giants are to do the improbable -- repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Nobody since the 2004 New England Patriots has won consecutive Super Bowls in the past 13 years, and, yeah, that's worth mentioning because three teams did it from 1989-98. The Giants had their chance in 2008 when, as defending Super Bowl champions, they won 11 of their first 12 and wound up as the NFC's No. 1 seed.

But they fizzled down the stretch, losing three of their final four regular-season games before bowing out in their only playoff appearance.

That club ranked first in rushing. This club does not, and that was the topic on the table Friday after the Giants' first training camp practice. Yeah, OK, so you can make the argument -- as my colleague, Pete Prisco, has -- that running the ball doesn't matter in a passing league, offering the 2009 Indianapolis Colts and 2011 Giants as evidence.

Both ranked last, and both went to the Super Bowl.

But running the ball played a critical role in the Giants' playoff run, with the club averaging 114.5 yards over its last six victories against the 86.1 yards it averaged over its first 14 starts. So it's not the 157.4 per start New York produced during the 2008 regular season, but it was a key factor in their last-season push ... and if you don't believe me you weren't at their first playoff game.

That was vs. Atlanta -- when the Giants could run the ball the Falcons could not. New York finished with a season-high 172 yards that afternoon, while the Falcons couldn't convert two fourth-and-1s and another third-and-1.

Now fast forward to the conference championship game when the Giants' rushing attack didn't budge. Result: Quarterback Eli Manning got pounded by a furious 49ers' pass rush, and the Giants had to rely on two fumbled punt returns to win.

So don't tell the defending Super Bowl champions that running the ball isn't important. They know better.

"It's very important," said coach Tom Coughlin, "because we talk about balance, and we're a better performing team when we have that balance. Nobody wants to be strictly one-dimensional. We're old school in that respect, and we'd like to have that balance back. I think it gives us more versatility, and it gives us the opportunity to take full advantage of the run and play-action pass. We'd like to get it that way."

Of course, the question is: How do you get there? The Giants exercised their first-round draft choice on running back David Wilson, but a rookie back with as much speed as inexperience doesn't guarantee results. The Giants not only lost veteran running back Brandon Jacobs, a key element of their Super Bowl clubs, but they changed their offensive line, too, moving Dave Diehl from left to right tackle and crossing their fingers with Will Beatty as Diehl's replacement.

"For us, as an offensive-line group," said Diehl, "it's a huge thing to get the run game going and to get it back to the top of the league. That's the standard we set around here, and we know how important it is to an offense -- especially with the weapons we have. If we're able to get that balance together, there's no telling how good our offense can be."

I'll second that. The Giants have the quarterback. They have outside threats in wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and maybe, just maybe, rookie Rueben Randle. What they don't have is a productive ground game. Not yet, at least, and that's where Ahmad Bradshaw comes in. He's the primary back, and he's coming off surgery for a fractured foot. He's also someone with a history of foot injuries ... and that's while splitting the position with Jacobs.

Now he's not, and draw your own conclusions. I don't know what the Giants get from Wilson, and I don't know what they get from D.J. Ware or Da'Rel Scott. I just know they better have the running game they did in the playoffs -- or 2008 -- to have a chance to repeat.

The numbers say they won't make it to Super Bowl XLVII. History says they won't make it, either. But they might've had a chance in 2008 if Plaxico Burress didn't sabotage their stretch run, and they have a chance now if they can do what they did down the stretch -- which is backing off defenses with the run.

"Even though we're the defending world champs," said Diehl, "you have to look at important things, and [running the ball] has been such a strength four our offense -- being in the top 10 and being No. 1 at one point. We just know with all the weapons we have at wide receiver, if we can get the run game going like we know we're capable of our offense can be deadly."

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