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Giants camp report: Champs believe they have all the parts to repeat

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Terrell Thomas (right) returns after missing all of last season with torn knee ligaments. (US Presswire)  
Terrell Thomas (right) returns after missing all of last season with torn knee ligaments. (US Presswire)  

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The New York Giants are confident they can defend their Super Bowl title, but history isn't on their side. Neither are oddsmakers, some of whom make the Giants a 20-1 longshot to repeat.

That doesn't faze this team, nor should it. The last time they were in this position they won 11 of their first 12 games and wound up as the NFC's top seed for the playoffs. OK, so they didn't reach the Super Bowl, but nobody since the 2004 New England Patriots has.

"On paper," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora, "I think we're the best team in football."

Well, they're going to have to prove it ... again.

Team Objectives

 Improve the running game. The Giants ranked last in that department in 2011, and that won't cut it again. As coach Tom Coughlin so carefully pointed out, he wants his team to be "balanced," and it's hard to sell play/action when defenses don't respect your ground game. When the Giants tried to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2008, they were the league's best rushing attack. That team had Brandon Jacobs AND Ahmad Bradshaw. This team does not. It has Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson and an offensive line that moves David Diehl from left to right tackle and inserts a questionable Will Beatty in Diehl's place.

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 Keep turnovers at a minimum. The club missed the playoffs in 2010 when it committed a league-high 42 turnovers. It cut that number to 24 last season and had only one (an interception) in the playoffs when it was a plus-6 in the takeaway/turnover department. That's how Coughlin likes to play football, and he expects more of the same this season. So does quarterback Eli Manning, who had only one interception in 163 playoff throws. "I think [what I want to improve on is] to still cut down on the turnovers," said Manning, who had 16 interceptions last season. "Make sure that whatever happens the ball is in your hands on the next play."

 Remember 2008. The good news there was that they won 11 of their first 12 starts. The bad: They lost four of their last five, including their only playoff appearance. That team included Plaxico Burress, and you can make the argument that his selfishness/stupidity sabotaged the club, and, trust me, there are people who will. All I know is that Burress put his interests ahead of the organization, and the club never recovered from the disruption he caused.

Camp Battles

 Wide receiver: I'm not talking about the starters. We all know that Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and rookie Rueben Randle are locks. So is Jernal Jernigan, if, for no other reason, than he's young and has return skills. Nope, I'm looking down the depth chart and wondering, for instance, if former third-round pick Ramses Barden makes the cut. He's looked good early in training camp, but the jury is out. It all could depend on what happens with Domenik Hixon, returning after missing two straight seasons with knee injuries.

 Punt returner: There really aren't many undecided positions here, but punt returner could be one. Hixson is a leading candidate, if he stays healthy. So is Jernigan, if he can catch the ball more consistently. Rueben Randle is an outside shot, as is rookie defensive back Jayron Hosely.

Somebody to Watch

 CB Terrell Thomas. He returns after missing all of last season with torn knee ligaments, and he's not just back; he's one of the team's two starting cornerbacks, replacing Aaron Ross. Thomas is a key to the team's success -- remember, he led the Giants in tackles AND interceptions in 2009-10 -- but he's also someone coming off a serious injury. He believes he can be a Pro Bowl cornerback, and so do the Giants -- provided, of course, he's OK, and stay tuned. Prince Amukamara may not be a suitable replacement, and safety Antrel Rolle already has made it known he's not keen on returning as an emergency nickel back. "I was poised last year for a breakout year," Thomas said, "and then getting injured you kind of go unnoticed. I'm going to come back, but I'm going to let my play do my talking." Good idea. He suffered back spasms the first day of practice, but that's OK. It was his back; his knee was fine.

Injury Roundup

 WR Hakeem Nicks (foot), DT Chris Canty (knee), TE Travis Beckum (knee) and LB Clint Sintim (knee) all are on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Beckum, who was hurt in Super Bowl XLVI, is not expected to return until midway through the season -- if, that is, he does return.

 T Will Beatty, who missed the last 10 games last season with a detached retina, injured his back lifting weights in the offseason -- a setback that kept him out of mini-camp and spring workouts. But he's back, he's the starting left tackle and he's nine pounds lighter (he weighs 310). Coughlin said he will be careful with Beatty and that he'll be limited in practices.

 CB Terrell Thomas is coming off a season-ending knee injury but insists he experiences no lingering effects. But he did hurt his back the first day of practice when he suffered a spasm but said his condition is improving.

The Last Word

It's always difficult -- if not improbable -- to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and the Giants know what they're up against. History. Odds. The Philadelphia Eagles. Anyway, they're not dismayed and insist they can repeat as division champions and make another run at a Super Bowl if they do what they did not in 2008 ... or what Plaxico Burress did not ... and stay focused on what they're after.

That was the theme of Coughlin's training camp speech when he stressed improvement from his team -- a good idea since it was 9-7 in 2011 and qualified for the playoffs the last Sunday of the regular season. Those Giants floundered until Week 16, winning as many as they lost. Then they ran the table.

The question, of course, is which team are they: The 7-7 also-ran or the confident and competent club that won its last six. Coughlin reminds players that only they can answer that question.

"The message is well implanted," said Coughlin, "and I think they'll carry it through."


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