For seemingly as long as the Giants have played football, the running game has been the bedrock of their offensive philosophy. That is, until this season.
Their rushing attack has been nearly nonexistent, ranking last in the NFL, and with Eli Manning in the midst of one of his finest seasons, the Giants have developed a different dimension to an offense they had prided on toughness: The big-play threat through the air.
The Giants have completed 16 passes of 40 yards or more, the most in the NFL. Since the 2007 season, it is only the second time that they have ranked better than 20th in the league in that category. The Giants tied for eighth in 2009, when they had 12 such plays, which was the only other season in which Manning accounted for a double-digit tally of such plays.
“The only concern I ever have is how do we win the game and to do that, what do we have to do to do our part,” the offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. “Right now, the need of our team this year was to throw the ball and that’s what we did.”
The Giants (8-7) might have a chance to display an aerial assault when they host the Dallas Cowboys (8-7) tomorrow night in a showdown to determine the winner of the NFC East. The Cowboys, under the direction of the defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, have brought blitzes from all directions, which open up deep-threat opportunities.
To Gilbride, a shift in defenses that take away intermediate patterns has opened up downfield strikes. The Cowboys rank 23rd in the league in pass defense, allowing 238.3 yards a game.
The Giants took advantage of poor coverage for two passing plays of 40-plus yards in the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 11, a gripping 37-34 victory at Cowboys Stadium. One was a 64-yard bomb to Hakeem Nicks that set up a field goal; the other was a 47-yard touchdown catch by Mario Manningham.
“They do a really good job with their scheme of making plays down the field,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “Like it is every week, you are going to get challenges in a lot of different areas and that is one of their areas of strength.”
The emergence of Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who has been more productive picking up yards after the catch than his predecessor, Steve Smith, cannot be overstated.
Cruz has accounted for seven of the Giants’ 40-plus-yard plays, while Nicks is second on the team, tallying five such plays this season. However, some of Cruz’s big plays, including his franchise-record 99-yard touchdown catch and run in a victory over the Jets, were designed for short-yardage gains, only to turn into game-changing plays.
“It’s kind of just natural ability,” said Cruz, who has set the team single-season record for receiving yards (1,358) and is third in the league behind Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. “You catch the ball and feel where the defenders are and make a move and try to get as many yards as you can. I kind of pride myself on that because I just try to make myself as hard to tackle as possible.”
The output has come in a season in which the Giants’ running attack has essentially vanished. They average a paltry 88.1 yards a game and will finish the season not ranked in the top 10 for only the third time since Tom Coughlin took over as coach in 2004.
The Giants’ passing offense is situational to an extent, based on down and distance, but the coaches track gains of 20 yards or more. The Giants have 62 passing plays of 20 yards or more, ranking sixth in the NFL.