‘From the Pressbox’
By Ernie Palladino
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Ernie Palladino is the author of “Lombardi and Landry.” He’ll be covering football throughout the season. This is his first column.
When the season started, the book on Jake Ballard was all block, no catch.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He was, after all, penciled in as a second tight end, and the job description for that involves 90 percent blocking. And Ballard, if nothing else, is a willing blocker, even if he does make the occasional mistake like last week’s goof-up on Anthony Hargrove as the Seattle defensive end charged in unimpeded to drop DJ Ware for a safety.
The Giants had to expect growing pains like that when they installed last year’s practice-squadder into the game day lineup in the wake of Kevin Boss’ free agent departure for the Raiders. They’ll live with them.
What they didn’t expect — or at least what surprised those outside the coaching offices — was his productivity in the passing game. Losing Boss, a tough, reliable, though battered outlet over the middle, could have set the passing game back several notches. Indeed, some quarters — namely this one — looked at that exit as even more detrimental to Eli Manning’s air game than Steve Smith’s flight to Philadelphia. Boss not only caught passes (35 for 531 yards and five Tds), but he also provided adequate blocking for Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, who ate up most of those 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2010.
It’s difficult at this point to consider Ballard the new Boss, but he’s getting there. He’s caught 10 passes through the first five games for 192 yards and two touchdowns. That’s about 10 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns more than anyone could rightfully have expected out of the 6-foot-5, 275-pounder out of Ohio State.
All of which brings us to the Buffalo game. Don’t be surprised if Ballard comes into big play, now that he’s proved he can catch a pass. Already with 12 interceptions credited, the 4-1 Bills have proved themselves an opportunistic defense. And that means Manning, with five interceptions already in a season which he supposedly dedicated to decreasing that career-high 25-interception number from last year, will have to be extra careful with the ball. Can’t afford to have the exciting and up-and-coming Victor Cruz fumbling the ball around, or the Bills will bite the Giants in the you-know-where.
So look for a lot of check downs if Manning sees double coverage downfield. Having Ballard running a middle seam while Bradshaw and Jacobs flare out for other, shorter outlets, could make the passing game that much easier on a quarterback who could use a strong outing right about now.
Ballard has shown strength in the passing lanes, which could go a long way as he goes up against safety George Wilson and his team-high three interceptions. And Ballard could help Manning stay away from linebacker Nick Barnett and cornerback Drayton Florence, and safety Bryan Scott, each with two picks.
Fans shouldn’t rest too easy right now because of Ballard’s production. Young players like him can go either way. And, like Boss, he’s a big, burly target who isn’t going to take too many glancing blows. But right now, he’s healthy, and he’s put himself in a position to play an important role in a game the Giants really need to win.
He’s not Boss yet, but a good performance Sunday will move him closer to that status.