By Ernie Palladino
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The old refrain remains the same as the Giants prepare to kick off their season Sunday night in Dallas: as goes Eli Manning, so goes Big Blue.
But this year there’s an added component, at least for the first eight weeks. For all his passing yards, Manning’s effectiveness has always been helped by the presence of a steady ground game. Whether it was Brandon Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw toting the ball, those tough, violent yards served Manning as they would any other quarterback, keeping much of the heat off so No. 10 could find his targets downfield.
Now, as the Giants head into the season with much receiving potential but only Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and tight end Brandon Myers with proven track records, they could certainly use another good showing from their backfield.
Problem is, David Wilson comprises almost the whole of that group right now. What started the preseason as a wonderful 1-2 punch, with Wilson offering speed and athleticism and Andre Brown adding the brawn, has turned into basically a one-man operation. Yes, third-stringer Da’Rel Scott will be seeing some action now, and perhaps even seventh-rounder Michael Cox. But the Giants will now rely on Wilson to do most of the work as they await Brown’s comeback from the injured reserve/designated to return list.
That crack in Brown’s leg put a whole lot of pressure on the second-year, back-flipping Wilson. Not only will he be relied upon for the all-important carries on first and second down, but he’ll also have to withstand the battering of third-down blocking.
Wilson is no fragile little flower, granted, but running him into the ground wasn’t the plan offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had at the beginning of training camp. The idea — a smart one — was to put a good, sturdy back like Brown in back of your featured guy to handle third-down and short-yardage to save the more athletic runner from excessive punishment.
Not that Wilson couldn’t be a good blocker. The Giants have had other running backs who did just fine on third down. Tiki Barber, who went about five pounds lighter than Wilson, did a commendable job on third down. Bradshaw was good at it, too. So, too, might the 5-11, 210-pound Scott be equally as good if he has earned the coaches’ trust.
But the Giants ultimately need Wilson out there for the breakaway potential he showed when he took the first snap against the Jets 84 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago. And Wilson has indeed earned the staff’s praise for his improvement in the dirty job of keeping his quarterback’s jersey clean.
With that, though, Tom Coughlin and Gilbride risk wearing him down early and possibly getting him hurt. If that happens, the Giants will be in a heck of a fix. Wilson could easily wilt if the 98-degree weather forecast for Cowboys Stadium comes to fruition.
So the coaches will have to do a high-wire act of sorts with Wilson. They need him to be productive. But at the same time, they can’t risk running his fuel tank to “E” this early in the season. He’s never taken more than the 15 carries he had in the season finale against Philadelphia. Giving him more in the blistering Texas heat is asking much.
Still, they need Wilson to be the lead horse. His role will be expanded to third-down and goal line.
The Giants need the ground game more than ever. And they’ll be looking for Wilson to provide it. If he does, then Manning can be Manning, and the Giants might be off to yet another good first-half showing under Coughlin.
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