IT DIDN'T take a rocket scientist to pinpoint the Giants' offensive deficiencies when, minus Plaxico Burress, they flamed out in December. As the headline in the NEW YORK POST read, BIG BLUE BUTTERFINGERS SHOOT SELVES IN FOOT. Nor did it take a stroke of genius to come up with a remedy. As Ahmad Bradshaw—the Fire in the Earth, Wind and Fire backfield that led the NFL in rushing last year with 2,518 yards—declared in camp: "This year they'll depend on us running backs to get the offense started and feed the passing game. We need to step up. We will."
Earth, in the form of 6'4", 264-pound behemoth Brandon Jacobs, was in agreement, boldly predicting that he and his backfield mates would still be the "best running team in the league" even without Wind—a.k.a. Derrick Ward, who contributed 2,190 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons. "That's not bragging," Jacobs said. "We can be just as good or better than Earth, Wind and Fire." (Ward signed a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract with the Buccaneers.)
While Jacobs was the Giants' unquestioned starter in 2007 and '08, the slashers Bradshaw (5'9", 198) and Ward (5'11", 228) were crucial to New York's ground game, largely because of Jacobs's propensity to wear down. His punishing, bowl-you-over running style has its advantages (witness the Aug. 22 preseason game, in which he twice flattened Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher) and its drawbacks (nine missed starts over two years). Jacobs hits his peak in a game at carries 16 through 20 (5.6 yards per attempt); after that there's a substantial drop-off (4.1 on carries 21 through 25).
Hence the time-sharing. In 2008 Jacobs accounted for 43.6% of the team's rushing attempts, ninth-lowest among starting tailbacks. Ward accounted for 36.3% of the workload, a figure that only four other backups topped last season.
With Ward's departure, Bradshaw slides up the depth chart, a move he was supposed to make last season, his second in the NFL, but failed to because of a nagging calf strain—and inexperience. "Mentally, Ahmad is way ahead of where he was last year," says Jacobs. "He's not thinking anymore, he's just playing. That comes from messing it up one or two times and knowing that you can't mess it up a third time." If Bradshaw does mess up, Danny Ware (6 feet, 234), a third-year back who has looked good as a receiving and special teams threat during the preseason, could make a run at the No. 2 job.
Jacobs, too, hopes to play a bigger role in the passing game, which would lessen the physical punishment he takes (and the amount of run-blocking an aging and banged-up line is called on to do). He relishes getting the ball on the edges and in the defensive backfield, where he'd face tacklers 100 pounds lighter than those on the defensive line. So in the off-season he worked on strengthening his hands and on his pass-catching skills.
One play in the preseason game at Chicago provided a glimpse of his receiver potential: Jacobs caught the ball six yards past the line of scrimmage (beyond Urlacher, 295-pound run-stuffer Tommie Harris and 310-pound nosetackle Anthony Adams) and churned another 10 yards through an outsized secondary before he was dragged down from behind by a linebacker and a cornerback. If Jacobs catches just one pass per game, he will have 10 more receptions than he had last season.
As for the wide receivers, they're liking what they're seeing. "Ahmad had it right," says fifth-year veteran Domenik Hixon, who'll be a full-time starter in the post-Plaxico era. "If those guys open it up for the passing game, we're all good to go."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: TOM COUGHLIN
115--93 in NFL, sixth season with Giants
WRs Ramses Barden and Hakeem Nicks, both rookies, will vie for time off the bench.
With the return of Umenyiora from injury, DE Mathias Kiwanuka (8 sacks in '08) gets pushed to the second unit.
* 2007 statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 12--4
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 1 > 18 > 7
DEFENSE 9 > 8 > 5
20 at Dallas
27 at Tampa Bay
4 at Kansas City
18 at New Orleans
1 at Philadelphia
8 SAN DIEGO
26 at Denver (T)
21 at Washington (M)
3 at Minnesota
NFL Rank: 10
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .527
Games against playoff teams: 7
New York's path to another NFC East title could have been tougher than this. San Diego and Arizona have to travel to the East, where they're less dangerous. Eli Manning, still inconsistent in bad climes, will love the dome games. The Thanksgiving date gives the Giants added time to prepare for a late-season stretch against their three division rivals.
Justin Tuck, Defensive end
THE PHRASE that kept emerging in internal discussions of the Giants' defensive collapse late in 2008: worn down. Tuck experienced it firsthand. "The last four or five games," says the fifth-year end, "offenses really started [double-teaming] me and [defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka], and getting pressure was tough. We sensed that if we just had one more guy out there who could put some pressure on, they couldn't just worry about two guys. But we didn't, and you saw how we ended the season.... I was just worn down."
Relief comes in the form of free-agent pickups Chris Canty (a DE in Dallas's 3-4, he's slated for DT in New York) and Rocky Bernard (DT, Seattle) and, more important, in Osi Umenyiora, who missed all of '08 with a left-knee injury. While Tuck went from 10 sacks in 2007 to 12 sacks in '08, he says he's far better off with Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl end, on the other side. "In the Super Bowl year  we had [Michael Strahan] and Osi, and we could rotate. Come the fourth quarter, when offensive lines were beat up, we were all fresh. We were still on our first winds. Last year I didn't have that."
Tuck also looks forward to another break Umenyiora's return affords him. "Osi's our leader," he says. "Without him I saw it as a necessity to step up and lead. I did my best, but that's not me. This year I'll fade into the background. Not entirely, but by not getting all the attention I can sneak up on people again."
SECOND HELPING Healthy and more experienced, Bradshaw steps into the role of No. 2 back this year.