- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

The New York Giants keep an amazingly low profile for a team that last season won the NFC East and represents the media capital of the world.

They signed no problematic free agents (as did their East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles). They suffered no quarterback controversy (Washington Redskins). They opened no gaudy new stadium (Dallas Cowboys).

Neither the Giants’ free agent acquisitions nor their draft class made much noise.

But a quiet question lingers over the Giants’ season as they approach their opener against the Redskins on Sunday: Who will catch the balls thrown by Eli Manning?

The last four seasons, the Giants’ quarterback had the good fortune to throw to veterans Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer.

This season, Manning has only a cast of unproven wideouts, players who would have to step up to be nondescript.

“We have some young guys who can do some different things and have to learn on the fly, in some sense,” said Manning, whose seven receivers collectively have started only 15 games. “It’s just a matter of adjusting to do what they do well.”

That will take time - Manning doesn’t have near the comfort level with Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss, Derek Hagan, Mario Manningham and rookies Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden that he had with Toomer and Burress, who were let go because of age and off-field woes, respectively.

“We’re making progress, [but] I’m not going to tell you we’re there yet,” said coach Tom Coughlin, who spent seven seasons in the NFL as a receivers coach. “We have some guys who have played their way into having opportunities. If they continue to progress and make plays for us, we’ll achieve the balance we’re looking for.”

Not that the Giants feel compelled to achieve a true run-pass equilibrium. They ranked fourth in rushing and 21st in passing in the 2007 season, which ended in a Super Bowl victory, and first in rushing and 18th in passing last season, when they finished as the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

The bulk of those numbers were achieved in part because the threat of Burress and Toomer prevented defenses from stacking the box too often.

“With Plaxico, it was a wide-open offense,” said Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers, who was beaten by Burress for a game-winning touchdown that got the reeling Giants off the mat in 2007. “Amani [and Plaxico] understand defense and understand offense and know what to do. [Now] … they’re kind of limited to things they can do.”

The Giants certainly stumbled down the stretch last season after Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg and was suspended.

They won in Washington that weekend but lost three of their final four games, then fell in their playoff opener against the archrival Eagles.

“I don’t know if there is an exact answer,” Manning said. “We were playing well. We beat Carolina in a great game at home in the second-to-last game. We just didn’t play great in the playoffs. I think the guys are hungry. They might have a little more something to prove this year.”

That’s not really the case with the defense, which ranked fifth last season and welcomes back Pro Bowl right end Osi Umenyiora. That also isn’t the case with the ground game, which returns two of its top three backs, the entire line and the tight end.

Redskins center Casey Rabach calls the Giants’ defensive line, which also features Justin Tuck at left end, the best in the league. Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache is equally respectful of Giants power back Brandon Jacobs.

“He’s a 265-pound man at 6-foot-4 that runs 4.5,” Blache said. “His size and his speed and the way he runs is going to create a problem for anybody that has to face him. He’s bigger than any of our linebackers. He’s bigger than our secondary people. We have to get a lot of hats to the football. It starts with being in our spots and getting to the spot where he is and get there with a bad attitude.”

But despite the strength of the Giants’ running attack and the relative weakness of their wideouts, Blache said the Redskins can’t focus just on the ground game.

“If guys don’t take a guy as seriously as they should, all it takes is one step, one time, to cost you a football game,” he said. “We can’t afford to give up the big play because this is going to be one of those heavyweight-type fights where one punch or one play could be the difference.”

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