- Associated Press - Friday, October 28, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - When the Giants lost one of the top third-down receivers in the league this offseason, there were questions aplenty about quarterback Eli Manning’s targets.

Steve Smith, after all, had so much responsibility in New York’s offense, there was an immediate huge void to fill after his free-agent departure to the Philadelphia Eagles.

But the Giants never panicked. Their answer? Replace one with many.

Manning, rated fourth among NFL passers this year, has spread the ball around to four primary targets in Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz, and surprisingly productive tight end Jake Ballard. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw also snares passes, along with fullback Bear Pascoe.

“I’m not surprised,” said Manningham, whose 18 catches for 227 yards rank fourth on the team. “We’re all out there executing, doing what we gotta do. We just want to get it done.”

The Giants (4-2) take on the Miami Dolphins (0-6) on Sunday, and will try to improve on the league’s sixth-best passing offense. In reaching that standing, Manning has hit an average of just more than eight targets per game, with a season-high 10 in the 28-16 win over St. Louis in Week 2.

Aside from the three interceptions in the Week 5, 36-25 loss to Seattle, Manning has been intercepted just two other times. Pass defenses have found themselves stretched thin, especially since Ballard joined the party the past three games with his 11 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns.

Then again, this is nothing new for the tight end, who was previously regarded strictly as a blocker.

“My freshman year at Ohio State, we had four receivers get drafted in the first two rounds,” Ballard said. “It stretches defenses out, wears them out throughout the game.”

The amount of targets Manning has now should put the Giants at a distinct advantage against a Miami defense that has just two interceptions. The Dolphins rank as the league’s 20th pass defense. But more importantly, they have not made the big play or created the big turnover when needed.

Their 39.3-percent stoppage rate on third down ranks them 17th in the league.

Meanwhile, the Giants are a respectable 13th (23-of-73) in third-down conversion rate, and Manning is the fourth-best third-down passer in the NFC with a 89.2 rating.

Much of that, too, is due to the distribution. The unexpected rise of Cruz and Ballard just made things easier.

Then again, the Giants expected nothing less.

“It was a surprise to the outside world,” Ballard said. “But to us, the people in this locker room knew we could get the job done. We weren’t worried about that.

“The first couple of games of the season, everybody’s concentrating on Mario and Hakeem. Then Cruz and I started to step up and slowly but surely, in the Eagles game, they started concentrating on him. But I started producing, too.”

And now, Manning has more than a full complement. Nicks, the playmaking leader with 32 catches for 508 yards and three touchdowns, is followed by Cruz‘ 21 receptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns.

Bradshaw, Manningham, and Ballard have 52 catches among them.

“It’s just a matter of those guys _ Ballard, Victor, Hakeem, Manningham _ those guys are playing well,” Manning said. They’ve done a good job of getting themselves ready to play. If they’re doing the right thing and they’re in the right spots, it’s my job to throw to them. They have the hard job of getting open. I have the easier job.”

The question now is whether Manning can keep the trend going these final 10 games.

“Sure it can, because any of our receivers can make plays,” Manningham said. “We’re taking the heat off everybody. They can plug any one of us in there.”


NOTES: Stacy Andrews, the 6-foot-6, 318-pound tackle who serves as the Giants’ jumbo tight end in short-yardage situations, injured his back in the weight room Thursday and sat out Friday’s practice after taking a cortisone shot. He said he expects to return for Saturday’s walkthrough, and is questionable. … First-round rookie CB Prince Amukamara (foot) worked well in practice this week as he moves toward his NFL debut, but was ruled out. … FB Henry Hynoski (neck) is doubtful. DE Justin Tuck (neck/groin) is questionable. And DE Osi Umenyiora (knee), LB Michael Boley (knee), RB Brandon Jacobs (knee), and G Chris Snee (concussion) are all probable.



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