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INDIANAPOLIS — When the Giants' running backs have been discussed this season, it usually has been in negative terms. Yards they didn't gain, touchdowns they didn't score, plays that more accomplished backs definitely would have made. New York finished last in the NFL during the regular season in multiple running categories, gaining 89.2 yards per game and just 3.5 yards per attempt.
However, in talking to about the group on Thursday, the mood was optimistic that when called upon in Super Bowl XLVI, the backs would be able to deliver. The players and their coaches believe they have improved as the season has progressed, including in playoff victories over the Falcons, Packers and 49ers, when they have upped their per-game average to 117.3 yards. Even more importantly, they say that production running the ball is far from the only way to measure how good the unit as a whole is playing.
"It's just like a quarterback gets all the blame or all the credit for doing things well in the passing game, and yet a lot of it is the protection and the receiving corps," said Kevin Gilbride, the Giants' offensive coordinator. "When you're not running the ball, it's not just the running backs either. It's the line, it's the tight end, it's the wideouts. We've had a lot of changes to the line, so there's been some different circumstances which have hurt us. But they do contribute in other ways as well."
Gilbride emphasized the backs' role in pass protection as a valuable way that they have been a great asset to the offense. RBs Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware all are asked to protect QB Eli Manning when they're on the field, either assigned to a specific defender or in a 'scan mode,' where a blocker accounts for whoever the offensive line can't pick up.
"The protection is a huge part of it, and if they don't do their job, we're not going to throw the ball very well, because we ask a lot of them," Gilbride said.
The backs, along with Manning and some coaches, have a weekly meeting after the Giants' Thursdays practice where they discuss running plays they believe will be successful against that week's opponent. There is also a third-down meeting, where the group goes over blitzes and defensive looks they expect to see. Ware, the third-down back who is considered the best blocker of the group, said the running backs "focus on pass blocking all the time." That will be vital on Sunday against a Patriots pass rush that will look to rattle Manning and throw off the timing with his receivers.
New York also must be able to run the ball in order to have success against the Patriots "D." When the teams met in Week Nine, the Giants ran 29 times for 111 yards and a touchdown, despite being without Bradshaw, who was out with a foot injury. Manning wasn't sacked at all, proving to be a good day all around for the running backs. Jacobs believes the key to success for the group is just continuing to work, especially now that Bradshaw is back in the lineup.
"In the rushing category, things really haven't been as good for us as they have been in the past," Jacobs said. "We struggled, but us as backs, we take the ball and do what we got to do to create something."
Bradshaw and Jacobs will see most of the snaps Sunday night, with Ware coming in on third-down passing situations. The coaching staff works hard to determine which role fits each back best depending on skill set, while at the same time not trying to be predictable. Facing a renowned defensive play-caller like Bill Belichick, mixing and matching the backs could be an important dimension for the Giants' attack.
"We'll ask them both to do everything, but there's obviously some things we'll ask one to do more than the other," Gilbride said. "If they don't do their job, we're not going to throw the ball very well."
Jacobs added that he and Bradshaw support each other, saying, "I try to match everything he does, he tries to match everything I do. That only makes the team better."
If the backs are better on Sunday, nobody will remember all of the talk earlier in the season on how disappointing the Giants' running game had been.