From Matthew Smith / SNYGiants contributor
Let’s begin by saying that the Giants have had an extremely difficult and trying season as the result of a natural disaster and an unfathomable act of violence. It’s been a terrible year for the name Sandy altogether.
These horrific events have a serious impact on the team and reverberate in the locker room. These events have affected the entire season, not just one game here or there. They absolutely MUST be taken into consideration when assessing the team’s inconsistency. We didn’t recover from Hurricane Sandy in a week, and I have a strong feeling that the healing process for the shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut will be an extremely long process.
What Victor Cruz did this past Sunday in honoring Jack Pinto, a child killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, was one of the more moving gestures a player could have made to honor the tragedy. That being said, I want to make clear that this piece is strictly about Victor Cruz’s play and not his flawless and most charitable character. It is neither my place nor my intention to analyze the impact that these tragedies have had on him and the Giants, just as it’s not Diane Sawyer’s place to detail the benefits and detriments of Perry Fewell’s 3-safety set; this is strictly about football.
Everyone seems to be relieved Victor Cruz has not had a “sophomore slump”, but I am not one of those people, because in my mind, he has. With two games remaining, Victor Cruz has already been targeted 132 times this year, only one less target than all of last year, however his catches have only yielded 1,019 yards versus the 1,536 he gained last year, bringing his average yards per catch from 18.7 to 12.9.
Despite some instrumental games, he has been kept under 60 yards in 9 out of the 15 games he has played. He is either a game changer or essentially a non-factor, very rarely in between those polar opposites. The Giants are a mere 3-3 when he gains over 100 receiving yards, proving that getting the ball to Cruz is not the only way for the Giants to have an effective passing attack. Hakeem Nicks seems more valuable as the Giants are 4-1 when he goes for only 50 yards or more in a game.
As primarily a slot receiver, Cruz is virtually limited by the play designs to very few routes including, an in or slant route, an out, a seam, and a curl. The predictability of Cruz’s route running have made him somewhat easier to contain.
On the other hand, one of Cruz’s strengths is making people miss and he doesn’t necessarily need the ball to do that. Against the Saints he made several big plays essentially on his own by making a defensive back or linebacker miss in press coverage on the line of scrimmage, leaving him open to make a play.
It’s not all Cruz’s fault as the Giants and Kevin Gilbride are limiting his abilities be restricting him to the slot while they should be experimenting with him on the outside, using the sidelines and allowing his athleticism to shine in what is sometimes single coverage. In the slot, the defensive back typically has the assistance of a safety in 2-deep coverage, or a linebacker dropping back into a zone, allowing them to defend him by committee.
I can’t help but think his desire for a much-deserved new contract has affected his play somewhat.
He had 3 critical drops in the opener against the Cowboys and has countless others this season. You may remember the game in which Ahmad Bradshaw slapped him on the helmet for not blocking on a play, an occurrence I have witnessed numerous times before and after that incident. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Cruz’s game for me, is his unwillingness to take a hit to make a catch, in particular when he is coming across the middle.
Against the Steelers, Ryan Clark was flagged on a debatable call for hitting a defenseless receiver and ever since then, Cruz has been shell-shocked.
In yesterday’s game against the Falcons, a safety was again called for the same penalty. This one hardly seemed like the right call but upon further review I realized that Cruz should have made a more courageous attempt to make that catch anyways. It would have given the Giants 35 yards instead of 15 from the penalty and might have pumped some much-needed life into their listless performance.
Cruz is still an invaluable member of this team, but the grit that has gotten the Giants to two Super Bowls in the last five years has been relatively absent this year, and it is reflected in the play of one of the Giants’ best players. The Giants need an emotional spark, where is Joe Jurevicius these days?