When an offense does not have speed and a legitimate deep threat on the outside, they become limtied and can be more easily defended. (I read that in the "Football for Idiots" book that I leave on my nightstand.) It's not just the deep balls themselves or even the threat of the deep ball that keeps defenses playing looser and gives up the shorter balls to help the offense move. It's also the space to catch the short ball and make a move before the defender is on you, giving the offense a chance for longer gains and even breaking one for a "cheap" score. The Giants greatly benefited from this last year and are getting badly hurt by the absence of this dimension this year. We all remember that last year, Cruz had a number of huge plays, catching a short ball, making someone miss and turning it into a big score. Relying on my memory and not looking up stats on the web, I can recall the Eagles game when Cruz made his big debut on the scene, that he caught a short sideline ball, made the DB miss, ran through an arm tackle by Asomugha and ran 70 yards up the sideline for a score. There was the Cowboys game in week 17 and of course the Jets game in week 16 when he turned the season around for both teams on the 99 yard score. I think Cruz had 5 or 6 scores of 70+ yards with big YAC components. Looking up the stats on ESPN, last year Cruz was 5th in the league in YAC yards with 595. This year through 3/4 of the season, he has 252, which projects out to 336 for the season and is 32nd in the league.
Cruz has good speed, but Nicks is the real speed guy, the deep threat that occupied the attention of DBs on other parts of the field giving Cruz room to make a catch, make a move and make a big play. Last year Cruz averaged about 18 yards per catch and this year he is at 12. That's a huge difference and I believe it is brought about by several factors. First, defenses are paying more attention to Cruz. But second, they can pay more attention to Cruz because on the other side of the field, the deep threat isn't there. Nicks' numbers are decent this year, but not great. We saw examples of it in several games this year, where Nicks just doesn't have the explosion to scare DBs and Cruz is bottled up because he then draws the double teams. Against the Redskins last week, on the deep ball to Nicks, the DB tipped it because Eli slightly underthrew it. But rewinding the play back to the break off the line of scrimmage, you can see that Nicks got a great release, beat the DB cleanly off the line of scrimmage and should have been 5 yards behind his man. Instead he was only a stride or two in the clear and the ball got tipped away when Eli's throw was not perfect. This also affects Nicks and Eli's ability to hook up on the back shoulder throw which becomes effective when the CB has to turn his hips and run downfield to protect the deep throw. This was a staple of the offense last year and it just hasn't been there consistently this year. We saw the Redskins stop one Monday, when Nicks caught the ball out of bounds.
But this also affects Cruz' performance. He did catch the one deep 49 yard ball and a beautiful 30 yard throw on a post up the middle. But there were several balls that were attempted as underneath throws giving him a chance to make a play and there was nothing there. In the first quarter on the first drive of the game, Giants had a 3rd and 8, and Eli could not connect with Cruz who could not find a comfortable spot to sit down in the zone because of all the traffic. Defense was up tight because they didn't worry about balls getting behind them. In the 2nd quarter, Giants had a 3rd and 11, Eli hit Cruz with an underneath route hoping to get him to make a move and get the first down, but he was stopped for a 6 yard gain and no YAC yards. Then in the 3rd quarter, Giants had a 3rd and 5 where Nicks caught a 3 yard pass and later they had a 3rd and 9 when Cruz pulled up because he was going to get whacked on a short throw, and he dropped the ball. All these plays ended drives and were plays that were prominent in the Giants repertoire last year - catching balls short of the line to gain, making a move and getting the yards. These are not happening this year and I beleive it is at least partly due to the diminished abilities and speed of Nicks due to injury, leaving less open space on the field.
Nicks said before the game that he felt better than he has all year. But "better" is a relative term. He still is less than at full strength as evidenced by the fact that he is not practicing today. He may be better, but he's sure not perfect. Giants could use another big play threat, which is why Randle or Jernigan need to step up.