EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks stood at his locker and didn’t even wait for the question to be asked.
“I’m playing, period,” Nicks said emphatically after being held out of Sunday’s practice for the NFL kickoff Wednesday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
Just hours earlier there was some concern when Nicks rode a stationary bike as the Super Bowl champions stretched, and then he watched the workout.
Was the right foot that he broke this spring acting up?
The answer was no. The Giants wanted to give him some rest so he would be full speed going against the Cowboys’ new cornerbacks — Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne.
Those guys are there in large part because of what Nicks and Victor Cruz did against Dallas last season.
New York won both regular-season games, capturing the division with a 31-14 win Jan. 1.
If there was a difference in those games it was Eli Manning throwing to Nicks and Cruz. The two receivers combined for 14 receptions for 237 yards in New York’s 37-34 win in Dallas on Dec. 11 and they had 11 more for 254 yards and two touchdowns in the division-deciding game that catapulted the Giants to their second title in five seasons.
The bottom line was that Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman couldn’t handle the wide outs, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spent the offseason trying to improve his cornerbacks.
Dallas signed Carr, a four-year starter with the Chiefs, as a free agent, and moved up eight spots in the first round of the draft to take Claiborne, the star of the LSU defense.
Cruz, who ignited the win in the regular-season finale with a 74-yard catch and run for a touchdown, said the Cowboys’ new cornerbacks weren’t afraid to take risks.
“it will be an interesting test for us – for myself, Hakeem, all of the receivers just being able to decipher what coverages they’re in and making our routes according to what they’re in,” said Cruz, who 13 catches against Dallas for 261 yards and a TD in the two games. “We’ll see how it goes. We know they like to play physical and they’re jamming up a lot and we have to use our ability to get off the jam and stuff like that. It should be a good test for us.”
Nicks, who started training camp on the physically unable to perform list and only played a couple of series in the final preseason game, refused to speculate on why the Cowboys changed their cornerbacks.
“You can’t necessarily say they made the changes for us,” the fourth-year receiver said. “They feel like they tried to better their team. So they went out and tried to better their team. You know, we’re just going to pay out game according to our game plan and do what we have to do when we go out there.”
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said the Cowboys used different strategies against New York in the two games.
In the first one, they used a lot of man-to-man coverage along with a combination of double teams against the wide outs. In the second game, they played more zone.
Manning found his way around each defense, hitting a combined 51 of 80 passes for 746 yards and five touchdowns and one interception.
“I feel we have a number of guys who can make big plays for us, who know the offense, who are going to be consistent, who can do the correct things and they’re guys who have a great understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Manning said. “Guys who have been here, either a number of years or just have quickly picked up the offense, so that’s always a good feeling when you have faith in the guys that they are going to be doing the right things and winning for you when you’ve got one-on-one matchups.”
The Giants’ also have depth at the receiver spot. Veteran Domenik Hixon, who is coming off a knee injury, has played well in preseason and rookie Rueben Randle has shown flashes, particularly going deep.
Randle also has mentored the veteran receivers about Claiborne. They were roommates at LSU and went against each other in practice.
“I told them he likes to hit them a lot, so just be prepared for that,” Randle said. “You have to get his hands off you because once he gets his hands on you, he can control you. So that’s what I remember coming from the practice field You got to get him to open up his hips, because if he gets comfortable, he’s going to he’s going to be able to break and run with you.”
The key for the Cowboys will be getting pressure on Manning and preventing the Giants from establishing the run.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett will settle for pressing Manning if he had to choose.
“He’s an outstanding pocket passer; he can move around and make plays on the move,” Garrett said. “He’s a very smart player. He can make any throw that you need to make on the football field. He clearly makes his teammates better, makes his team better.”