While offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride thinks it will take a committee to fill the No. 3 receiver role, there’s one guy who’s gotten off to fast start this season — tight end Martellus Bennett.
The fifth-year player has shown the Giants’ staff flashes of brilliance since coming over from the Cowboys this year, after serving as All-Pro Jason Witten’s little-used understudy for the previous four seasons. Bennett has posted back-to-back solid games for the Giants, with a combined nine receptions, 112 yards and two scores.
“[Eli Manning and the coaches] have confidence in me and they know I can play and they know I can make plays. It’s been good for me to be able to show the type of player I am,” said Bennett. “I think people probably never really think much of me, but it’s not the battle I’m fighting right now. As long as these guys in this locker room and this organization think a lot of me as a football player, that’s all that really matters.”
Bennett has made the tight end position matter for the Giants, which is a considerable achievement due to the upheaval at the position over the last two seasons. The Giants entered this season with a new starting tight end for the third straight season, following the 2011 defection of Kevin Boss and this summer’s waiver-wire loss of Jake Ballard to the Patriots.
Bennett said it’s still weird for him to hear his name as a part of opposing defense’s game plan.
“I think this is the first time everyone’s actually game planning for me,” he said. “This is all new to me.”
Bennett was brought in to compete with holdover Bear Pascoe, but it’s become evident that the athletic 6-foot-6, 275-pounder is now the clear-cut leader at the position, particularly down the seams and in the red zone.
His position coach, Mike Pope, thinks Bennett is only scratching the surface and sounded excited when discussing the thought of adding more on Bennett’s plate going forward.
“I think he’s athletic [and] we did a good job in that selection, I believe, as a free agent. He has bought into our system,” Pope said. “He’s learned the language. And it was tough at first [because] he was going from Greek to Latin [Cowboys’ verbiage to the Giants’]. He now understands very quickly the concepts. … He’s got a good chemistry started with his quarterback.”
That chemistry will be put to the test on Thursday, particularly because it’s a short week and the Panthers possess some of the most athletic linebackers in the league. Carolina’s rotation includes James Anderson (6-foot-2, 235 pounds), pro bowler Jon Beason (6-foot, 235 pounds), Thomas Davis (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) and first-round pick Luke Kuechly (6-foot-3, 235 pounds). The rookie mainly plays the weakside, but since he posted the best measurables of all the linebackers at last spring’s scouting combine, it’s likely he’ll get some cracks at trying to control Bennett when the Panthers go to their nickel package.
Both Bennett and Pascoe say whomever lines across from them, it’s going to be a physical grind, because what the Panthers’ linebackers lack in height, they make up for it with speed and physicality.
“Watching film there’s a good chance we’ll see Beason on us, as he kind of stays on the strongside,” said Pascoe. “They’re overall an athletic group, but we’ve been concentrating on Beason the most, because he’s the more physical one, as he likes to get his hands on you and out-physical you. … I think we’ve done a great job at getting sharp, even though it’s a short week.”
“They’re all good athletes,” Bennett offered. “They did a good job on [Saints’ 6-foot-6 Pro Bowl tight end] Jimmy Graham last week and did a good job on [Buccaneers’ tight end] Dallas Clark before that. … They play against Graham a couple times a year and always seem to do a good job on him, and he’s a pretty good tight end, so I think it’ll be a challenge.”
Gilbride remains reluctant to endorse Bennett as the No. 3 option, because he’s still excited to see what a healthy Hixon can do — not to mention rookie Rueben Randle and fourth-year vet Ramses Barden.
But after two weeks of good ball from Bennett, and mostly inaction from the aforementioned trio, Bennett could slowly be ingratiating himself into Gilbride’s circle of trust.
“We’re still looking for that [one] guy to make the big plays when they load up and start doubling Vic [Cruz] and Hakeem,” said Gilbride. “When that happens, someone needs to win [one-on-one battles] for you. And it has to either be the tight end or the third wide receiver or the back.We’ve been fortunate when we’ve played real well to have that third guy step up [and] it was Mario [Manningham] last year. … We’re waiting.So far, [Bennett] has fulfilled what we needed from that position. We just need more. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Big Blue notes
»Head coach Tom Coughlin didn’t sound very confident in having right tackle David Diehl (knee), running back Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) or Hixon available Thursday night, as he constantly reverted to his standard answers of “We’ll see” when asked about the players’ availability. He admitted, however, that both Bradshaw and Diehl are “day-to-day.”
Coughlin also wouldn’t commit to a replacement in the backfield should Bradshaw miss the game. Andre Brown seems like the logical choice, but Coughlin wouldn’t divulge any plans. He did, however, allow that rookie David Wilson “would see some touches” in the game.
Nicks (foot) didn’t practice but Coughlin said that was according to plan and added he “expects” Nicks to play on Thursday.
»Rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley started last week but doesn’t know if he’ll do the same on Thursday, but noted his preparation will not change either way: “I’m preparing the same way I did last week. I’m still running as the No. 1 nickel. Until they tell me otherwise I’ll continue to work that way. …Either way, I have to be confident in knowing I can do my job. It’s time to step up and be ready [because] we have guys out of the lineup.”
Wherever he lines up, Hosley said he’ll have his hands full, because of the Panthers’ No. 1 option, Steve Smith: “You have to bring it. He’s one of the guys I respect – respect all but never fear them. He’s not a big receiver, but he plays like he’s 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. I watched him growing up, so I already know what he’s capable of.”
» Bennett joked he might offend guys of Lawrence Tynes’s ilk when he said it’s his job to only regulate the Giants’ placekicker for one-point kicks, not threes: “Anytime you’re there [red zone] you want to score touchdowns, and not kick field goals. … Even though I know kickers don’t want to hear that.”
The loquacious tight end added that defenses will have to pick their poison in trying to stop the passing game: “Teams bring a safety down on me, or try to chip me, [and] even do a lot of grabbing. Teams do a lot of grabbing of me actually. They try to slow me down and not let me get vertical. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve got Vic [Cruz] and [Hakeem] Nicks out there, too.”
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.