The Dolphins have enough things to worry about when they play the Giants at MetLife Stadium Sunday. Their season already is a disaster. Their own running back says they stink and their fans happily use a harsher word. Their head coach might not make it through the month. And they have to figure out a way to stop Giants offensive weapons such as Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw.
The last thing they need is to focus on another threat.
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Enter Jake Ballard.
The tight end has been an afterthought in most defensive game plans through the first six weeks of the regular season. He's used that to his advantage, catching 15 passes, scoring two touchdowns and averaging 18.2 yards.
Eventually, though, teams are going to figure out that they have to account for the 6-6, 275-pounder with soft hands, a knack for getting open and an ability to drag would-be tacklers for extra yardage. Perhaps even with everything on their plate, the Dolphins will be the first.
"He'll challenge us, no question about it," Miami coach Tony Sparano said. "It's just another one of their weapons. He's a good player as long as they are getting him involved."
You can't blame opposing teams for not knowing what Ballard was capable of, especially when the Giants themselves weren't sure. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride without hesitation called him the biggest surprise of the season, and tight ends coach Michael Pope spoke glowingly about his football acumen and desire to learn, if not his raw speed and agility.
"You can see he's not Baryshnikov," Pope said. "He's not dancing the light fantastic down through the secondary. But somehow he gets open."
The team saw him as a blocker, but on the practice squad last season, he spent time acting out the roles of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates and began developing his route-running skills. Those translated into the early parts of this season, when defenses were so concerned about putting eight men in the box to stuff the run and keeping track of Nicks and Mario Manningham that Ballard often got lost in the shuffle.
It was only this summer in training camp that reporters, columnists and bloggers took reps writing about how the Giants would be lost without Kevin Boss and how they needed to acquire a veteran tight end. Ballard and his roommate, fellow tight end Bear Pascoe, used to read those articles, which were forwarded to them by Pascoe's mother. (Momma Bears always defend their cubs!)
"I'd read that every day," Ballard said. "Me and [Pascoe] were like, 'We're going to prove them wrong. We know what we can do.' It was definitely fuel for the fire. It made us play with a chip on our shoulder."
The way he's playing now, someone's got to cover this guy. Right?
"This is a gunfighter mentality here," Pope said. "You draw down on somebody two or three times in a row, they're all going to want you and you're going to draw some flies. We've already started to talk about things, that if you do begin to be a little bit of a threat to a defense, then they put you in their plan and figure out what you have to do."
Ballard said he's ready if that happens. But he thinks it's still down the road a bit.
"It's not like they're going to double me and leave Hakeem one-on-one or Mario or even Victor [Cruz]," Ballard said. "I think this can be a pretty consistent thing all year."
Until then, Ballard will simply say "thank you" if and when teams abandon him in zones and leave him unaccounted for in man coverages.
"I'd probably do the same thing," Ballard said. "I'd still probably do the same thing."