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Victor Cruz embraces new role with Giants

Victor Cruz of the New York Giants runs

Victor Cruz of the New York Giants runs the ball for a 48-yard reception as Demontre Hurst of the Chicago Bears pursues at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 20, 2016. Photo Credit: Mike Stobe

Victor Cruz was among the Giants’ receiving leaders on Sunday, one of four players with at least 40 yards against the Bears. Unlike the others, though, he tallied his 48 yards with one catch.

Welcome to Cruz’s new reality.

He’s no longer the go-to guy in the receiving group. He’s not even the second guy. Those roles belong to Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, who were targeted for a combined 18 of the 36 pass attempts Sunday.

No, Cruz now is something else. He’s the football equivalent of the NBA’s sixth man. A sparkplug. A guy who can’t carry the team but certainly can lift it off the ground.

And he’s fine with that.

“I’ve embraced it,” Cruz said after the Giants’ 22-16 win. “When I get my hands on the football and I make a play, I feel like it gets the team up, it gets the team together and it gets us going. That’s all you want to be is a guy who gets a team motivated to continue to have big plays.”

In his last two active games, Cruz has had two catches. Both were long — 46 yards against the Eagles, 48 against the Bears. Neither found the end zone, but they set up critical touchdowns shortly thereafter.

Cruz always has had an uncanny knack for timing his memorable moments to coincide with when the Giants need them the most. Those moments may be less plentiful now, but the timing remains coordinated.

“It just seems to be happening,” Cruz said. “I think it’s just being in a timely place at a timely manner for Eli to get me the ball. Whether it’s a scramble or a straight downfield play, I think I’ve just been able to find the ball and open space for Eli to be able to connect with me.”

He hasn’t had a game this season with more than five receptions, nor has he topped 100 yards. He has only one touchdown (albeit one that fit in with Cruz’s capacity for big moments; his 3-yard reception with 6:13 remaining in the opener, his first game in almost two years, helped hand the Cowboys their only loss of the season). As evidenced on Sunday, though, he’s still an important piece of the receiving group.

His 48-yard catch-and-run came not on the back of his athleticism but his veteran wiles. He recognized that Eli Manning was scrambling to his right, and he also knew that there was no way Manning was going to be able to run with the ball. So when his defender broke off in run support, Cruz went deep. Manning floated the ball over the defense to a waiting Cruz.

“That’s Victor,” Manning said. “He’s been in those situations before, we’ve done that. Big-time play right there.”

“I understand my role,” Cruz said. “I understand whether I’m getting the ball or not, I have to continue to get myself open, show up on film where I’m supposed to be for Eli to count on me. That’s what I’m doing. Just continue to pick my spots.”

As teams increasingly deny Beckham a chance to get the ball — the Bears held him to five catches for 46 yards and he has had only one 10-catch game this season — the Giants will have to rely more and more on Shepard and Cruz. Shepard is doing his part. He’s caught a touchdown pass in the last three games, the game-winner in the last two. He’s tied with Beckham for the team lead with six touchdowns.

“We’re up for the challenge,” Cruz said. “This is why we’re here and why we play. We understand that there’s going to be games where Odell is going to be seeing a lot of coverage and attention. Shep and I and the entire receiving corps, we’re ready to step up and make plays. When the time comes, we have to be ready.”

The time or the ball doesn’t come as often as it used to for Cruz, but he’s still doing his thing. Just in smaller doses.

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