Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants' offense begin to click in win over Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz was posing for pictures in the locker room Friday night, as sure a sign as any that things are slowly getting back to normal for the Giants. There wasn't much that anybody would want a souvenir of this preseason from the Giants' offense, and certainly not a mood light enough to smilingly indulge it, despite the most misleading 4-0 record in history. There have been misfires and protection breakdowns and punt after punt. Cruz and the Giants were never as panicky as those on the outside, but it was clear that their frustration with a new offense they were struggling to adopt was wearing on them.

This week, though, with the regular season beginning to bear down and the Giants game planning for the first time for their annual game against the Jets, Cruz saw the first sliver of a breakthrough.

"You see plays that happen, you see us kind of clicking on certain days and some days you don't," Cruz said. "This week I felt an efficiency that was there. We were able to make some things happen and it carried over."

All because of one drive. The progress came slowly, haltingly. A few completions and then a near-miss pick six from Eli Manning. Another pass, and then a fumble after the right side of the offensive line collapsed. The first five drives ended in punts. This was a microcosm of the Giants' offense this summer, as it has hobbled and sometimes stumbled into its West Coast future. The scouts for future opponents who watched the Giants on Friday night could only smile when it was noted that the offense had looked terrible so far.

But finally in a 35-24 victory over the Jets, the Giants got the drive they were looking for, the one they needed to soothe their nerves and energize their hopes. It was in a two-minute drill -- what else, for Manning -- for 91 yards and if it wasn't exactly a thing of beauty it was easily the best one of the preseason. Manning was bailed out of a poor decision to throw the ball as he was running toward the sideline by the Jets' Kyle Wilson stepping out of bounds, to negate an interception. But he also whipped two passes to Cruz -- he finally got his first preseason reception Friday night -- that seemed to send a message to his critics that he is not done quite yet. And then Manning bought some time with some stutter steps, as Rueben Randle curled from the back of the end zone to the front for the reception. Eleven plays. Manning's first touchdown pass of the summer. One sigh of relief.

"We needed that and we needed it in a bad way," Cruz said. "I wasn't concerned. I knew once we found it we would lock it in. It was just a matter of being comfortable, Eli being comfortable, the offensive line getting into a rhythm as well."

There has been a lot of concern about the Giants' comfort level with Ben McAdoo's offense. It is the first time in his pro career that Manning has had to learn a new offense, and that is no easy thing. Just before the Giants won their most recent Super Bowl after the 2011 season, Eli's brother Peyton said in an interview that much of their success could be explained by continuity -- the brothers had not changed offensive systems, allowing them to hone their games and discover the nuances unencumbered by ever starting over.

But last year's offensive meltdown forced Eli and the Giants out of their comfort zones, and they have looked out of sorts ever since. Coach Tom Coughlin's frustration had become palpable, especially in recent days, but the burden that that one drive lifted was obvious Friday night.

"The last drive of the first half -- it was very welcome," Coughlin said. "It gave us the idea we could move the ball. I think it was progress."

Still, it seems clear that progress is going to come in fits and starts, particularly because the Giants' offensive line remains very much unsettled and continues to struggle with pass protection. The get-the-ball-out-faster ethos of the West Coast offense should help with that, in theory, but Manning was sacked twice and pressured and hit more by the Jets' blitzing defense. Coughlin joked that Manning had re-established his reputation for toughness after the drilling he took, but of course nobody is laughing about it now. When Rex Ryan called off his blitz late in the first half, Manning went to work against the Jets' shaky secondary. The Giants had shuffled offensive line personnel last week during practice, and Coughlin had indicated he wasn't sure he had the starting five he wanted. He probably still doesn't, especially now that left guard Geoff Schwartz is out for an undetermined period of time with a dislocated toe.

"We did eventually move the ball," Coughlin said. "For the most part people got a little bit better tonight."

Coughlin said he will probably play his starters for a drive or two in their final preseason game Thursday against the New England Patriots, and certainly the need to keep the rhythm going until the Giants open the season on "Monday Night Football" against the Detroit Lions is behind his thinking. It was just one drive, after all, and the Giants want to remember what it felt like.

"It was fun to get something going," Manning said. "We've been good at two-minute drives here in the past. It's good to know we still have that."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.