EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Twelve games into the season, the Giants continue to search for the rushing attack they thought they had when it began.
With a quartet of running backs and a revamped offensive line, the Giants were confident the numbers produced by their ground game would improve over last year, when they were 23rd in the NFL with an average of 100.2 yards game. But they've moved in the other direction and enter the season's final quarter 29th in the league, with an average of 88.1 rushing yards a game. Their 3.7 yards-per-carry average is exactly what it was at the end of the 2014 season.
Despite that and other issues, the Giants are in a three-way tie for first place as they prepare to face the Dolphins Monday night in Miami. And they remain confident the running game will improve and become an asset down the stretch.
"We've got to run the ball, we're going to run it," quarterback Eli Manning said today. "We've got to run, we've got to be effective with it, because that will help out, that will slow down the pass rush, that will help out the play action and do everything. Hopefully, we're going to run it and we run the ball well."
Asked if he is confident the Giants can do that, Manning said, "I think we can do it. I think we can make some plays in the run game and be efficient."
Offensive lineman Justin Pugh said the Giants can "definitely" get it going.
"I think we've got the guys who can do it," Pugh said. "We've got to go out there and prove it. You can keep saying all you want, 'Hey, we've got to go out there and run the ball.' But until we get out there and do it, you guys are going to keep asking that same question."
Yes, that's how it works. Particularly since in recent weeks the questions about the rushing attack have expanded beyond just production and into deployment of personnel. Early in the season, Rashad Jennings was clearly the No. 1 back. And he still has far more carries than No. 2 Andre Williams (116-51).
But the Giants have gone to a more egalitarian system in the last few games. In Sunday's loss to the Jets, four backs – Jennings, Williams, Orleans Darkwa, and Shane Vereen – each had at least four carries. Darkwa led the way with eight. All of them have had multiple chances to carry the ball in each of the last six games.
To critics, that prevents one or two backs from finding a rhythm, a concept rejected by Tom Coughlin.
"That's not the reason the run game is not going, okay?" Coughlin said. "I'll just tell you point blank. One guy (Vereen) is used in one capacity (as a third down back), the other three guys are used according on all first down situations. Sometimes, it comes down to who can pass block better than the other. Believe me, I'd love to stand here and tell you that, 'Yeah, that's the reason we're not making any yards running.' But it's not, it's not. Now they're not always doing the right thing or making the right cut, but that hasn't been a major, major issue for us. And for a long time, it was only two plus Vereen. Darkwa wasn't a consideration until, I don't know, four, five games back when he did get an opportunity. And he showed well when he was given that opportunity."
Darkwa is still fourth on the team, with 134 rushing yards. Jennings (431) is first, followed by Vereen (216) and Williams (202). Vereen has the highest average (4.2), with Darkwa close behind (4.1).
But the Giants have rushed for more than 100 yards just twice in 12 games, their lowest-ever figure. The players insist the rotation system is not to blame.
"Every offense, every system has its own challenges," Jennings said. "I wouldn't say that it's necessarily hard, but you've just got to make sure to stay in the groove of the game. Make sure you're keyed in on what the one running back is doing, so that way you can come in and piggyback off certain things that they're doing. That's how we do it, that's how we operate, and that's how we're going to win right now."
"We have four talented guys," Darkwa said. "Everybody deserves the ball, everybody deserves to go out there and show what they can do, if we go series-by-series and try to get it working as much as possible. It's just that one guy that we've got to make miss. Sometimes, we haven't been able to do that as a unit and we're trying to get better at that. We see it on film, we know what's out there, so it's on us to get it done."
Pugh said the line is as responsible as the backfield for the run production.
"We have to go out there and make sure that we're blocking up plays the same way, and the running back has to make sure they get used to us up front and the way we block things," he said. "It's something that we have to get right, and it's something that can definitely propel us these next four games. We get the running game going with the passing game we have, I think it's going to be a scary combination. And we're definitely looking to getting it going this week."
No one will dispute that's a good time to start, especially the players carrying the ball.
"We're one unit." Jennings said. "We see ourselves as one body of work. Whoever is out on the field catching the ball, that's us. Whoever is blocking, that's us. And the way this offensive system is set up, that's how you have to be. We're going to continue to push each other, compete with each other, cheer each other on. Regardless of whatever seems to be hot or not, we're all ready."