EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – NFL head coaches seldom publicly announce their strategic intentions prior to a game, but the Carolina Panthers' Matt Rhule did so this week, and the Giants are taking him at his word. The teams meet Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
The Panthers had just 23 rushing attempts last Sunday when they lost in overtime to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-28, for their third straight defeat. Quarterback Sam Darnold dropped back to pass 45 times. He was sacked on four of them and completed only 17 of his 41 throws. Those numbers prompted Rhule to reassess his team's offensive intentions.
"I can just tell you right now you'll see a vastly different look from us moving forward," Rhule said at his Monday news conference. "We're not going to line up and drop back and throw it 40 times a game and think that that's going to win the game for us. It hasn't. ... So, we're going to redefine who we are. And we're going to run the football. And we're going to protect our quarterback and we're not going to turn the ball over anymore. And that's the only way that we're gonna win."
Moments later, Rhule added about his team's rushing attack, "We're not doing a good enough job as coaches of committing to it and staying with it. I came into this week saying I wanted to run the ball 33 times, and we didn't get that done."
Interestingly, Rhule is recommitting to the run a week after his best back, 2019 All-Pro Christian McCaffrey, was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Rookie fourth-round draft choice Chuba Hubbard leads Carolina with 281 rushing yards (though Darnold has a team-high five rushing touchdowns).
But will Rhule really hand off the ball and move straight ahead on the ground, or is he executing a misdirection play?
"Hell no, it's not misdirection," Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said today. "A head coach does that; he's letting you know. He's letting everybody in that building know, giddy up, let's go, we're running the ball. I can't blame him. I think I've read the quote and I heard the press conference, 'The first three games, two turnovers running the ball, blah, blah, blah. Last three games, eight turnovers. We've got to protect the quarterback. We've got to protect the O-line, blah, blah, blah by running the ball.' He's letting everybody know – I'm so bad with sayings – everybody is on notice that we've got to run the ball. I take him for his word.
"I don't know the man personally, but I've heard about him and how people talk about him. I take him for his word. They're going to come in here with the intent to run the football. He put the challenge down for those guys and I'm sure it was a motivating thing for his team. I mean, I like for a head coach to say something like that. That was pretty good. He's like, 'Hey, we're going to run the ball.' It kind of displays the toughness that you can see from their team. I think the running backs run hard. I think the wide receivers, they run hard after catch, they block. He's trying to instill a toughness into the team, so he's letting everybody know what we need to do, and I respect him for that."
The Panthers presumably will not run the ball on every offensive snap. But there's also little mystery concerning the passing attack. When Darnold throws the ball, it will most likely go to D.J. Moore. The fourth-year wide receiver has 40 catches, almost three times as many as team runner-up Robby Anderson (15). Put another way, Anderson's 40 targets match Moore's receptions total (on 63 targets).
Giants Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry played his first four seasons for the Panthers, including two in which he covered Moore in practice.
Bradberry said "for sure" if his knowledge of Moore will help Sunday. "I've been against him before, and of course I watch film on him now," Bradberry said. "I think I know him."
What makes Moore, who leads the team with three touchdown receptions, so dangerous?
"I think, one, his explosiveness," Bradberry said. "He's very fast and quick. Two, he's able to judge the ball well down the field. Also, he's a very good runner after the catch. I'm not sure what his stats are, but I know when I played with him, he was very good at catching the ball on slants and creating explosive plays off of that."
*The Carolina coaching staff has several Giants connections. Rhule was the Giants' assistant offensive line coach in 2012. Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn played linebacker – and special teams – for the Giants from 2005-12. He earned two Super Bowl rings and memorably intercepted a Tom Brady pass early in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLVI. Quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan was on the Giants' staff from 2007-15, first as the offensive quality control coach before two stints coaching the wide receivers sandwiched around one as the quarterbacks coach. Defensive analyst Kevin M. Gilbride spent eight years (2010-17) with the Giants, including two seasons coaching the wide receivers and four with the tight ends.
Rhule left the Giants after one season to become the head coach at Temple University, but he holds the Giants organization in high esteem.
"If you go back and listen to my press conference when I took the Temple job after leaving the Giants, I absolutely loved, absolutely loved, my time there," Rhule said. "I loved the people that I met. I loved working for (former Giants head coach) Tom Coughlin. I thought Tom Coughlin and (former offensive coordinator) Kevin Gilbride and all the people I worked with were unbelievable. (Former general manager) Jerry Reese took unbelievable care of me. I had a wife who was sick and had a baby who had some complications. Our doctor was at Hackensack Medical Center – (Vice Chairman and Director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine & Surgery) Dr. Al-Khan. There were unbelievable people. (Giants senior vice president, medical services/head athletic trainer) Ronnie Barnes took unbelievable care of me. The Mara family, the Tisch family, I had an unbelievable experience there and one of the hardest decisions I made in my life was taking the Temple job, just because obviously I wanted to be a head coach, but I had a chance to go and work at the New York Giants.
"I grew up in New York City, working at the Giants was something that I grew up dreaming of being (former head coach) Bill Parcells and (wide receiver) Phil McConkey and (tight end) Mark Bavaro and (quarterback) Phil Simms, those were my heroes, right? So, having a chance to work there was awesome. It was a really special place, a great building, a great place to be."
View photos from Thursday's practice as the Giants prepare for their Week 7 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.