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Run D faces biggest test yet in Rookie Ezekiel Elliott

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*The Giants run defense gameplans for Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott: *

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Only one NFL team has had more rushing plays than passing plays this season. That would be the Dallas Cowboys, who will invade MetLife Stadium Sunday night.


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PHOTOS
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The Cowboys are sitting out the passing revolution sweeping through the NFL. They have a league-high 391 rushing attempts this season. They've countered them with 378 pass plays (360 throws, 18 sacks). The Giants almost certainly must slow Dallas' ground surge if they are to end the Cowboys' 11-game winning streak. Coach Ben McAdoo yesterday staged a practice in which the players were in full pads for "60 percent" of the workout to help them prepare for that challenge.

"We had some good contact," McAdoo said.

"It's a different feeling for them when you don't practice it a lot," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "Especially this time of year. Very rarely do we have the pads on. Very rarely do you actually do the hard thump and tackle a running back. You just don't do it anymore. All of a sudden, you face a team on Sunday and that's their bread and butter, that's different for our guys."

The Cowboys don't just run the ball frequently; they do it productively. They are second in the NFL with 155.8 yards a game and 4.8 yards per carry.

Rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth selection in this year's NFL Draft, carries the heaviest load. He leads the NFL in both rushing attempts (263) and yards (1,285), and is second in rushing touchdowns (12) and yards from scrimmage (1,607). Elliott's lowest rushing total during the winning streak is 83 yards – way back on Sept. 18 in Washington.

"He is running all over everybody," defensive tackle Damon Harrison said. "He is a real good back. He is leading the league in rushing, so that in itself speaks volumes. But from the very first time we played against him, we all said that that guy is going to be a player in this league and that seems to be true up until this point. Not only is he a great running back, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield as well."

Elliott has 28 catches for 322 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown. The Giants did hold him to a season-low 51 rushing yards in their season-opening 20-19 victory in Dallas – the Cowboys' only loss.

"He's fast enough and big enough," Spagnuolo said. "He runs over people. He doesn't necessarily try and run around people. Great backs are all like this - they get better and better as the game goes. A little bit of that has to do with the offensive line. They have a good offensive line. A good offensive line with a talented running back is a tough duty. We played them fairly well the first time. It's certainly been a long time since then. They're more experienced, better and in a groove right now. It's going to be a hell of a challenge."

The Giants should be up to it. They have the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense, allowing 91.4 yards game. They've given up only 3.6 yards a carry, the league's third-best figure.

No opposing back reached the 100-yard mark this season until Pittsburgh's LeVeon Bell ran for 118 yards last week. And the Steelers were the first team in seven games to run for triple digits against the Giants.

"One of the things that I personally look at is rushing yards at the end of the game every week," linebacker Devon Kennard said. "My goal, the linebacker goal and the defensive goal overall is to make sure teams are under 100. We didn't do that last week. We have a chip on our shoulder and want to do that this week."

But they'll have to do it shorthanded. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is sidelined after undergoing surgery this week to repair a core muscle injury. Although he receives much acclaim for his pass rush skills, JPP is an outstanding run defender.

"He's huge," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "He sets the edge and establishes a new line of scrimmage. There's really no tight end that can block him."

Kerry Wynn, rookie Romeo Okwara, and Owa Odighizuwa will line up in JPP's spot. And the Giants will rely heavily on defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Harrison, and end Olivier Vernon.

"(It's) next man up," Hankins said. "It is football. People get hurt, people go down, and you have to count on the backup that was behind him to step up and fill the spot. But with me, OV, Snacks (Harrison) and the group of guys that we have in that room, I feel like we will be just fine."

•  Tight end Larry Donnell has not caught a pass since the second play of the Giants' victory against the Rams in London on Oct. 23. Unfortunately for Donnell, he fumbled away the ball, and his playing time has declined since then. He was inactive for the Giants' victory against Chicago on Nov. 20.

"The reality of it is that we need to protect the football, and that was the number one issue with Larry," tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said. "Larry is a bright kid, works hard, does a nice job with his technique, but first and foremost, you've got to protect the ball. It puts your team in a bad position if you're turning it over and that's happened."

Asked how Donnell has "held up mentally," Gilbride said, "He's actually done a very nice job. He's ready to go. He's locked in through the meetings, through practice. He's ready to go when his number is called."

•  Three Giants players have been declared out of Sunday's game: defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle), linebacker Mark Herzlich (concussion) and safety Nat Berhe (concussion).

Five players are questionable: guard Justin Pugh (knee), defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (quad), wide receiver Dwayne Harris (ankle), defensive end Owa Odighizuwa (knee) and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (ribs).

McAdoo said Pugh and running back Shane Vereen will be evaluated in practice tomorrow before a decision is made on their availability. If Vereen plays, he must be activated off injured reserve, and another player would have to be removed from the roster.

These five players could make a key impact in Sunday's matchup with the Cowboys

•  Dallas listed three players as out: cornerback Morris Claiborne (groin), safety J.J. Wilcox (thigh) and tackle Chaz Green (back). Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, arguably the Cowboys' best pass rusher, is one of six players listed as questionable with a back injury. The others are safety Barry Church (forearm), defensive end Jack Crawford (foot), linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring), cornerback Orlando Scandrick (foot/not injury related) and tackle Tyron Smith (back).

•  The Giants, Hoodies for the Homeless, and New York Cares will host their 21st Annual Coat and Hoodie Drive on Sunday at MetLife Stadium prior to the Giants-Cowboys game. Fans are encouraged to bring their new or gently worn coats/hoodies to any of the New York Cares or Hoodies for the Homeless volunteers located at each stadium entrance.

All coats and hoodies collected during the drive will be distributed through two local philanthropic groups; New York Cares, a non-profit organization that meets pressing community needs by mobilizing caring New Yorkers in volunteer service, and Hoodies for the Homeless, a non- profit organization created by the band Push Method, who are committed to bringing awareness to the issue of homelessness. The coats and hoodies will then be distributed to men, women and children at homeless shelters, community organizations, centers for battered women, and agencies serving senior citizens across the metropolitan area.

Since 1996, the Giants have hosted a coat drive at the stadium, helping to warm thousands of their neighbors throughout the cold winter months. Once again, the Giants ask their friends and fans to join the team as we assist our neighbors in need.

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