EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The first commandment for every NFL defensive coordinator is: "Thou Shall Stop the Run."
It is a covenant between a coach and his players that stifling a ground game will suppress every one of an opponent offense's objectives, primarily by turning it into a one-dimensional, passing-reliant attack.
"We have to stop the run," is on page one of every defensive coach's how-to handbook.
But what if an opponent shows little interest in handoffs and pitchouts and prefers to move the ball through the air? The Giants have pondered that question all week as they prepared for their game Sunday against the 4-6 Washington Commanders in FedExField.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, the Commanders have become the NFL's most pass-happy team. They have thrown 397 passes, 12 more than runner-up Minnesota and 78 more than the 10-week NFL average of 319. And that doesn't include the league-high 47 sacks quarterback Sam Howell has taken. Many of them certainly influenced subsequent play calls, but theoretically, Washington could have already thrown 444 passes.
Run the ball? Yes, the Commanders do that, too, but not nearly as frequently. Their 202 rushing attempts are the league's second fewest, behind the Jets' 198. The NFL average is 250.6. Entering Week 11, Washington had thrown 195 more passes than rushing attempts, easily outdistancing No. 2 Cincinnati (163). The Bengals threw 31 passes against 23 runs in their Thursday night loss in Baltimore and their pass/run ratio is now +171 – still well behind the Commanders.
Given those numbers, will stopping the run be the Giants' defensive priority tomorrow?
"I still think you have to show that you can stop the run because that makes the pass-happy teams want to pass the ball, that gives them their excuse to pass the ball the way they want to do," defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. "Then you go into your game plan and stop the pass after you stop the run. There's a fine line between it.
"We knew going into Buffalo (on Oct. 15) that we wanted to take away (wide receiver Stefon) Diggs and limit their passing game. So, they ran the ball a little bit against us (128 yards). Just last week I saw Denver had a similar game plan to what we did, and they gave up almost 200 yards rushing to Buffalo, and they still won the game. It all depends on the game and the flow of the game and where it goes from there."
Linebacker Boby Okereke was asked if there's a change in the defense's approach against a team like Washington.
"A little bit," he said. "They do have very dynamic running backs. When a team can pass and run, it makes it very difficult, so obviously you have to stop the run and put them in passing situations, but they are a dynamic offense. Bieniemy is a great offensive coordinator. Sam Howell is throwing the ball really well and they have very dynamic receivers, so we'll be excited for the challenge."
View photos of the team traveling to Washington ahead of the Week 11 matchup with the Commanders.
The Giants faced Slingin' Sam just four weeks ago, when he threw 42 passes (and was sacked six times) while Washington had just 19 rushing attempts in a 14-7 Giants victory. Last week in Seattle, the Commanders' count was 44 passes against 14 runs.
"Sometimes you watch the tape and it's like every series is a two-minute drive," linebacker Micah McFadden said. "They run deeper routes, or they're getting five (receivers) out and they're throwing the ball down the field or at least trying to. It's definitely something you have to be aware of and match up well against it on the back end."
Howell, a 2022 fifth-round draft choice from North Carolina, has played and started just 11 NFL games (all 10 this season). His 2,952 passing yards through 11 games is the fifth-highest total in NFL history and his 268.4 yards a game are the most by any player drafted in the third round or later in history.
Howell leads the league in attempts (397), completions (264), and passing yards (2,783). But his 47 times sacked are 14 more than any other quarterback this season.He could become the first quarterback to finish first in passing yardage and times sacked in the same season since Oakland's Jeff George in 1997.
In the three games since these teams last faced each other, Howell's production has increased while his punishment has decreased. He threw for 397, 325 and 312 yards against Philadelphia, New England and Seattle while totaling eight touchdown passes and two interceptions (3/0 last week). His three consecutive 300-yard games are tied for the longest streak in Washington history. The last game in which Howell did not throw for 300 yards was against the Giants on Oct. 22, when he passed for 249. His passer rating that afternoon was 60.5. In the three games since, it's 103.0.
"I think he's gotten better," safety Xavier McKinney said of Howell. "They've done a better job of putting him in better positions, he's getting the ball out quicker. He's got playmakers around him, so they've been doing just a great job of bringing it all together."
Not coincidentally, Howell took far fewer sacks the last three weeks. Howell was sacked 5.7 time a game through the first seven weeks, including six against the Giants. In the three games since, that average has fallen to 2.3 sacks-per-game.
"I think he's getting rid of the ball and they're getting more options to get rid of the ball faster," Martindale said. "He's seeing the field better, and the game is starting to slow down for him."
Howell spreads the ball around. Washington has six players with at least 250 receiving yards; no other team has more than four. Running backs and tight ends have accounted for 1,077 receiving yards, second in the NFL to Kansas City (1,173). The Commanders' leading receiver is wideout Terry McLaurin, who has 51 catches for 601 yards and whom Martindale calls "Scary Terry." McLaurin had 42 and 31-yard receptions against the Giants last month.
"He's still scary," Martindale said. "He's going to make two or three big plays a game just like in our game. The only two big play passing yards we gave up, we gave up to him."
Given how Howell and Co. have produced since the Giants last saw them, the defensive players will face a formidable challenge in the rematch.
"I think the whole team is playing a lot better," McFadden said. "(Howell is) a tough guy back there. He can take a hit and he can still throw off the back foot, he's accurate off his back foot when he has to be. He has a scramble that guys can't bring him down sometimes. He's just slippery and can roll out and extend plays with his legs as well. They're definitely a difficult opponent this week and we've just got to stay on top of what we do best."
*The Giants' games last week in Dallas and Sunday in Washington are their first consecutive road division games since they played the final two games of the 2016 season in Philadelphia and Washington.
*The Giants have lost just two of their last 10 games against Washington, both in 2021. The teams played a 20-20 tie in their first meeting last season.
View photos of the Giants on the practice field ahead of the Week 11 matchup against the Washington Commanders.