Running the football has been a constant struggle for the New York Giants. You know this grates on Tom Coughlin's nerves. More importantly, though, an inability to run the ball at key times impacts the ability to run efficient, unpredictable offense. Let's look at some of the numbers, examine some of the possible causes and see if we can offer any potential solutions.
The Giants are 26th in the league in rushing yards per game, averaging 95.0, and 28th in yards per carry (3.8). They were the last team in the league this season to rush for 100 or more yards in a game, finally hitting that mark by rushing for 132 yards on 25 carries in a Week 7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Giants have gone 11 consecutive games without an individual 100-yard rusher since Andre Williams ran for 110 yards at St. Louis last Dec. 21. That is their longest streak since they played 14 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher from Oct. 18, 2009 to Sept. 26, 2010. When a Giants runner reaches the century mark, it usually results in a victory; they are 45-13 in regular-season games under Coughlin when they have a 100-yard rusher.
The Giants have just three runs of 20 or more yards, tied for 25th in the NFL, and 22 runs of 10-plus yards, tied for 24th.
The Giants have three rushing touchdowns, their lowest total through 10 games since 1996, when they had two.
In a broad sense, you break this down to two central themes. The running backs and the blocking. So, let's look at both.
The Giants started the season using a three-man committee at running back. In recent weeks, with Orleans Darkwa forcing his way into the picture, the Giants used a four-man committee. Here are the basic numbers for Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen, Andre Williams and Darkwa thus far:
Jennings has been the primary ballcarrier, getting most of the action early and late in games. He has just five runs of 10 yards or more in his 105 carries, which works out to 4.07 percent. It's not entirely fair to compare his work to Darkwa's because of the difference in sample sizes, but three of Darkwa's 23 carries have gone for more than 10 carries, a percentage of 13.04.
Take away the single explosive run Vereen has had this season, a 39-yarder, and he is averaging 3.38 per carry. Take away Williams's 35-yard carry and his miniscule 2.8 yards per carry average would be 2.3 per carry. There have been a few excellent runs, but not enough. Nor has there been enough consistency in terms of average runs.
Football Outsiders uses some advanced analytics to measure performance beyond simple yards per carry. Here is a chart compiled from FO detailing the work of all four Giants backs. We will talk more about what some of the pertinent numbers mean below.
FO rates Jennings in more categories simply because of his higher number of categories. He is one of 36 backs in the league with 80 or more carries
We see that Jennings has clearly been effective, though not explosive. Fifty-five percent of his runs have been considered successful, third in the league behind only Giovanni Bernard of thecincinnati Bengals and LeGarrette Blount of the New England Patriots.
FO defines DYAR as "Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement." We see that Jennings and Darkwa have done well, while Williams clearly has not. His DYAR is league worst. DVOA, "Defense-adjusted Value Over Average," is another area where Jennings and Darkwa do OK, but Williams falls downs. Effective Yards is a metric that tries to adjust for situations. More effective yards than standard yards means a player is exceeding expectations, less and the opposite is true. Again,Jennings and Darkwa are above average running the ball and Vereen and Williams are not.
Scroll the Twitter timeline of performance consultant and offensive line specialist Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) and you will find a number of examples of the Giants offensive line doing an outstanding job of clearing space for running backs.
Look closer, though, and you realize that almost all of those examples from Manyweather involve three players -- center Weston Richburg and guards Justin Pugh and Geoff Schwartz.
Football Outsiders offers us the following nuggets about run-blocking:
- The Giants are 16th in Adjusted Line Yards, at 3.80 per rush.
- They are last in the league in Power Success at 33 percent. Power Success is defined as "Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer."
- The Giants are ninth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards running up the middle and fifth off right tackle (yes, where Marshall Newhouse plays), but, 31st off either end and 28th off left tackle.
What do those numbers tell us? The Giants are OK when they can get behind Pugh, Schwartz and Richburg. Even when they go right, where the athletic Pugh can pull and lead they are OK. When they try to get outside, they can't. And when they need a total team blocking effort in short-yardage situations they can't get one.
Are there any solutions?
The Giants don't have a blocking tight end on the roster, and one is not going to magically appear this season. They have a young player just learning how to play fullback. They struggle at the tackle positions. Those things are not going to change this season. Perhaps the Giants can use a reserve offensive lineman more often as an extra tight end, but there aren't many other changes they can make. Those situations have to be addressed in the offseason.
The only real change that can be made is to pare down the four-man committee.
"I think that obviously it's a hard number to try and get four guys reps because you always want to try and get guys in rhythm and all that. I think all of them have deserved to play," running backs coach Craig Johnson said this week. "Rashad has done a lot of good things, Andre probably had the best game of all the backs a week ago, Orleans has been consistent, so what I'm trying to do is give them all some opportunities and then the guys that really seem to be in a rhythm within each game, you try and give them a little bit more reps."
Jennings isn't going to give you big plays, but he can give you positive plays and help keep the chains moving. The issue really is what do with Vereen, Williams and Darkwa.
Vereen is the pass-catching back and, obviously, he is going to keep that role because he excels in it. Also, obviously you have to hand him the ball occasionally so you don't become predictable.
What you have then is a choice between Darkwa and Williams. Performance in a too-limited sample size tells you more Darkwa and less Williams appears to be in order. My belief is that Williams needs double-digit carries to succeed because of his straight-ahead, power style. He isn't going to get them in this rotation, and giving him three or four carries is a waste. There seems to be a different energy when Darkwa enters the game.
The Giants will, quite honestly, be averse to burying Willliams and promoting Darkwa for a simple reason. Williams is a fourth-round pick and Darkwa is an undrafted player who was picked up as a free agent castoff. Like it or not, that is how the NFL works.
Still, with limited ways to get better, giving Darkwa an expanded opportunity seems like the best option.