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Giants vs. Rams: When Los Angeles has the ball

Containing Todd Gurley among keys to defending Rams

NFL: St. Louis Rams at Arizona Cardinals
Todd Gurley
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ defense came up big last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Can Steve Spagnuolo’s group do that again this week against the Los Angeles Rams? Let’s break some keys to the matchup of the Giants’ defense vs. the Rams’ offense.

By the numbers

Rams’ offense

Points per game: 18.3 (28th)
Yards per game: 301.3 (31st)
Passing yards per game: 220.5 (28th)
Rushing yards per game: 80.8 (28th)
Passing: Case Keenum, 115-of-184 (62.5 percent), 1,417 yrds, 7 TDs, 6 INTs, 85.4 passer rating
Rushing: Todd Gurley, 199 carries, 346 yards (2.9 yards per carry), 3 TDs
Receiving: Kenny Britt, 30 receptions, 492 yards (16.4 yards per catch), 2 TDs; Tavon Austin, 26 receptions, 242 yards (9.3 yards per catch), 1 TD

Giants’ defense

Points per game: 21.8 (14th)
Yards per game: 363.7 (19th)
Passing yards: 266.8 (19th)
Rushing yards: 96.8 (12th)

The case for Case

The Rams engineered a mega-trade to move up to No. 1 in the 2016 NFL Draft and select Jared Goff as their quarterback of the future. He is not, however, their quarterback of the present. While rookie quarterbacks like Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles and others have experienced early success, the Rams have chosen the old-fashioned watch and learn approach for Goff. He has yet to play, while veteran journeyman Case Keenum has been running the Los Angeles offense.

The Rams’ offense has been far from explosive, averaging 18.3 points (28th), 301.3 yards (31st) and 220.5 passing yards per game (28th). There is, of course, plenty of speculation regarding when Goff will play and Keenum will sit.

Keenum’s QBR of 47.8 is the second-lowest among starting quarterbacks in the NFL, with only Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins being worse. ESPN Rams reporter Alden Gonzalez says Keenum is difficult to evaluate, having put up nice numbers but made costly mistakes in back-to-back losses. Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times thinks Keenum’s record-setting game against Detroit will keep him in the job a little bit longer.

“That day is coming, when the Rams hand the keys of the offense to the rookie. The franchise didn’t make a historic trade up from the No. 15 spot and mortgage the future simply to ride the fence on which quarterback will eventually get the job. But with the way Keenum played Sunday, he isn’t going to make the choice an easy one.”

Thus, the Keenum era will continue for the Rams on Sunday against the Giants.

What’s up with Todd Gurley?

Running back Todd Gurley was selected 10th overall by the then-St,. Louis Rams in the 2015 NFL Draft, one pick after the Giants selected Ereck Flowers. The fact that the Giants passed on the electrifying running back bummed out some fans, a sentiment that wasn’t helped when Flowers struggled as a rookie and Gurley starred, gaining 1,106 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

This season, though, has been a different story. At this point, Gurley is averaging a miniscule 2.9 yards per carry — identical to Rashad Jennings. At this point a year ago, Gurley had four 100-yard games. His best this season has been an 85-yard effort against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one that took him 27 carries. His longest run this season has been 16 yards.

Rams offensive lineman Jamon Brown indicated this week that teams have been loading the box, trying to take away Gurley and force the journeyman Keenum to beat them.

“It’s obviously a tough time, because Todd Gurley is an amazing football player,” Brown said. “But we knew, coming into this year, that a lot of people were going to be ready. They were going to load the box. They were going to do everything they could to contain him.”

Brown also said that he thought the Rams were “on the brink of making it happen” for Gurley. That, by the way, sounds an awful lot like the Giants in recent weeks talking about waiting for an offensive breakout.

As Odell Beckham did last week, you know that Gurley will break out eventually He is too talented not to. How can the Giants avoid being the team against whom Gurley’s breakout game comes?

Giants’ cornerback Janoris Jenkins played with the Rams last season.

“Just team tackle, man,” Jenkins said. “Tackle him low. You do not have to hit him high. He is a great running back, we all know that, so just team tackling and swarming to the ball.”

Having a lead and forcing Los Angeles to play from behind would also help the Giants contain Gurley. So, too, would continuing to be solid up front and tackling well in the open field. The Giants are currently eighth in the league, giving up only 3.6 yards per running play.

“We just have to execute what we do well. We play the run defense very well, so we just have to go out and play some great football,” said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. “Todd Gurley, he’s a very good running back. We just have to execute up front. Be in our gaps. We’ve been playing the run solid this year so we should do a good job of that.”

They will need to.

Tracking Tavon ... and Kenny Britt

Kenny Britt leads Ram receivers with 30 catches, but it is diminutive speedster Tavon Austin who threatens opposing defenses in the most ways. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound Austin has 26 catches, has rushed the ball 12 times and is also the Los Angeles punt returner.

Britt, averaging 16.4 yards per catch with three touchdowns, is a big-play threat. He averages 16.1 yards per catch in his eight-year career and is en route to shattering his career-best of 48 catches (2014, Tennesssee Titans).

If the Giants are true to form, Janoris Jenkins may well get the assignment of following Britt no matter where he lines up.

The pass rush ... again

The Giants got two sacks against Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens last week, but they still have a league-low six for the season. Per Football Outsiders, the Giants’ Adjusted Sack Rate of 3.1 percent is 31st in the league and well below the league average of 6.0 percent. Safety Landon Collins (two) is the only Giant with more than a single sack.

As defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo discussed last week, we know that sacks are not the only pass rush statistic that matters. The Giants did use some creative blitz packages last week with corners or safeties used to rush the passer, and got six hits on Flacco in 50 drop backs.

Still, only two of those (one each from Jason Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins) came from defensive linemen. The Giants still need more in the pass rush from their front four.

Final thoughts

Provided that the Giants don’t let Gurley run wild, this is an offense they should be able to contain. If, however, Gurley has a big day that changes everything. Perhaps a player like Devon Kennard, whose snaps have been limited so far this season, can be a big factor in the run defense this week.

On the injury front, the Giants might get cornerback Eli Apple (groin) back. Safety Nat Berhe is back in the concussion protocol, however, so he seems unlikely to play.