The cruelest irony of the many in this lost Giants’ season is the need for another run-stuffer.
General manager Dave Gettleman often is criticized for an old-school approach to hoarding one-trick defensive tackles, so the last thing anyone would expect the Giants to be short on is rush defense. Yet the Giants are allowing the fourth-most yards per game on the ground (137.2) this season after a miserable three-game span during which the Saints, Cowboys and Rams averaged 167.3.
So, it’s hardly a coincidence that Panthers coach Matt Rhule picked this week to “redefine” the team’s identity, planning on 30-33 rushes per game despite the injury absence of All-Pro back Christian McCaffrey. It would have been less obvious if he just shoved a football down a Giants’ throat.
“They say they are going to run the ball 33 times, so we have to try to stop it 33 times,” nose tackle Austin Johnson said. “We have to fix certain little things to create a wall up front. We’re going to figure it out.”
Johnson, who is tied for the Giants lead with three sacks, is a first-year starter who replaced top run defender Dalvin Tomlinson. The Giants let Tomlinson leave for the Vikings in free agency because they had other big investments on a deep defensive line (2019 first-round pick Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams’ $21 million-per-year contract) and a major need at cornerback, where Adoree’ Jackson was added.
But a shortage on the offensive line prompted the Giants to trade defensive tackle B.J. Hill to the Bengals for center Billy Price. The season-ending torn ACL suffered by inside linebacker Blake Martinez took away another key cog in the rush defense. The outside linebackers are not sealing off the edge.
Williams is graded No. 3 in rush defense among interior defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus. Hill is No. 7, Tomlinson is No. 25, Johnson is No. 38 and Lawrence is No. 66. Whether Rhule knows those rankings or not, he knows the Giants have a weakness.
“Hell no, it’s not misdirection,” Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “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.”
Two weeks ago, the Giants tried to use a slight from analyst Troy Aikman as extra motivation against the Cowboys. It didn’t work. So, the drumbeat might not be as loud about Rhule’s comment, but there is no doubt it found its way into meeting rooms.
“They are aware of it. They can’t not be. You [media] are going to be writing about it and Twitter,” Graham said. “I don’t know how much I’m reading right now in the papers, but I did see it. I’ll say that right now.”
The Panthers started 3-0 with McCaffrey, but are 0-3 without him. Quarterback Sam Darnold’s pass attempts rose over the last three games compared to the first three games, and so did his sacks (from six to 12) and interceptions (from one to six).
“We have not been committed enough to running it — and that’s going to change,” Rhule said earlier this week. “You will see a vastly different look from us moving forward.”
To cut down on Darnold’s mistakes, the Panthers are going to feed Chuba Hubbard, a downhill-running rookie workhorse. The Giants need more than just Williams to handle a 30-rush challenge.
“Dalvin was amazing, but we have the guys we have here,” Johnson said. “Leo is definitely a point of emphasis for offenses, so we have to step up. Yeah, the Panthers don’t have Christian McCaffrey, but they do what they do very well with a good offensive line and good backs.”
In today’s pass-happy NFL, only six teams average 30 or more rushes per game. The Browns — with former Pro Bowlers Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in combination — lead the way with 32.4. The Panthers called 45 passes and just 23 runs last week in an overtime loss to the Vikings.
“I take [Rhule] for his word,” Graham said. “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. He’s trying to instill a toughness into the team. I respect him for that.”
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