10:48 am Sep. 17, 2012
Lost amid the excitement of Eli Manning's giveth-and-taketh-away routine with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense on Sunday were some auspicious signs about the return of the Giants’ running game.
You remember the running game, don’t you? It was so dominant in 2008, when the Giants led the league with 2,518 rushing yards, at 5 yards per carry, that writers were touting the offensive line for league MVP. But it slipped to the league’s worst unit last year, and the Giants’ ability to pass their way to a Super Bowl officially retired the old cliché that teams must “establish the run," and replaced it with a new one, that “the N.F.L. is a passing league.”
Still, it helps to have a good running game. That’s why the Giants spent a first-round draft pick on running back David Wilson, and hoped that a new season and some small tweaks along the line would be enough to improve on the Murphy’s Law season of 2011, when a running game that had traditionally been excellent was horrible despite similar personnel.
The early returns weren't promising. The Giants’ performance on opening night against the Cowboys was decent enough on the surface: 19 carries for 82 yards, for an average of 4.3 yards per carry. But subtract a 33-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw when the Cowboys were up by 14 in the final minutes of the game, and mostly defending against the pass, and the Giants’ average dropped to a familiar 2.7 yards.
Through their first three drives yesterday, the Giants had managed just 24 yards on 8 carries. Not awful, but worse when considering that Ahmad Bradshaw’s 12-yard run accounted for as many yards as the other 7 carries, making it the outlier in a series of ineffectual plays.
The situation appeared to go from bad to worse, when Bradshaw left the game with a neck injury, and David Diehl, a fixture on the Giants’ offensive line since 2003, but one whose play was a glaring vulnerability last year and again last week, was lost on the Giants’ second series with a knee injury.
But the running game fared much better without the pair. From their fourth series on, Giants’ running backs carried 14 times for 72 yards, averaging 5.1 yards. All but one of those yards was amassed by Andre Brown, who jumpstarted the Giants late in the first half on their first touchdown drive with carries of 23, 6, 5, and 12 yards.
Going into yesterday, Brown was most famous among Giants’ fans for his catchy “I got a ring” jingle, first performed on the flight home from Super Bowl XLVI and then at the victory parade. He might have a ring, but numerous injuries since he was drafted in the fourth round of 2009 meant that he hasn’t had much of a career, switching teams six times, toiling on practice squads, and amassing just 15 carries in three years.
Given a chance to shine yesterday, Brown showcased pretty good power and acceleration, and, most impressively, some nifty feet. He doesn’t exactly stick in fans’ minds with a signature style: He’ll never have the runaway-truck appeal of Brandon Jacobs in his best days, or the breakaway abilities that Ahmad Bradshaw once did. But the Giants’ need someone to effectually move the chains, and notwithstanding Tom Coughlin’s rigid adherence to the depth chart, Brown has earned the right to compete with Bradshaw for the featured-back role, assuming Bradshaw’s injury is not serious (an MRI today will tell us more).
Bradshaw's neck injury was just the latest toll he’s paid for his appealingly angry running style, in which he initiates violent contact at maximum cost to his body. His chronic foot problems have deadened the spring in his bounce-around style, and he no longer has the speed to be the big-play threat he once was. Last year, he had only three carries of 20 yards or more, compared to 13 in 2010, six in 2009, and four during minimal playing time in 2008.
None of this means that he’s washed up altogether, but the Giants shouldn’t let his incumbency cloud their thinking about who the best running back is for the 2012 team. (An important caveat: Brown’s impressive day came against a Buccaneers team that had the worst run defense in football last year.)
A more obvious upgrade to the Giants’ running game was the substitution of Will Beatty for Dave Diehl along the offensive line, wherein Beatty moved to left tackle and Sean Locklear moved from left to right tackle. Quite simply, Diehl was frighteningly bad last year at both guard and tackle, in run-blocking and pass-blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, which grades every player on every play, Diehl was the seventh-worst run blocker among the 58 guards and tackles graded.
That rating doesn't even account for his pass blocking, where Diehl allowed 13 sacks, 11 hits, and a staggering 61 hurries. To put this in perspective, all three numbers were worse than the standard-bearer of right tackle incompetence for a New York team, jettisoned Jets tackle Wayne Hunter. Diehl’s poor opening night against Dallas—two sacks, five hurries allowed—reinforced the notion that at 32, he’s likely finished as an effective player.
Even with two untimely false starts from Beatty and a blown block by Locklear on his first play on the right side, which helped cause an Eli Manning interception, the offensive line was much better after Diehl's exit yesterday.
We’ll know more about the long-term status of Diehl and Bradshaw very soon. Regardless, the Giants shouldn’t be shy about using their injuries as the impetus to upgrade a running game that needs to get better.
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley