Giants quarterback Eli Manning has had a career year, but that doesn’t mean Big Blue wants to rest solely on his right arm.
Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff matchup against the Falcons is full of storylines, but perhaps none bigger than who will rise up from the Giants’ one-dimensional offense and provide Manning with some semblance of balance?
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said he’s been stressing all week to his offensive line and running backs to give Manning a little reprieve.
“I think we’re going to have to be, but I think we will be,” Coughlin said of establishing some balance. “Hopefully, we will run the ball better than we did last weekend, for example. Consistency is the word. I’m not trying to say good, bad or indifferent. But we’ve had four or five games in a row where we’ve rushed the ball for over 100 yards. I’ll look for that to happen again.”
The Giants ended the regular season in an unfamiliar role of having the worst
rushing attack in the league. New York only fashioned 89.2 yards
per game and their leading rusher, Ahmad Bradshaw (659 yards and 3.9
yards per carry), was after such rushing stalwarts as Broncos
quarterback Tim Tebow (660 yards and a 5.4 yards per carry average). If
the Giants want to buck the trend of coming up short at home (they were
4-4 at MetLife Stadium as true visitors) they’ll need to keep Atlanta’s
manic pass rush off-balance and not allow the likes of defensive end
John Abraham (55 tackles, 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles) to tee off
on the passer.
The putrid rushing numbers withstanding, the Giants did improve down the stretch, running for at least 100 yards in four of their last five games — matching their total for the first 11 games. But there’s still no denying that their modest per-game totals were the lowest under Coughlin’s eight-year tenure here in New York and the Giants’ lowest average in 12 years.
While the running game floundered, Manning prospered. He directed the fifth-best attack in the league. The 295.9 passing yards per game was a single-season franchise record. But that was almost out of necessity. The imbalance has to change if they want to control the tempo, eat up the clock and keep the Falcons’ balanced offense on the sidelines.
Manning would never call out a struggling teammate, but even he knows he needs help.
“I hope that we can run the ball this week,” Manning said, delicately dancing around any specific criticism. “That’s what you want to do, especially when you get late in the season [when] it’s cold. [And] especially if it’s nasty weather like they say we might have. That’s what you want to have. Are we going to have to throw the ball successfully? Yes, but you have to understand the circumstances and we have to find a way to find completions, be smart with the ball and when there are opportunities, hit a couple of big plays. Hopefully we can do that.”
The offensive line, which has played surprisingly well despite a myriad of injuries, knows they hold the keys to success. They’re well aware of the football cliché of a team needing to run the ball well to succeed, specifically at this time of the year and when a Northeast team is hosting a warm-weather squad.
“I think it’s definitely the case that when you get late into the season you want to run the ball well,” left tackle David Diehl said. “When the elements come into play, that’s when you can run the ball and be physical. Most importantly, when playing a team like the Falcons, you want to take care of their time of possession, do our best to keep their offense off the field and keep our defense fresh and attacking.”
Diehl added it’s important to also lessen the burden for Manning.
“We also need to keep out of third-and-long situations and stay in a manageable down and distance because that’s something this Falcons defense thrives on,” Diehl said. “You give them a third-and-long and they could pin their ears back and do whatever they can to attack the quarterback.”
The year the Giants last won the Super Bowl (2007), they did it the conventional way of stopping the run (74 yards per game) and hammering away with the running game (103.8 yards per game). Rehashing that success would be great but probably unlikely, as none of the Giants’ top three rushers — Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs (3.8) and D.J. Ware (3.5) — averaged four yards per carry.
That puts the onus on Diehl and Co. and the longest-tenured Giants offensive lineman said that’s the way he wants it.
“I think we definitely can run the ball better,” Diehl said. “Throughout everything, we’ve maintained a positive attitude and I think each and every week you’ve seen us grinding and getting better. We may not be putting up 200 yards per, but each run is taking a toll. Look at the way Brandon [Jacobs] has been able to physically do things and also look what it has been able to do to our play action. … If we can get the run game going and get those linebackers to bite up, it does so many things for that as well.”
Guard Kevin Boothe, who has rotated between swing guard and starting center, said if critics take a look at their trends, it’s a positive sign that Big Blue will be able to move the ball on the ground, Sunday.
“We have been making improvements the last several weeks,” Boothe said. “There have been a lot more good things. We have been a lot more consistent. I think the second half of the year compared to the first half was better. We are looking to build off of that [last week’s ground success]. … That is what it is all about this time of year is to keep playing your best football.”
Big Blue notes
» Jason Pierre-Paul has been selected the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December/January, not exactly a shock considering he was twice named Player of the Week during the five weeks of games the award was based on.
» The Giants have gotten relatively healthy, while the Falcons appear to be more banged up. At least 17 players were listed as not practicing or limited, including defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez, center Todd McClure, running back Michael Turner (groin), wide receiver Harry Douglas (groin), cornerback Brent Grimes (knee), linebackers Stephen Nicholas (toe) and Sean Weatherspoon (head), safety William Moore (groin), tight end Michael Palmer (knee), wide receiver Kerry Meier (groin), wide receivers Roddy White (hip) and Julio Jones (thumb), defensive tackle Peria Jerry (calf), tight end Reggie Kelly (back), running back Jason Snelling (knee) and linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle).
» This is the first postseason meeting between the Giants and Falcons. The regular season series is tied, 10-10. The visiting team won 15 of those 20 games. The teams last faced each other on Nov. 22, 2009, when the Giants earned a 34-31 overtime victory. Prior to that game, the visiting team had won 12 consecutive games in the series, an NFL record.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8 for all your Giants news as they head into the postseason.