New York Giants
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When the team looks back on the 2015 season, one of the biggest frustrations it's sure to wonder about is what happened to its running game.
The Giants' running game is averaging 89.4 yards per game, 28th in the NFL. Against Washington, New York ran for 32 yards in the first half on 10 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
In the second half, they moved away from the run, managing one yard on three carries for a total of 33 rushing yards, their lowest rushing total since Dec. 15, 2013 when they ran for 25 yards in a loss to the Seahawks.
"We just kind of got into the second half, and got down, started hitting some big plays in the pass game, finally connected on some, and once you get to the midway towards the end of the third quarter and you're down 17, it's a little bit tougher to stay with the run," quarterback Eli Manning said.
"We had to score, and score quickly and kind of got into a passing deal. We didn't want it to be a game where we had to throw it 50 times; we would have liked to run it more, but I think it's also a combination."
The problem with Manning's explanation is that by the half, the Giants had already attempted more than twice as many pass attempts (22) than they had runs (10). In fact, the Giants haven't had an equal balance between the run and the pass in their last four games.
"You always look back at that and say, 'Yeah, we should have run. We should have kept running. We should have done something to, if nothing else, affect the ability to set up play action pass,'" head coach Tom Coughlin said.
"In the game, in the process, in the game the way it was going, we were down quite significantly, not having a lot of success, and that always leads you the other way. But when you look at the end result and you look at the statistics from the game, you certainly would have liked to have rushed the ball a considerable amount of times more than we did."
The Giants' running game has only managed two 100-yard performance as a group this season: Week 7 against Dallas (132 yards on 25 carries) and Week 9 against the Bucs (114 yards on 33 carries) in a winning effort.
Since that game against the Bucs, the offensive line has taken some hits. Starting left guard Justin Pugh developed concussion symptoms that have kept him out of the last two games.
Center Weston Richburg had his ankle rolled up on against the Patriots and ended up missing Sunday's game against Washington.
And more recently, Geoff Schwartz, the starting right guard, suffered a fractured leg that Coughlin said will end the snake-bitten veteran's season.
"You keep working, that's what you do," Coughlin said of the offensive line, which of course has to open the holes up for the running game. "Maybe you get a couple of guys back, or at least one back. The other guys are going to have to keep playing and do a good job for us, that's all there is to it."
All that's well and good, but it still doesn't address the problems with the running game and its shocking lack of productivity this season.
Two weeks ago, running backs coach Craig Johnson indicated that the Giants are simply going to continue trying each of the four backs Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa in hopes that one of them seize the bull by the horns.
"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," he said.
The approach hasn't worked all season, but there are still five games left for them to get lucky.
Two weeks ago, the Giants, in a 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots, proved to themselves and to those who saw the game that they could stand toe-to-toe with the defending Super Bowl champions, even if it was in a losing effort.
Then came the bye week and Thanksgiving, and in a snap, these same Giants, who hoped to parlay that momentum from playing the Patriots tough, went back to their old ways of squandering opportunities and, at times, playing lackluster football against Washington, a division foe they had beaten five straight times, who simply wanted it more and who handed the Giants a 20-14 loss.
"You get 60 minutes to play and we didn't execute," said receiver Odell Beckham Jr., one of the few Giants who actually did show up to play the game, but whose nine receptions for 142 yards and one touchdown didn't seem to convince his fellow teammates that Washington could be beaten with some effort.
"We didn't do a good job, we came out flat. Too many mistakes, too many everything. Sometimes you have to tip your hat off to the other team. They came out here fired up, came out to play and they did exactly that," he added.
When asked why this Giants team with so much to gain had it played like the group who stood nose-to-nose with the Patriots two weeks ago just couldn't get it done, the visibly upset Beckham shook his head.
"There is no explanation, no good explanation for that," he said. "We have to do better. You can't do that to your teammates. It was a case of being a little too late in this game.
"We came out flat and they came out fired up. We came in knowing everything was on the table and we didn't put our best foot forward."
Although the loss didn't mathematically eliminate the Giants from playoff contention, it seems clear that it's not going to be a smooth ride for a team whose margin for error is shrinking with each passing week.
"The good thing about it is we have five more games to correct it," Beckham said.
"It's unfortunate but you can't hold your head on it. We will go in and see what we did wrong, which is a lot of things and just come out and correct them. We need to come out with more fight."
There's a fun belief in the Giants locker room that the reason why one never sees Superman and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at the same time is because the second-year receiver really is Superman in disguise.
OK, that's obviously a stretch given that Superman is a fictional character, but still, Beckham, the dynamic second-year player, never ceases to amaze his coaches, teammates and fans with his passion and approach to the game.
"We certainly have a very, very high ceiling and a high ceiling as far as what the talent level is and the things that he can do and that you would ask him to do," head coach Tom Coughlin said.
"There is probably nothing that you wouldn't ask him to do, he seems to be able to handle all those things. ... I think the expectation of what he can do is the sky's the limit."
In Sunday's loss to Washington, Beckham was targeted 18 times (35.1 percent) in the passing game, three shy of his career high 21 times which he achieved in Week 17 of last season. Still, that's an unusual amount of targets for a single receiver, and an amount that raised the question as to whether Beckham really is still that good or if the other receivers around him are not good enough.
"I think it's you want the ball in the hands of the guys who can be the most productive," Coughlin said of Beckham, who leads the Giants in receptions (72), receiving yards (1,005) and touchdowns (9).
In fact, on some of Beckham's targets, quarterback Eli Manning has shown little hesitation in trying to squeeze the ball into tight spots or to thread the needle, a fact that demonstrates a confidence that Manning doesn't necessarily show with his other primary receivers, Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris.
Manning downplayed the notion that he favored Beckham.
"It's just kind of the way things were called based on the coverages they were playing and had a lot of man coverage, one-on-one coverage with him, and the routes," he said.
"The timing of that, with the routes being called, with the coverage being played he was my No. 1 receiver on a lot of those just kind of based on where he was lined up at the time. When you have that matchup and you have one-on-one with him, you hope you can connect on those, and make some big plays out of it."
Still, there's no disputing that Beckham has been the Giants' most productive and consistent receiving option this season. As the season winds down and the team looks to earn its first playoff berth since 2011, it doesn't sound as though Beckham's targets are going to be cut anytime soon, regardless of the coverage he draws.
"I would say there's guys contributing and getting open, but you certainly do want the ball in the hands of the guy that can be the most productive," Coughlin said.