EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The days of smash-mouth football are over for the New York Giants.
No longer is the offense based on a handoff, a surge of the offensive line, and a gain of 4 or 5 yards by Brandon Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw.
It’s not that Tom Coughlin wouldn’t like his team to play that way, it just hasn’t happened this season. New York is no longer one of the NFL’s top rushing teams. The fact is, heading into Sunday’s wild-card game against the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium, the Giants are - get this - the league’s worst team at running the rock.
Yep, 32d out of 32 teams.
Rather, Eli Manning and his passes to Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Jake Ballard, and Mario Manningham have become the driving force of the Giants (9-7).
The disparity has even shocked offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
With Manning, Nicks, and Manningham improving with each season, Gilbride felt they could get better. No one knew Ballard would be able to stretch the middle of the defense like former tight end Kevin Boss, or that Cruz would have a breakthrough season after doing nothing as a rookie.
The run game has gone in reverse. After rushing for 137.5 yards per game last season, the Giants are averaging fewer than 90 this season.
“I’m disappointed that the running game wasn’t better,’’ Gilbride said yesterday after practice. “I had expected it to be better than it was, and for whatever the reason it has not been, and it was really poor at the start of the season. But again, the most important thing is we have gotten better, which gives us a little bit of a chance to make the defense play honest and make it a fair fight. Then we think we can throw the ball pretty well.’’
The Giants have rushed for more than 100 yards in only eight games this season. But three of those have come in the final four games, with each being a win. For the season, they have rushed for 1,427 yards, 87 more than Michael Turner gained for Atlanta.
“I think it still can be a little better, but for the last month of the season we definitely ran the ball a lot better than the middle of the season or the beginning of the season, to be honest with you,’’ Jacobs said. “I don’t see why we can’t run the ball in the playoffs.’’
The play of the offensive line has been one of the problems.
Shortly after the lockout ended, the Giants released longtime center Shaun O’Hara and veteran guard Rich Seubert, who were coming off injuries.
Former 49ers lineman David Baas was signed to take over at center and the left side of the line was revamped, with David Diehl moving from tackle to guard to make room for third-year pro Will Beatty.
Beatty lasted 10 games before a detached retina ended his season. Diehl moved back to tackle and the guard position was played by Kevin Boothe and Mitch Petrus, who filled in when Boothe had to take over at center with Baas out with neck problems. The right side of the line has been the constant, with standout guard Chris Snee and tackle Kareem McKenzie.
“It’s been a bumpy road for us, but we stuck together,’’ said Baas, who returned to the lineup two weeks ago. “As an offense, we stayed physical, we’ve run the ball pretty well recently, and Eli has passed it well all season.’’
Diehl said the line’s confidence has not wavered this season, and there is a belief the running game is going to have to emerge if the Giants are to go far in the postseason. The longer they extend the season, the likelihood of playing in bad weather increases, and if it’s inclement and windy, the running game is a must.
“It’s important any game to establish a running game,’’ Diehl said. “For this one, No. 1 it’s the playoffs, No. 2 we’re going against an offense that can put a lot of points on the board. They rushed for 251 last week. This game will be won by the offensive and defensive lines.’’
Bradshaw is clearly the most explosive of New York’s running backs and can ignite the offense. He ran for three touchdowns and scored on a reception in the final two weeks, with his most memorable score a 14-yard run against the Jets on a play in which he bowled over safety Brodney Poole.
“I just make it happen,’’ said Bradshaw, who leads the Giants with 659 yards on 171 carries, a 3.9-yard average. Last year, he rushed for 1,235 with a 4.5 average.
“There has been no change in play calling and we have been doing the same thing since Day 1. We just feel like right now it is the time.’’
Bradshaw isn’t concerned what the Giants have done running the ball this season.
“All I am worried about is this game and what we can do rushing in these next couple of games,’’ he said.
Gilbride is hopeful the Giants can show a glimpse of the smash-mouth game and open up things for the passing attack even more.
“We are still a little inconsistent than what we like to be, but we are in that area where we feel like we are headed in the right direction, Gilbride said. “If we are averaging about 4 yards a carry, that keeps us in a down and distance that makes it much easier to call plays, it makes them much more balanced on defense because you can run or pass.
“It is very helpful when you can do it.’’