Lost in the afterglow of the Cowboys brilliant fourth quarter performance last week in New York is the fact that the Giants usually moribund running game was actually pretty solid, especially for their standards. For the season the Giants average only 3.8 YPC, good for eighth lowest in the league. Their total average rushing yards per game ranks even lower, fifth in the league at 90 YPG.
Yet last week, even with Sean Lee in the lineup, the Giants running backs managed to rush for 111 yards on 28 carries, for an average of 4.0 YPC (rounding up from 3.96). Those aren’t gaudy numbers by any means but if Ezekiel Elliott were to come back and post 111 yards on 28 carries in his first game back nobody would blink twice or think it out of the ordinary. And the Giants did that with the likes of Wayne Gallman and Orleans Darkwa running behind an injury-ravaged offensive line that was starting guys who have no business being NFL starters like Brett Jones and Jon Halapio.
Honestly, the respectable production out of the running game is what kept the Giants in the game for so long. In the first half they made a concerted effort to maintain balance by running the ball so that Eli Manning would not have the game resting on his shoulders, and they were able to do just enough to keep Eli from having to drop back too many times behind their porous offensive line.
Make no mistake, the absence of David Irving was felt last week, even if it wasn’t blatantly obvious and even if it didn’t result in a loss, but it was felt and not just in terms of the pass rush. Of course Irving will also miss tomorrow’s matchup with the Raiders, but the difference this time is that it won’t be Gallman and Darkwa running behind a couple of backup offensive linemen, it will be Marshawn Lynch running behind Kelechi Osemele, Gabe Jackson, and Rodney Hudson, who form one of the best interior trios in the league.
Osemele is one of the top guards in the league and was named First Team All-Pro last year, while Hudson is one of the better centers, making his first Pro Bowl in 2016. Left tackle Donald Penn is getting up there in age at 34 but he too made the Pro Bowl last season, the second of his career, and then of course there is Lynch.
At 31-years-old Lynch is certainly not what he used to be but he is still an extremely physical runner who can punish a defense. His 2017 stats are not eye-popping, with only 619 yards and seven touchdowns on 147 carries, with an average of 4.2 YPC, but much of that has to do with the Raiders tendency to get away from the run and go pass-heavy.
Lynch has been heating up as of late, averaging at least 4.0 YPC and scoring a touchdown in four of his last five games. He often does not get as many touches as he should due to both the game script and how quick the Raiders are to lean on Derek Carr and the passing game, but with Amari Cooper out and Carr struggling over his last two expect the Raiders to get back to basics and lean on Lynch in a must-win game. Also, much of the media narrative after the loss to the Chiefs has focused on the Raiders underutilization of Lynch, who had 61 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries last week, that type of outside scrutiny can lead to shifts in the gameplan as Cowboys fans have seen with Jason Garrett over the years.
Lynch may or may not be able to carry the ball 25+ times a game and single-handedly will his team to wins anymore, he has only carried the ball 15+ times twice so far in 2017, but with the Raiders season hanging by a thread and the passing game looking toothless without Cooper, don’t be surprised if Lynch has a “turn back the clock” performance in what could very well be his last game in Oakland.
Anybody who follows the NFL closely knows that Lynch returned primarily because he wanted to play in his hometown while he still had the chance. His bond with the city is unbreakable, and even though Lynch signed a two-year deal in the offseason this could easily be the last we see of the mercurial 31-year old running back. With their last two games on the road, their playoffs hope on life support, and playing on Sunday night, you better believe Lynch will be ready.
It will be paramount for the Cowboys to force the Raiders out of relying on the run, whether that’s by simply stopping it, or by building a lead that forces them to pass to get back in the game. That could be difficult though as without Irving, arguably the Cowboys best defensive lineman, the rotation along the line looks to once again be a bit “light in the pants”.
Last week against the Giants the top five linemen in terms of snaps played were Demarcus Lawrence (74%), Maliek Collins (71%), Tyrone Crawford (58%), Richard Ash (52%), and Benson Mayowa (51%). The rest of the rotation was rounded out by Lewis Neal (34%), Taco Charlton (31%), and Datone Jones (26%).
So by my count that’s a defensive tackle rotation of Maliek Collins, practice squad journeyman Richard Ash, 280 lb. (at most) Lewis Neal and former 3-4 OLB Datone Jones, perhaps with a little Tyrone Crawford mixed in. That doesn’t seem like a great matchup going up against a group that, at least last season, prided themselves on their physicality in the run game with 6-5, 330 left guard Kelechi Osemele and 6-3, 335 right guard Gabe Jackson on the interior of the line.
Luckily, Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens have been fantastic against the run this season, and ultimately much of the responsibility for stopping Lynch will fall on their shoulders, perhaps with an assist from Kavon Frazier down in the box. Whatever the game plan calls for, all I know is that the defense will have to be ready to take the fight to Lynch and the Oakland front. With their season on the line and coming off a pathetic performance last week you can rest assure that the Raiders, particularly their offensive line and Lynch, will be looking to do just that themselves on Sunday night.