When New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings sprained his knee in Week 5, the presumption was that rookie running back Andre Williams would ascend to the starting role and handle it. There were questions about Williams' abilities as a pass blocker and especially as a pass receiver, but in terms of actually running the ball, it was believed he would do fine filling in for Jennings for at least a couple of weeks.
He has not been fine.
Williams has rushed for a total of 110 yards on 35 carries in the two games since Jennings got hurt. That's an average of 3.14 yards per carry. Jennings' average in the season's first five games was 4.35 yards per carry. Both of Williams' games have been losses, but that's no excuse, because as we've already discussed here, the Giants have been running ball even though they've been behind.
There are two key aspects to examine as we try to figure out why Williams hasn't been as effective as Jennings was as the Giants' lead back, and they are:
1. The offensive line has had two poor games. Jennings this season is averaging 2.53 yards per carry before contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Williams is averaging 1.31. That's a significant difference in the amount of room in which the Giants' backs can operate. And while it's possible Williams isn't identifying the hole as easily as Jennings was (and we'll get to that later), a stat like this is pretty much all on the offensive line.
"Yes, if that's a stat, then yes," offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said Tuesday. "The running game is a combination of the offensive line, the tight end, the fullback and the running back. And there's no question we need to be better at executing the schemes, better calls. But more so than anything, it is on the offensive line to make sure we have better holes to get our running backs through."
Each of the Giants' starting five offensive linemen has earned a negative run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in both of the past two games. During the three-game winning streak that preceded those two games, only right guard John Jerry (in Week 5 vs. Atlanta) had a single negatively graded game. The offensive linemen aren't beating the people in front of them consistently enough to open holes for Williams to run through. However...
2. Williams isn't always seeing the holes when they do show up. As a very successful collegiate running back at Boston College, Williams was used to power running schemes. The Giants' running schemes this season incorporate a great deal more zone running than Williams has seen before. Jennings, who'd been only a power runner in Jacksonville and Oakland before arriving in New York, struggled himself in the preseason with some of the zone concepts, and there were times when the film would show him almost inexplicably running into one of his blockers instead of hitting the hole. Williams is dealing with that now, at least to some extent, as his reps have increased.
"What he's going through right now, getting more carries, is timing and rhythm with the offensive line," running backs coach Craig Johnson said. "That's the bottom line. They block and a certain rhythm and a certain pace, he runs at a certain rhythm and a certain pace, and everybody's trying to mesh that together."
The problem, such as it is, is that Williams is learning on the job. Different players develop at different rates, and developing while starting in the NFL is no easy trick. The only way for Williams to master what Johnson is talking about is to keep at it.
"You have to learn the defenses, where their fits are going to be, and that's through film study," Johnson said. "And then you find out when can I set a good pace to the hole and then hit it. And how you do that is rep after rep after rep. It is a rhythm and a pace and a feel. And how do you learn that? You have more reps. The more reps you get, the more you get with your timing, the more your timing happens, the more you have a chance to have the big runs."
The Giants hope to get Jennings back in Week 9 after the bye. But the meantime has been a valuable learning experience for Williams, who'll only get better with time and practice and a bit better offensive line play than he's had since they gave him the starter's job.