Hello again, Detroit Lions fans. After an offseason of quiet contemplation, I am back for more. Without further ado, let's dive in and break down a key player in the Lions' Week 1 matchup against the New York Giants: Rashad Jennings.
Now in his fifth season, Jennings has spent his career being the bridesmaid without ever being the bride. In his three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars and his one-year stint with the Oakland Raiders, Jennings served as a change-of-pace back to starters Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, respectively. In that role, he saw limited touches, and he has a career average of only 7.3 carries per game. However, Jennings received an opportunity to start several games in both 2012 and 2013 due to injuries.
As an every-down back, Jennings struggled in 2012. He started or received significant playing time in seven games that season, but generated only 2.8 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He lacked any explosiveness and broke only one run for longer than 20 yards. In contrast, Jennings made the most of his opportunity last year in Oakland's running offense. After McFadden (shockingly) struggled with injuries, the Raiders used Jennings as the feature back in nine games. After several average games, Jennings had his coming-out party in Week 11 against the Houston Texans, when he ripped off 150 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He finished the season with 733 yards and six touchdowns on only 163 carries, which equates to a respectable 4.5 yards per carry average. Comparing last year with the 2012 season, it is fair to assume that some part of Jennings' ineffectiveness in Jacksonville was due to the Jaguars' general struggles.
The Giants saw enough promise in Jennings' spot starts over the past two years to bring him in this offseason to boost their ailing running game. In 2013, the normally potent Giants running attack was abysmal with second-year player David Wilson suffering a career-ending neck injury and change-of-pace back Andre Brown showing his ineffectiveness as an every-down back. Things were so bad that the Giants used black magic to resurrect the corpse of Brandon Jacobs, who ended up as the team's most effective ball carrier.
The Giants put serious effort into restarting their running game this offseason by bringing in Jennings and drafting 2013 Heisman Trophy candidate Andre Williams in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Both players look to receive significant touches this season. If the preseason can serve as any guide, the combination may be effective. In the preseason, both Jennings and Williams were at the top of the league in total rushing yards and yards per carry (Jennings contributed 6.1 yards per carry compared with Williams' 5.1). While Jennings is expected to be an every-down back this year, Williams will serve as a change of pace and vulture short-yardage work.
So, how will Jennings fare against the Lions? In 2013, the Lions boasted a moderately effective run defense. The Lions allowed only 1,596 yards on the ground last season, or 99.8 yards a game. Those figures were good enough to give them the sixth-best run defense on paper. However, when looking at averages, the team was middling and allowed 4.2 yards per carry. For those readers who like "math," the answer to this mystery is obviously that the Lions faced fewer carries than other defenses. In fact, the Lions faced only an average of 23.6 rushes per game, the fourth-fewest in the league. I would love to say that this was because teams were scared to run on the Lions' vaunted defense. Rather, I think this shows the weakness of the Lions' secondary. Any casual football fan knows that the Lions' defensive strength rests in their front seven. In the pass-happy NFL, teams are all too happy to avoid running straight into the teeth of the Lions' strength.
The key to stopping Jennings and the Giants' ground game in Week 1 will be consistency. Jennings is not a boom or bust player who is gone if he breaks one tackle. He can be explosive, but slipping tackles on the outside and going to the house has not been his game. He will pound between the tackles and try to hit the holes quickly. The Lions' front cannot lose discipline in shutting down the running lanes between the tackles. This should be easier, as the Lions' new coaching staff gave the "Wide 9" defensive scheme the end it deserved. The Giants are unlikely to try to win the game on quarterback Eli Manning's throwing arm given his tendency for turnovers, and Jennings and company should receive plenty of work on the ground.
Because Jennings is also a capable receiver, with 36 receptions last season, he will also draw attention from the Lions' linebackers in the passing game. Again, Jennings is not a Reggie Bush-style player who can take a screen to the house, but he is dangerous in the flats and can pick up chunks of yards at a time.
This matchup is somewhat of a test of unknowns with Jennings being truly unleashed for the first time against the Lions' new defensive scheme. The Lions certainly have the skill set to shut down runners like Jennings, and doing so will go a long way to starting the season 1-0.