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Giants' run defense will be key against Washington

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins #99 of the New

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins #99 of the New York Giants sacks quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 20, 2015 in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: Mike Stobe

What was last year's biggest weakness on defense has become a strength so far this season.

The Giants' run defense is statistically the third-best in the NFL, allowing only 68 yards per game. It has not allowed a run of more than 15 yards and against the Falcons allowed only 56 in the game, the lowest total by an opponent since 2013.

"The numbers are okay," Tom Coughlin said. "I'm certainly not going to find fault with that part of it."

Thursday night those numbers, along with the Giants' line, will be put to the test. Washington (1-1) leads the NFL in rushing yards and has two backs who can pound away for yardage behind a physical line. The key for the Giants (2-0) to winning this game will likely be stopping Alfred Morris and Matt Jones from racking up big plays and milking the clock.

"Washington runs the ball well, and often," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said. "The big thing we have to do is get off the field. We let them start with long drives and it starts to wear people down and they're getting tired, and that's when they can really excel."

The Giants are so aware of that need this week that they brought Kenrick Ellis back to the team after cutting him at the end of the preseason. He'll be in a rotation up front that will be without Markus Kuhn (knee).

"We definitely have to stop the run first to give us a chance," defensive end George Selvie said. "They're going to start off the game and try to establish a running game, so that's our first goal is to stop the run."

The Giants' run defense last season was among the worst in the league. It was a point of emphasis to improve it this offseason with the additions of Selvie and Ellis and, most recently, Louis Nix. It has remained that way throughout the season.

"It's not just about going out there and one person trying to make a big play, it's about understanding the system, understanding the defense," Jenkins said. "The emphasis has been on different things [from last year] as far as what we're trying to accomplish."

Washington always had Morris, and now they have Jones too. The third-round pick from Florida who was expected to be Morris' backup has become a partner in a strong 1-2 punch. Jones has 151 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries while Morris has 180 yards on 43 carries.

"They have two runners who are doing an outstanding job," Coughlin said. "They've come up with this young guy, Matt Jones, to back up Morris. Those two have done an outstanding job. They have pounded away with the ball. If you saw last week's game, they loaded up with their tight ends, something a little bit different, and they caused some issues for a very good St. Louis Ram team that had defeated Seattle at home the week before."

Now Washington faces the Giants and their impressive run defense numbers. Those stats, like all such figures, don't tell the entire story. The Giants have stopped the run but little else; they are ranked last in the NFL in passing defense (351 yards per game) and next-to-last in overall defense (419). They played with a late lead in each of the first two games (which has been documented because of their collapses), so opponents have had to air it out against them.

And, as Jenkins pointed out, it's only two games.

"We've had our bright spots," he said. "It's still early, though. Two games, a lot can change. A two-game average doesn't hold up very well over the course of a season. We have a decent start with it and we just have to keep it up and keep improving it."

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