Sterling Shepard steps in as No. 1 receiver; Orleans Darkwa still Giants' lead back

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The New York Giants' lineup will be littered with unfamiliar names Sunday when they host the Los Angeles Rams at MetLife Stadium.

Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Olivier Vernon, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, Janoris Jenkins, these are just some of the players they will be missing. Those that are left behind will be forced to play bigger roles.

Sterling Shepard is set to return after missing two games with an ankle injury as the Giants’ No. 1 receiver. Orleans Darkwa will remain as the lead back and tight end Evan Engram as one of the team’s most dangerous weapons.

This is now the core of the Giants’ offense around quarterback Eli Manning for the remainder of this season. It's not ideal but also not as bad as it had been in recent weeks thanks to a deluge of injuries.

With the increased roles come new opportunities. Shepard can prove he’s capable of being a go-to receiver.

“I love it. I love any role,” he said this week. “The role that I had before this -- just making plays -- I’m taking that same mindset to now. Just got to make plays. That’s the bottom line.”

Shepard was averaging almost 6.0 targets per game prior to spraining his ankle. But that was also with Beckham and Marshall in the lineup. It should tick close to double-digits once he’s fully back in the swing, which might take a week or two.

Engram was averaging 6.0 targets per game over the first five weeks before the wide receiving corps was ravaged by injury. He has averaged 9.5 targets in the two games without Beckham, Shepard and Marshall.

That number is not likely to be altered much by the return of Shepard. The Giants revised their offensive game plan in recent weeks to be a more run-heavy team given the lack of weapons. Slowly they are likely to inch back towards their previous incarnation, which will lead to more opportunities for Shepard and Engram with Roger Lewis and Tavarres King sprinkled into the mix.

The running back situation will remain a committee, but with Darkwa as the primary ball-carrier. Darkwa has averaged 14.3 touches over the past three games. That may dip slightly out of the bye week.

Rookie Wayne Gallman and veteran Shane Vereen will remain part of the mix while second-year back Paul Perkins could work his way back in as well after missing several games with a rib injury. Perkins is expected to be active Sunday against the Rams for the first time since Week 4.

For the short term they will be working behind an offensive line missing its two best linemen – Pugh and Richburg. Pugh is sidelined by a back injury and Richburg with a concussion. But there is optimism both could be back next week.

In the meantime, the Giants’ offensive line will have Brett Jones at center and Bobby Hart at right tackle.

“Again, Bobby had a good week of practice,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “He had a productive day [Thursday] in pads. Expect him to play his best game as a pro this week.”

That would help Darkwa and the running backs’ outlook against a Rams defense that is susceptible to the run. They are 26th against the run this season allowing 123.1 yards per game.

The Giants would be wise to stick with Darkwa (5.4 ypc) and the run this week against the Rams, especially when they’re starting Ereck Flowers and Hart at tackle. The Rams’ pass rush (tied for seventh with 23 sacks) should be able to wreak havoc if the Giants get stuck in passing downs or return to their pass-happy ways.

Shepard will help, but this Giants offense (16.0 ppg this season) still isn’t overflowing with playmakers. Only the Baltimore Ravens have managed fewer 20-plus-yard pass plays this season.