After the 2014 season, much was made of the realization that Eli Manning was the worst quarterback in the league when under pressure.
But how could that be? How could the guy who shrugged off a titanic beating in the NFC Championship game and kept coming like a (slightly goofy) Terminator simply disintegrate under pressure just three years later? How could a player who had lead 26 fourth quarter comeback drives, two of which secured a Superbowl MVP, not be able to deal with pressure?
The answer is that not all pressure is the same.
In 2011, when Eli set the NFL record for touchdowns scored in the 4th quarter, the play of the Giants offensive tackles was not good. David Diehl, for everything he has done and meant to the Giants, was in steep decline, while Kareem McKenzie had gone from being the best right tackle in football in 2010 to the worst in 2011. However, the Giants' interior offensive line (Kevin Boothe, David Baas, and Chris Snee) was truly excellent at creating a pocket for Eli. Though Manning was under pressure from the edge, he almost always had a clean pocket to step up into and move in while his receivers worked open.
In 2014, we saw the reverse. Despite coming off a broken leg, Will Beatty's play proved that he is a franchise tackle. On the other side Justin Pugh played very well -- apart from a nightmarish game and a half before going out with an injured quad -- standing up to the likes of JJ Watt, Brian Orakpo, and Chris Long.
The interior of the offensive line, however, was anything but stout. Upset by injuries, the Giants' guards and center were leaking pressure up the middle on nearly every play, and consistently failed to pick up stunts or blitzes.
Just a year later, the Giants have transformed their offensive line yet again.
Will Beatty (LT, torn pec) has been replaced at left tackle by Ereck Flowers , Weston Richburg at left guard by Justin Pugh, JD Walton at center by Weston Richburg, John Jerry at right guard by Geoff Schwartz, and Justin Pugh at right tackle by Marshall Newhouse.
Predictably, both Flowers and Newhouse are struggling on the edges. Flowers is a rookie, and although he has the power and athleticism to be dominant, he trusts his athleticism more than his developing technique.
But the interior offensive line is proving to be one of the strengths of the 2015 Giants. In fact, the unit of Pugh, Richburg, and Schwartz might just be the best interior in the NFL.
The simple eye test will tell you that these three players are playing well, both individually and as a group.
Whether it is Schwartz efficiently stonewalling a rusher, Pugh slipping to the second level to move a linebacker to a place he just doesn't want to be, or Richburg escorting a defender out of the stadium on a screen pass, the Giants' interior offensive linemen have all had moments that make you say "WOW".
2-for-1 #OLineAfterDark pic.twitter.com/olygzNCyzZ— Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) October 7, 2015
Center getting movement @ P.O.A & finishes #OLineAfterDark pic.twitter.com/IBhYAJChED— Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) October 7, 2015
Giants OL getting it done!!!! #OLineAfterDark pic.twitter.com/8CjZ7NZSBl— Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) October 7, 2015
But what about the analytics? Sometimes things that jump out to fans aren't terribly impressive to those who figure out the advanced metrics, while fans who simply watch the games miss some nuances that those who watch every play laud. So the analysis of the "numbers guys" doesn't always agree with what we see, or think we see, such as when Eli's 441-yard, three TD come-from-behind win was panned by PFF.
Love them or hate them, Pro Football Focus has the Giants ranked as the top interior offensive line in the NFL.
Among the guards, Geoff Schwartz is rated seventh in the league with an 85.2 on PFF's new 1-100 scale. Just behind Schwartz, Justin Pugh is tied with Evan Mathis at 10th overall with 83.9. Pugh beats Mathis in pass protection, but Mathis' run blocking is currently superior. This is exactly the situation the Giants were hoping for when they made Schwartz the priority free agent in 2014, and move Pugh from the right tackle position he had played well to a left guard position he had never played.
In the middle of the offensive line is Richburg, who is PFF's second-rated center at 82.5, behind only Ryan Kalil's 85.3. Richburg was largely considered to be the top center in the 2014 draft when the Giants took him with their second round pick. It was difficult to see him as a successful center as he struggled to play guard, but now that he is able to play his natural position, Richburg's intelligence, leadership, movement skills, and nastiness are shining.
All told, the Giants have an average ranking of 6.3 among their interior offensive linemen. The next-best ranked interior is the Carolina Panthers with an average ranking of 9.3, though the play of center Ryan Kalil carries them to an average grade of 84.0 to the Giants' 83.9.
Would Giants fans have believed that the interior offensive line would be this good? They may have dared to hope that the interior would be good, but had anyone told them they would be arguably the best in the league, fans probably would have balked at the notion. But they are, and it makes for some solid bedrock for Ereck Flowers' improvement and Will Beatty's return.