For a time this spring the New York Giants believed that their offensive line was finally finished. They had poured resources into their line over the past three seasons and finally it was rebuilt and stocked with young talent. They believed that they could finally move on and worry about other units.
That time proved to be all too brief as Will Beatty tore his pectoral muscle while trying to get stronger for the 2015 season.
Beatty's injury forced the Giants to move rookie Ereck Flowers from right tackle to left tackle, greatly accelerating their anticipated timeline for his development. That move also placed three players who have no NFL experience playing the positions they will in 2015. Predictably and justifiably, there has been a great deal of trepidation with regards to the offensive line.
But how is that left side of the offensive line doing now that they have had a couple games together?
One of the primary concerns with the Giants' offensive line in 2015 is their ability to keep Eli Manning upright so he can deliver the ball to one of the Giants offensive weapons.
This play is a fairly straight forward deep shot, a play action to a deep pass down the sideline. The run-action fake (as Bill Walsh called it) draws in the linebackers while the receivers -- other than Jennings, who slips out to be the check-down option -- run down the field.
Eli appears to focus on Odell Beckham, and only Beckham, on this play. However it is likely that they knew that this would be the first play of the game since their first practice after the first preseason game. Because of the pitch count that Beckham has been on, the Giants likely wanted to use this opportunity to work on the timing between Eli and Odell in a live situation. In a regular-season situation Eli probably would have thrown to Larry Donnell who had beaten his man down the seam.
But that's not what we're here to look at. The left side of the offensive line does does its job perfectly this play.
Flowers gets his hands on the defensive end first, shutting down his rush almost before it starts. His footwork is solid, and his hand-work is nearly textbook. When the defensive end tries to counter with an inside move, Flowers mirrors perfectly and stonewalls him.
At left guard Justin Pugh gets bullied a bit, getting pushed back off the ball. He would have fared better, but the defensive tackle gets his hands inside of Pugh's shoulders, and Pugh lets his hands go wide. However, the tackle doesn't win for long as Pugh shows off the work he did over the summer. He keeps his balance and uses his hands well to fight off the defensive tackle's hands. That gives him enough time to re-anchor and stymie the rusher, keeping the tackle out of the pocket.
Next to Pugh, Richburg and John Jerry work together well to completely take the nose tackle out of the play. Both Jerry and Richburg show a good bend and keep their feet under them to absorb the push and even push the defender back a bit. The middle linebacker appears to be on a "Green Dog" blitz, where he would rush if Jennings stays in to block, but drops into coverage when Jennings releases into a route. Richburg splits his attention to deal with the linebacker if he rushes, but turns back to the defensive tackle when the linebacker drops into coverage.
All told the Giants' young starters performed very well on the first play of the game.
Last play was a deep shot where the Giants' objective was to try to get the ball to Beckham. This play is much closer to what we will see in the regular season. The Giants line up in a four-receiver, one-back set on a third-and-long. They send three of the receivers on deep routes while Preston Parker runs a crossing route underneath and Shane Vereen slips out as a check down option.
Unlike the previous play, we see Manning scan the field, checking on each of his reads before dumping the ball to Vereen. The design of the play forces defenses to cover three receivers as they run down the field, while Parker runs an in route to clear out the middle of the field. If the receivers down the field can't get open, then the middle of the field will likely be open for a quick receiver to pick up the first down, which is exactly what happens.
Things along the offensive line get messy, but they give Eli plenty of time to scan the field before coming back to Vereen, and plenty of space to step into his throw.
The right defensive end runs a stunt from one side of the formation to the other. Flowers, Pugh, and Richburg do a very nice job of working as a unit to handle the push from the defensive tackle. Its a good thing that the left side of the line holds up as well as it does, because the right side, Jerry and Marshall Newhouse, give Eli just enough time to find Vereen.
Despite all the criticism the offensive line has taken, they were actually quite good in pass protection last season. Football Outsiders ranked the Giants' offensive line 10th in the league in pass protection, allowing a sack on just 5 percent of drop-backs. Where the Giants' line really needs to improve is in run blocking. The Giants' patchwork offensive line blocked for one of the worst rushing attacks in the league.
Our first running play is a 10-yard run by Andre Williams. There are three things to look at for this play, and two of them are very encouraging.
First, watch Williams. A year ago he likely would have charged headlong into Weston Richburg's butt. This year he is showing much more patience behind the line of scrimmage, and waited for the hole to open up to the left before exploding through it. He also shows off the work he has done with his conditioning with some nifty change of direction skills behind the line of scrimmage.
Next we'll look at the right side of the offensive line, and it isn't pretty. Newhouse doesn't do much more than get in the left defensive end's way for a couple seconds before he isn't blocking anyone and is tripping over Jerry. Newhouse is tripping over Jerry because he gets turned sideways and thrown to the ground by the defensive tackle. That combination almost blows up the play except for Williams' vision and footwork. And the play of the left side of the line.
Richburg does a nice job of standing his man up, then slipping past him to block down the field as Williams explodes through the hole.
That hole is opened up by Pugh and Flowers.
Pugh battles with the right defensive end, eventually working inside of his shoulders and turning him sideways. Again, the work that Pugh has done to improve his strength, balance, and handwork is paying off. In a pretty impressive mismatch Flowers gets to block an outside linebacker and pretty much mauls him, opening up a hole -- no, it's more of a canyon for Williams to run through. Despite going against a quicker linebacker, Flowers keeps his feet under him and doesn't lunge when the defender tries to disengage and work back inside. He just turns him sideways and shoves him out of the play.
All in all this turns out to be a very good play despite the ugliness on the right side.
The first running play showed more of a power man blocking scheme. This second run is an inside zone run that makes use of Shane Vereen's speed and agility.
And once again this run is made by the left side of the Giants' offensive line. Newhouse does not do much at right tackle, and Jerry's best block was against Odell Beckham Jr.
Because Newhouse and Jerry fail at their blocks, Richburg gets overwhelmed and winds up losing his feet. It's not a good look, but he does still manage to keep his guy from being involved in the play, so we'll call it a wash.
On the outside Flowers completely stonewalls his man, keeping him well away from Vereen as he goes streaking bye. Larry Donnell even gets into the act with a block on the outside to create the alley for Vereen to run through.
The star of the play, however, is Pugh. First Pugh gets a piece of one of the defensive tackles, stopping his push along with Richburg. Pugh then releases downfield and blocks two separate linebackers to turn what would have been a 5-yard run by Vereen into a 10-yard run. This is exactly what Pugh was talking about when he said that the offensive line wanted to be tougher, nastier, and more physical. Getting blocks at the point of attack is good, it's what you need to have an effective run game. But when offensive linemen get blocks like that at the second level, that is when offenses simply gash defenses.
The offensive line is still a work in progress, but the players the Giants anticipated on being their regular season starters are very encouraging. Pugh seems to be adjusting well to playing left guard, while Richburg is showing the potential at center that he only flashed at guard.
On the outside Flowers almost looks like a different player from the physically talented but technically flawed player he was at Miami and throughout the draft process. His footwork here is that kind of gliding typewriter movement you want to see from a left tackle. His feet are always underneath him and his steps are crisp. His hands, which had a nasty tendency to flail widely are now under much more control. The combination of improved hands and feet are letting Flowers mirror defenders while also bringing his full power to bear.
The right side of the line is an issue. Jerry is an effective pass protector but he will never be much of a run blocker. However, with Geoff Schwartz working his way back to the starting line and looking much better at guard than tackle, that position will hopefully be upgraded soon. Right tackle likely won't be upgraded until Beatty returns from his torn pectoral.
But that aside, early indications are that the Giants have assembled a trio of talented young linemen that they can build around for years to come.