There were calls for the New York Giants to reshuffle their offensive line stretching back into the preseason — usually involving moving Justin Pugh to one of the tackle positions.
That is exactly what happened when right tackle Bobby Hart aggravated an ankle injury on the Giants’ second offensive play. He had been attempting to play through the injury, which he suffered early in the season opener, but it just wasn’t to be.
With Hart out of the game, the Giants moved Justin Pugh from left guard to right tackle — where he began his Giants’ career — and brought back-up interior lineman Brett Jones on to fill the new vacancy at guard.
With a short week it looks as though Hart will not make it back in time to play the Philadelphia Eagles, and his ankle injury could linger. If that is the case, Giants’ fans could see this lineup for some time, so we should take a look.
Play 1 - First Quarter
This is the first play of the Giants’ first drive after reshuffling their offensive line. The Giants desperately needed to get their offense on track and show some sign of life after the Lions capped a frustrating drive with a touchdown.
To get the drive moving and take some stress off the offensive line, the Giants opt for some misdirection. Opening the series in a “21” (two backs, one tight end) personnel package, it looks like the Giants want to commit to running the football. And in fact they do, but they start it with a fake hand-off to Paul Perkins, instead running a reverse with Sterling Shepard.
Between the fake hand-off and the offensive line doing a good job of selling the power run up the middle, the defense bites hard, completely opening the outside for Shepard to get the corner.
Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh use their mobility well to get to the second level and seal off the middle and playside linebackers, cutting off pursuit before it can materialize. At the second level, Brandon Marshall does a decent job of blocking his wide receiver. Fullback Shane Smith is in a decent position to make a block so Shepard can pick up a few extra yards, but misses his mark. As it was, Shepard was able to pick up the first down and get the offense on track.
Things started well for the offensive line, and Eli Manning was able to keep his unit in rhythm with quick passes. The line certainly had (more than) its share of negative plays over the rest of the game, but this play was both well designed and well executed up front.
Play 2 - Second Quarter
Much was made about how un-involved Marshall was in the offense in the first week. This game he was targeted five times, but only recorded a single reception. On this play he is targeted and catches the ball, but can’t get both feet down in-bounds.
The Lions run a blitz on the play, bringing five rushers. The Giants counter by having seven blockers — keeping both the running back and tight end back to protect Manning. The Giants also move the pocket, rolling away from the pressure on the left side. Unfortunately, Manning still faces a bit of pressure when the left defensive end takes an inside route and is able to split the gap between Pugh and John Jerry. Pugh and the tight end know that Manning will be rolling their way and immediately set up in front of him, but by doing so they make the B-gap larger than normal, inviting the defensive end to take the inside move. Fortunately, Manning is able to get the ball out in plenty of time, but he is unable to set his feet and the ball sails a bit. It is well within Marshall’s catch radius, but he is hit as he makes the catch and can’t quite get his second foot down.
On this play the Giants are at least cognizant of the offensive line’s issues and take steps to compensate.
Play 3 - Third Quarter
Before we get started, credit on this play goes to Manning, Richburg, and Jerry. I’ve heaped plenty of criticism on him when he’s deserved it, but he gave Eli the time to make the play here.
The Giants show off some of their versatility in personnel on offense with this grouping, running a “12” (one back, two-tight end) package. They line the two tight ends up on the offensive right, with Evan Engram in-line and Jerell Adams detached, while the receivers are on the offensive right. Having the athletic tight ends together on one side of the offense has an obvious effect on the defense, forcing the Lions to cluster defenders to that side. Engram may never have an imposing reputation as a blocker, but having he and Adams right there forces the Lions to consider the possibility of a run. However, Engram and Adams both present a serious mismatch for linebackers. Though there are three defenders to that side, the route combination creates enough spacing in the coverage that Adams is able to find a nice void and Manning is able to put the ball where only his receiver can get it.
Up front the blocking is a “mixed bag.” Ereck Flowers actually does a nice job of dealing with the rush linebacker, staying in front of him and effectively stonewalling him. Brett Jones misses his man badly at left guard. Manning actually cleans up his mess, feeling the rush, stepping up in the pocket and flowing away from the pressure. In the middle, the Lions run a twist with their defensive tackles. Richburg immediately stonewalls his man, while Jerry is in good position to pick up the looper. Together the pair do a great job of establishing a nice pocket for Manning.
At the right tackle position, Pugh does “good enough” as he stays balanced and is able to run his man around the pocket. It might not be a highlight reel play, but considering Pugh hasn’t played tackle in two years, it’s close enough to call a “win.” When Manning steps up, Pugh helps the defensive end to the ground when his feet go out from under him as he tries to reverse his rush.
This is hardly a stellar play by the blockers, but it is a well-schemed play and might be the type of package the Giants have to rely on throughout the season.
Play 4 - Fourth Quarter
And here we have ... a mess.
For all the criticism he has taken (much of it he deserved), Ereck Flowers laid the best block on this play. It looks as though the Giants want to set up a screen to Paul Perkins and use the defense’s aggression against them.
Instead, the timing is a mess, with Perkins getting stuck behind the blockers (Jerry getting shoved into him by a defensive tackle). Meanwhile, Pugh simply stops blocking, perhaps thinking that Manning has gotten rid of the ball.
Because Manning is forced to hold on to the ball, the rusher let go by Brett Jones is able to get around the player being blocked by Flowers and forces Manning to start moving. Between he and the defender from the right, Manning is almost sacked. He somehow manages to evade both, but is hit as he throws, forcing a wobbling duck up into the middle of the field.
Sterling Shepard saves the day with a great heads-up play to make a catch that looks more like a cross between a tip-drill and a punt return. He is able to turn up-field and actually get a decent chunk of yards out of a play that looked like it was going to be a disaster.
The Giants have a lot of problems on offense, and they’re proving to be a moving target. A single problem they can scheme around and compensate for — even something like Flowers’ issues in pass protection.
Taking a second look a the Giants’ offense against Detroit is especially frustrating because there are some things there to like. They showed that they are aware of their problems up front and have plays to compensate. They showed a willingness to be creative and multiple with their scheme where they were stagnant and predictable in 2016.
None of that matters when they play undisciplined, when problems stack up and compound each other. The reshuffled offensive line actually did show some promise, but when it did, there would — often as not — be a breakdown at another position.
The Giants’ season is not yet sunk. But they have quickly used up their margin for error, and they are proving to be a team that needs a wide margin.