The New York Giants entered Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the league most inefficient rushing team. They entered with questions about whether their rebuilt and then rebuilt yet again offensive line could open consistent rushing lanes. They entered with questions about whether their explosive rookie running back was willing to lower his shoulders, follow the lanes that were there and take the tough yards.
They left the field Sunday having manhandled the Buccaneers on the ground (31 carries, 163 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, two touchdowns) during a 38-35 victory, their highest-scoring game since 2015. They left with increased admiration for rookie running back Saquon Barkley (27 carries, 142 yards, two TDs). They also left with their much-maligned and constantly-juggled offensive line feeling good about itself.
“I always had all the faith in the world in this team and in our offensive line. Now I’m actually glad to see that we’re starting to come out and play the way that we’re supposed to play and can play,” said rookie left guard Will Hernandez.
“Saquon’s a great running back. All we’ve gotta do is go out there and give him a few opportunities and he’s going to take advantage of them. I think what we did this week is give him more opportunities, and he took advantage of them.”
Coach Pat Shurmur said on Monday that in the past two weeks, both victories, the offensive line has “played their best two games as a unit, and we can see the impact it has on a football game.”
Against the San Francisco 49ers the Giants averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt and Eli Manning was never sacked. He was sacked four times on Sunday, but the pocket was also clean on many occasions and the run-blocking was easily the best its been all season.
“It feels really good. Its great that we were able to be a part of that,” said center Spencer Pulley after Sunday’s game. “It was great for us to be able to come off the ball and him being able to hit it downhill between the tackles and get those yards.
“That’s something we’ve tried to re-focus on and work on, just being able to pound it downhill, him being able to hit the crease. If we can get him past that first level he can make something happen.”
Committing to the run
There were two telling sequences for the Giants on Sunday regarding their commitment to, and success with, the power run game.
In their game-opening drive they ran the ball on the first three plays, including a third-and-1 play in which Barkley powered through a hole created by Pulley and Jamon Brown for 6 yards and a first down.
“Coach challenged me to get more dirtier in the runs and get those three to four-yard runs. If I quickened up my pace through the mesh, getting to the line of scrimmage faster than what I’ve normally been doing, it will help things develop a lot quicker” Barkley said. “If you go and watch that film play after play, they [offensive line] were just creating movement at the line of scrimmage. They played a tremendous game, a great game and Eli and all the coaches making great calls. Just put us in a position to win.”
Brown, starting his second game at right guard after being awarded to the Giants on waivers from the Los Angeles Rams, said those first three plays were “definitely a statement” by the Giants.
“Why is that? You come and say, hey, listen, we’re coming right at you. It’s a mentality. We’re gonna come right at you, man. Stop us,” Brown said.
The Buccaneers, who are tied with the Giants at 18th in the league in yards surrendered per rushing attempt (4.5) never really did.
Brown said the Giants realized early in the game that they could get pretty much what they wanted in the run game, something a Giants team has rarely been able to say or do in recent seasons.
”Early we felt them out, we were able to figure out ‘OK we don’t really think they want to sit in there and play this run,’ ” Brown said.
“We come out here and we’re running the ball right at ‘em and we kinda take control of that game and make them play our game. For us that’s important.”
The other telling sequence came in the fourth quarter. Having watched their 17-point lead shrink to 3, 31-28, with 5:11 remaining the Giants needed to both score and to shorten the game. A 54-yard pass from Manning to Evan Engram put the Giants at the Tampa Bay 11-yard line. They then handed the ball to Barkley three straight times up the middle, the last resulting in a 2-yard touchdown run that provided the winning margin with 3:55 to play.
“That makes you feel really confident. One, that coach believes in you, so that kinda just amps you up. I know from an offensive line standpoint you’re in some of those situations it’s like ‘what do we do now’? It’s easy for us to say put it on our backs, we’ll complete whatever we need to complete,” Brown said. “Being able to capitalize on that opportunity was huge for us. As we are able to continue to do stuff like that it gives the coaches more confidence in those clutch situations. What can we do? We can run the ball.”
“We want to score a touchdown however possible but it’s a little more sweet when you run it in,” he said. “It’s great to just come off the ball, pound it and get it in the end zone.”
Left tackle Nate Solder said sticking to the run game helps the offense.
“They’re going to call the runs as long as they’re working. That falls on our shoulders to make those things work. You can call three straight runs, and if they don’t work, then you abandon it. We’re going to make them work. We got to make them efficient. We got to keep it consistent too so he [Shurmur] feels confident to call those things,” Solder said.
“The more he calls, the better. It keeps us in an aggressive posture where we’re dictating to the defense rather than having them dictate to us. Yeah, that’s what we want.”
Pulley is one of three players on the line who wasn’t a Week 1 starter (Pulley, Brown, right tackle Chad Wheeler). Along with Brown, he is one of two was an in-season waiver acquisition.
“It’s kind of a unique situation for me getting here Week 1, but I think from Week 1 on there’s been progress every week,” Pulley said. “The way this team works, even when we hadn’t won a game for a while, the team kept working the same way. Guys weren’t checking out and that’s a really special thing. I’ve seen it the other way around.”
The “best two games” by the line have coincided with the arrival of Brown, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound powerhouse who started every game for the Rams in 2017. Shurmur said Brown “has done a good job coming in here and contributing in a positive way.”
Brown said Sunday night that running the ball “opens up everything” for an offense.
“Running the ball does what? It makes the defense want to pack in the box and then you start the play action and start hitting shots over their head … you start to make the defense defend every blade of grass that’s out there,” Brown said. “Running game is vital to a successful offense.”
The Giants — finally — feel like they are developing one that is not only occasionally explosive but efficient, as well.