The New York Giants made waves early on the third Sunday of the 2018 season when it was announced that they were benching right tackle Ereck Flowers in favor of second-year UDFA Chad Wheeler.
There was much rejoicing among the fan base Sunday morning when the news hit. And at first blush the victory over the Houston Texans, weighed against losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys, gives credence to the Giants’ decision.
But it still bears asking whether the Giants’ choice was the right one going forward. To answer the question, let’s look at the tape.
First quarter, 5:37, first-and-10, Houston 29
The Giants start the play in the shotgun with their 11-personnel set. Odell Beckham is the lone receiver to the offensive right, with Evan Engram inline next to Wheeler, while Sterling Shepard is in the slot and Cody Latimer is out wide at the X position. The play is supposed to be a quick screen pass to Wayne Gallman, but it is sniffed out and blown up almost immediately Tyrann Mathieu, but that isn’t what we are here for.
The Texans are in their 4-2-5 nickel set, with J.J. Watt lined up at left defensive end, at the 7-technique outside of the right tackle. Watt takes an outside route to the quarterback right from the start, and Wheeler quickly gets into his kick slide to meet and usher him around the pocket. However, just as the two are about to make contact, Wheeler lunges, opens his hips away from Watt, and lets his hands go wide. The wide hands and open hips give Watt an opening to use a rip move, gaining leverage and turning Wheeler’s back to the line of scrimmage.
Manning is just able to get the pass off before the diving Watt can bat it down, but he still takes the big defensive end’s leg to the back of the knee. The play went nowhere, but thankfully Manning got up quickly.
Third quarter, 8:35, first-and-10, Giants’ 9-yard line
Once again the Giants are in their 11-personnel, shotgun set. This time, Rhett Ellison is the tight end and he is attached on the left side of the line, while the two receivers are on the offensive right.
The Giants use play-action to fake a run to the right. The play-action is sold well, sucking in the linebackers and moving the defense away from Sterling Shepard in the slot. Unfortunately, safety Kareem Jackson is drawn in to the passing lane and deflects the ball.
Once again Watt is lined up on the defensive right, outside of Wheeler’s outside shoulder. Unlike the previous play, the Giants’ run-action fake freezes Watt slightly, forcing him to play the run instead of rushing the passer all-out.
Watt is still easily able to win Wheeler’s chest plate and establish leverage, and would have discarded the block to make a play on Barkley if he had the ball. However, Wheeler does a good enough job of staying in Watt’s way and selling the run block that he isn’t able to impact the play.
It’s part scheme and part player, and except for a good play to knock the ball down by Jackson, the would be a win.
Building off of a play-action pass, let’s take a look at Wheeler’s run blocking.
First quarter, 7:42, first-and-10, Giants 39-yard line
This is the fifth play of the game for the Giants’ offense. The team comes out in their 12 personnel package (two tight ends), with Evan Engram attached to the left side of the line while Rhett Ellison attached on the right side of the line. “Smash mouth football” and “spread offense” aren’t usually spoken together, but that’s what this is.
The Giants have their wide receivers both lined up out wide, and with Ellison, Engram, and Barkley on the field, the threat of the pass is definitely present. That keeps the Texans from crowding the line of scrimmage. And this isn’t true “power” football, with Ellison and Engram both releasing into routes. However, the alignment and routes combine to keep Texans’ defense from keying on the run completely and ignoring the pass.
As a result, what looks to be an 8-man box is effectively a six-man box and a favorable run look.
The play is made by a good block from John Greco at center and a straight mauling by Will Hernandez at left guard. Wheeler isn’t a huge factor in the play at all, but given Watt’s speed into the back field, sealing the back-side is important none the less. Wheeler does a good job of getting in Watt’s way, actually winning the hand battle for a moment — plenty long enough for Barkley to run through the gaping hole to the left. Watt is eventually able to discard Wheeler’s block and rallies to the ball, but not before Barkley is down for a 13-yard gain.
A quick look at Flowers
This is an attempt to convert a third-and-13 on the Giants’ second drive in their week 2 match-up against the Dallas Cowboys. Flowers was far from perfect in this game, but he showed significant improvement in his second start at right tackle since 2012.
Dallas runs a slot blitz under a Cover 2 shell, meaning that not only does Manning not have much time to get the pass off, nothing comes open down the field until he decides to take the check-down to Wayne Gallman.
Demarcus Lawrence rushes the right B-gap, but Flowers easily passes him off to Omameh and Greco after the linebacker threatening to blitz that gap drops in to coverage. Flowers actually does a great job to go from defending the B-gap to getting out to pick up the blizting slot corner. Between the block of Lawrence and picking up the blitzer, Manning has a pocket to step up in to and gets the ball to Gallman.
The running back isn’t able to pick up the first down and the Giants have to punt.
I don’t say this to dump on Wheeler, but it was difficult to find positives in his game this past Sunday.
Granted, he was lined up against one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, but even Whitney Mercilus gave him problems. His best reps, and the second play featured was among them, came when the rusher used an outside move. On those plays he was generally able to force them around the pocket.
But he proved consistently unable to deal with inside moves.
Any time a rusher rushed through the right B gap between Wheeler and Omameh, he barely slowed them down. Each time, the lunge, open hips, and wide hands he showed in the first play proved to be his undoing. By turning perpendicular to the line of scrimmage too early, Wheeler was essentially opening a door for the rushers and making it almost impossible to for him to gain leverage on the rusher. A tendency for his hips to rise into contact only compounded the problem.
The Giants won Sunday because were able to scheme around the weaknesses on their of offensive line. By using quick passes, misdirection, and getting Eli Manning out of the pocket — not to mention Manning playing much, much better than the previous week — the team was largely able to function in spite of the Texans’ talented front seven.
It doesn’t get easier for Wheeler, however. This coming week the team will host the New Orleans Saints and defensive lineman Cameron Jordan. Like Watt, Jordan is a big, long, powerful, and athletic defensive lineman who lines up predominantly on the right side.
The win likely means that the right tackle job is Wheeler’s to lose, and the Giants have to hope that he will improve in the role. Things won’t really get easier from here on out, from Jordan next week to Ryan Kerrigan in Washington to the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive front, to Khalil Mack and the Bears. The line has its work cut out for it, and the scheme that the Giants used in Houston is on tape for their opponents to study.