The New York Giants substantially upgraded their offensive line with the additions of Cameron Fleming and the draft selections of Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart, and Shane Lemieux. The addition of former Dallas offensive line coach Marc Colombo should also make a discernible difference in the effectiveness of the line. In terms of the Giants’ much-maligned 2019 unit, the grass seems to be greener in 2020, but there’s still one big question mark -- the center position.
Jon Halapio was a marginal starter for the Giants in 2019, and he suffered a devastating Achilles injury in Week 17 against the Eagles. Halapio is still rehabbing the injury and the Giants failed to add any centers in the off-season, which means there is only one true center on the roste — Spencer Pulley.
Pulley is a former undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt, who played his first two seasons of NFL ball for the Chargers. After final cuts in 2018, the Giants scooped him up and put him on the roster as a backup. After Halapio suffered an injury, Pulley came in and started 10 games for the Giants. He played in a total of 556 total snaps, all but 10 snaps were at center (the 10 snaps were in big tackle/overloaded line situations). In 2019, Pulley played a total of 95 snaps. He started in the Jets game, and saw some action against the Dolphins and Eagles (week 17).
There’s a perception among Giants fans that if Pulley returns to his 2018 form then the Giants offensive line may be really good in 2020. I dove into some 2018 tape to see how Pulley fared two years ago. First, though, let’s take a look at some of his 2019 tape.
Pulley seemed a bit clunky in his start against the New York Jets. His timing was off in pass protection, his framing of blocks was questionable, and he did not generate a lot of power at the point of attack. We see a rep against Foley Fatukasi (94), a very underrated defensive lineman for the Jets. Watch how Fatukasi gets to the opposite shoulder of Pulley and just bench presses him off and to the side, so he can easily see the ball carrier in the backfield. Pulley closes width, attempts to drive, but gets pushed backwards in a seamless way by Fatukasi.
Above, the Giants run a wide-zone pitch and Pulley is tasked to reach block rookie Quinnen Williams (95). Pulley makes contact with the inside part of Williams and attempts to drive, but allows himself to get out of position and surrender his leverage to Williams, who just easily adapts to give a hard inside club that puts Pulley on the ground. Pulley attempts to steer with his inside arm, but allows it to get too high, and it provides easy access for Williams to go inside.
Here are some issues that Pulley had against Steve McLendon (99) of the Jets in pass protection. Pulley finds himself on the ground far too often. McLendon is a 1-Technique and he bull-rushes Pulley, while using his fast hands to earn the chest of the center. Once McLendon gets his hands inside, he pushes Pulley backward to get him off balance, and then he violently pulls him down to the ground. McLendon is so strong that we see Pulley get stood up at the point of attack, before he is ripped down.
Above, the entire Giants’ offensive line was sleeping on the speed and quickness of Nathan Shepherd (97) in this matchup. Pulley is tasked to block and seal Shepherd to the inside, and the defensive tackle is lined up as a 2i-Technique. Pulley takes a wide first step with his inside foot, which combined with Shepherd’s quickness inside made for a dangerous mistake by the center. Pulley leans too far to overcome the mistake and Kevin Zeitler isn’t there quick enough to mask the mistake. A center, or any offensive lineman for that matter, has to have gap integrity and protect the inside part of a hole.
The Jet game wasn’t Pulley’s best. Kudos to Jets’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who devised an excellent game plan to confuse the protections of the Giants, while holding Saquon Barkley to a total of 1 yard rushing, due to excellent run-fits and gap sound play. Pulley’s 2018 film didn’t reveal a huge difference, but there was a much bigger sample size. He still had his struggles.
Akiem Hicks (96) is one of the more underrated players in the NFL, especially when it comes to reading tendencies of offensive lineman. Hicks is a 2i-Technique above and Pulley attempts to slide over for protection, but his hands are wide, wild, and off target. Hicks grabs Pulley’s outside arm and just raises, while exploding low to high. Pulley gets thrown off-kilter and Hicks separates from him entirely. There are technical flaws with this play, but this also alludes to a big problem when dealing with strength.
Handling strength at the point of attack is an issue in both phases of offense. The top video above shows how Pulley struggles mightily with players like Hicks, even when he’s in space and transitioning off a teammate. Incredibly strong players give him problems. Then there’s the second clip with Jonathan Allen (95), who is also incredibly strong but not typically a nose technique. Here he aligns as a nose, works to the outside of Pulley, and easily drives him back into the lap of Eli Manning. Pulley just doesn’t have the requisite lower body strength or core to fend off a player like Allen, who isn’t near the weight or strength of some true nose techniques, or interior defensive lineman, in the NFL. Anchor struggles are a gigantic problem for centers, especially when teams can create significant interior pressure based on the liability.
Pulley and Jamon Brown double team Bennie Logan (96) in the clip above. Pulley lacks the technique and gives up his chest, which doesn’t help the strength concerns, and Logan is able to use torque to get the center on the ground. Pulley seems to get too high, doesn’t adjust enough to the defensive lineman when he re-anchors to re-engage his strength, and his equilibrium becomes unsteady. Logan is a strong player, but throwing a player to the ground like this is unsettling to witness, especially if it becomes a trend.
Above, the Giants are in the red zone and are looking to establish the run in a primetime game against the 49ers. D.J. Jones (93) is the 1-Technique and gets his hands inside Pulley as the center attempts to laterally drive Jones to create a crease for the running back. Pulley faces an initial jolt that is visible. As he tries to shift laterally, Jones just uses his might to toss Pulley to the ground and help disrupt the run. Technique, strength, and failure to adjust to his opponents are again a culprit that leads to a negative play for Pulley.
The same issues are evident in pass protection. Pulley takes on a slanting 4i-Technique and he puts himself in a good position to handle the pass rusher. As he slides over, he exposes his chest, doesn’t center his hips, and leaves an inside rushing lane for Allen, who attacks Pulley with a strong club/swim combination that stuns Pulley. Luckily for the Giants, Manning is able to find good ole Odell Beckham Jr. for a big gain.
Pulley’s positioning seems to be an issue against these nose or 1-Techniques that have a solid ability to get off the snap, especially when the 1-Techniques attack the opposite A-Gap. When Pulley steps to block and attempts to position himself, he allows that backside responsibility to become open and he doesn’t do a great job protecting the gap, which is what we see in the first clip above. The second clip is a strength and leverage issue. Once the ball is snapped, Earl Mitchell (90) does an excellent job pressuring the near-side A-Gap by lowering his inside shoulder and getting upfield to disrupt the running play. Pulley stays with the lineman, but can’t do enough to alter his path towards the mesh point.
We can see Mitchell’s strength and ability to stack offensive lineman above. He explodes low to high, gets his hands inside, and presses Pulley backwards, while using his extension to see the ball carrier. The establishment of the line of scrimmage doesn’t allow Barkley to press the A-Gap because it is to be constricted by Mitchell, who has control of the point of attack.
Anyone can take bad reps and paint half a picture, and I don’t intend to do that with Pulley. When Pulley plays in control and balanced, he typically does a good job absorbing contact and moving his feet in a smooth manner. Another unheralded aspect of Pulley is his ability to set protections. He was constantly pointing defenders out and getting the offensive line on a similar page. This was with Eli Manning, but it shouldn’t be understated with a young quarterback who is learning his second system in as many years.
Above. Pulley adjusts well to the End/LB stunt (from a stacked 4-Technique position); he initially has a 1-technique, but it’s the 4-Technique that twists to his side. Manning helps with the call pre-snap and the offensive line responds. Pulley looks at Allen initially and then transitions to the stunt where he is met by Matt Ioannidis (98). Pulley is able to come to balance, anchor down, absorb the contact, and ride him in the direction of his path, while not allowing himself to become vulnerable to half man pass rushing moves. Pulley was sturdy and executed good positioning on the play.
Pulley does a similar thing above as he picks up the Tackle/End stunt above. He passes the tackle off to Will Hernandez effortlessly while patiently waiting for the looping end, who has a ton of momentum going forward. Once the looper makes contact with Pulley, he’s able to lift the center off the ground a bit, which shows some of those strength concerns, but Pulley’s contact is enough for Manning to find Beckham for six. Having the ability to put yourself into good positions to succeed is important.
Pulley is in a lot of space above, since Chicago is in a prevent defense and the Giants decide to run the football. Pulley receives initial help from Brown and then he does a really good job positioning his body and not allowing Roy Robertson-Harris (95) to escape from his grasp. Pulley also adjusts to Barkley well and finishes hard on Robertson-Harris when Barkley cuts back. These are good movement and positioning skills from Pulley on this rep, but it’s not nearly consistent enough.
Above, we see another solid transition rep where Pulley assists Hernandez with blocking Allen out of the play. He then transitions to the second level and locates the linebacker with solid positioning. It may seem simple, but the angles of attack are important and Pulley has this in his wheelhouse when he does climb to the second level.
Having a strong center is a foundation to any offensive line. Look at the Dallas Cowboys with Travis Frederick. Their ability to dictate the line of scrimmage with several different running styles was in part because of the effectiveness of the great center. Pulley has liabilities, he was an undrafted free agent, but he still has a place in the NFL, just not as a starter as of now. The 2019 version of Spencer Pulley is 2018 Spencer Pulley with a bigger sample size.
There are struggles with technique, framing of blocks, strength, anchor, and even footwork. However, he does a solid job working in conjunction with his guards on double teams, his awareness with stunts/twists is solid, and, when he plays balanced, he does a good job moving on an island against interior defensive lineman. His biggest issue with the latter is an ability to stay controlled at the point of attack, and an ability to avoid leaning/overextending himself at the waist.
Pulley is also adept at identifying defenders to help set protections and communicating that to his teammates; this may prove to be especially important with a second-year quarterback, learning a new system, in a truncated offseason. Pulley can be a spot start center in the NFL, but there are glaring reservations with having him start regularly in 2020.