Arguably the biggest question facing the New York Giants entering the 2016 season was the offensive line.
Put simply, they did not look good in the preseason. They generally failed to open holes in the run game and barely afforded the quarterback time to throw the ball — regardless of who was behind center.
The results through the first three games of the regular season have been markedly different.
Through the first three games the Giants have rediscovered their running game, and have done a reasonably good job of keeping Eli Manning upright -- the Giants are tied for 11th in sacks allowed despite their proclivity to throw the ball.
The offensive line faced its stiffest test against the Washington Redskins. How did they fare?
NOTE: In the past these trips into the film room came with animated gifs or at least illustrated stills, and they will again.
But this one is going to be a bit different. Focusing on the play of five (6) players in both the run game and pass defense makes illustrations unwieldy.
Left Tackle - Ereck Flowers (2nd year)
Flowers received plenty of deserved criticism for his performance in 2015. Yes, he was a rookie, and yes he played injured most of the season. However, the results left a lot to be desired.
Flowers spent most of last Sunday’s game facing second year edge rusher Preston Smith. Smith is athletic and explosively powerful.
Flowers’ pass protection is still a work in progress. His footwork is much improved over what he showed last year, but his hand use still limits him. While he now flashes a punch he lacked in 2015, he still has a tendency to keep his hands low and wide, limiting his ability to bring his impressive strength to bear. He also occasionally shows a tendency to duck his head and lunge at defenders,
But while it wasn’t pretty, and he had his hands full all game, Flowers didn’t often lose in pass protection against Smith.
When it comes to run blocking, however, Flowers is an absolute bull. Where he too often tries to catch defenders in pass protection, he is aggressive with his hands as a run blocker. His stubborn mean streak is obvious, as is his desire to finish plays. On one run he pushed a linebacker clear across the offensive formation, finishing to the right of the right tackle.
Left Guard - Justin Pugh (4th year, 2nd at left guard)
When the Giants moved Pugh from right tackle to left guard, they thought he would play well there. He didn’t just play well, he played better than anyone dared to hope, and the Giants’ interior offensive line was among the very best in the league (until injuries took hold).
In his second year at guard, Pugh’s added size and new habit of mixed martial arts training in the offseason are paying off. He is reliable in pass protection, playing with a wide base to anchor against bull rushes, while his agility and active hands defend against spin, rip, and swim moves. He also plays well with center Weston Richburg on double teams or to pass off stunts.
In run blocking, Pugh is a very good puller, which has become a staple of the Giants’ offense with one-back power runs. His athleticism makes him well suited to zone blocking runs as well.
Center - Weston Richburg (3rd Year - 2nd at center)
He might not have gotten Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades, but Richburg emerged from his first season as an NFL center as one of the very best in the game, with some offensive line experts arguing that he was the best center in the NFL.
Richburg didn’t achieve that by being a superior athlete or overwhelmingly powerful. Instead he makes his hay by being smarter, quicker, and nastier than the guy who lines up across from him. Richburg is the obvious leader of the offensive line and is responsible for making the protection calls along the line — the loss of his mind hurt the Giants when he was ejected from Sunday’s game. If Richburg has a weakness it is that he still struggles to deal with powerful tackles in a 1-on-1 situation. His play strength is improving, but if he can’t snap the ball and anchor, he can find himself getting pushed backwards. However, he counters that in both the run game and in pass protection with an outstanding understanding of leverage and angles. Against the Redskins, Richburg consistently used his athleticism and technique to get position on defensive tackles and take half-man leverage — working his whole body against just one arm. He also works very well with his guards, smoothly passing off double teams or stunts.
Right Guard - John Jerry (7th season, 3rd with New York)
When the Green Bay Packers released guard Josh Sitton, a clamor rose up from Giants’ fans to sign the former Pro Bowler. Sitton ultimately signed with the Chicago Bears, and John Jerry remained the Giants’ starting right guard, much to fans’ chagrin.
Jerry, however, spent much of his time away from the Giants working with renowned OL trainer LeCharles Bentley along with Richburg. The extra work is paying obvious dividends for Jerry, who’s run blocking often left something to be desired in the past.
His pass protection has always been dependable — despite his 340-pound frame, Jerry is able to mirror defenders and does a good job of helping to create a clean pocket for his quarterback.
What has changed is his run blocking. While Jerry still isn’t a human snow plow, blowing defenders off the line, he gets his first step into the ground much more quickly. At the very least he is now getting in position and sealing his man fairly routinely. And like Pugh, Jerry is proving to be a surprisingly good pulling guard, allowing the Giants to run their one-back power game to either side, adding options to an otherwise limited rushing attack. While his pulls aren’t quite as effortless as Pugh’s, they get the job done. Against Washington, the combination of a Jerry pulling to the left side and Flowers while Pugh worked to second level created some huge running lanes for Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa.
Right Tackle - Bobby Hart (2nd year)
This might be the evaluation most Giants fans wanted to see most:
2015’s seventh-round pick, Bobby Hart, was pressed into service a the Giants’ starting right tackle when Marshall Newhouse was sidelined with a strained calf.
Hart faced former first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker and defensive end nearly all game. Like Flowers, it wasn’t pretty, but Hart comported himself about as well as could reasonably be expected.
Starting from the ground up, his feet look a bit slow for an NFL tackle but they are smooth. Hart says he lost about 20 pounds over the 2016 off season and it shows in his movement. While he struggled slightly to anchor against power, and a quick move across his face would get his feet tangled, Hart was usually able to control or at least slow down his man.
Hart plays well going downhill in the run game. He shows a good pad level, getting low and driving forward in man blocking. Like in his pass blocking, his feet can occasionally slow his ability to get in position, but long arms, meat hooks for hands, and a strong lower body make up for it when he squares up on a defender.
Brett Jones (2nd year - IR in 2015)
Eli Manning called the penalties that got Weston Richburg ejected “ticky-tack”, and they may have been. But while it might have deprived the Giants of the leader of their offensive line, it did give us a chance to see a player who is a mystery to many of us outside the Giants’ organization.
Brett Jones earned the title of the Canadian Football League’s “Most Outstanding Rookie” in his first year, then went on to be named the league’s “Most Outstanding Lineman” in his second year. He then signed with the Giants before the 2015 season. This year he is the Giants’ primary backup center, and handled himself well against Washington.
The Redskins immediately tested Jones upon Richburg’s ejection, lining up both their defensive tackles at the 2i technique, one off each guard’s inside shoulder — left guard’s right shoulder and right guard’s left shoulder. Jones handled it well, with a wide base letting handle the bull rushes without giving ground while good hand use letting him fend off defenders.
The Giants’ offensive line has seen an increase in their level of competition each week of the 2016 season. They’ll make a leap from good defenders in Kerrigan, Smith, and Murphy, to the league’s most disruptive defensive fronts when they play the Minnesota Vikings Monday night.
We’ll just have to wait and see how the Giants’ offensive line holds up against Minnesota, which leads the league with 15 sacks. The Giants will need to help their offensive line out with game planning, but they have handled themselves much better than expected so far.