Brandon Thorn, from The Football Educator, guest writes this week to discuss how the 2015 New York Giants OL are the unsung heroes so far this season for head coach Tom Coughlin’s squad.
The purpose of this breakdown is to put a microscope on the offensive line, or as I affectionately refer to them as: the lifeblood of football teams. Simultaneously, my focus is on who, what, when, where, why, and how the specific unit wins both collectively and individually.
Rewind five months to May 20, 2015. The New York Giants were lifting weights in preparation for their 2015 season with expectations of having one of the premier offensive line units in the NFL. Starting left tackle William Beatty rebounded from a poor 2013 season to become Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) 11th-rated LT in 2014 and was slated to man QB Eli Manning’s blindside with rookie T Ereck Flowers on the right side. During the team weight room session Beatty tore his pectoralis major muscle and was sidelined for 5-6 months, thrusting Flowers into the LT spot with the team scrambling for a right side replacement. We all have a plan until we get hit in the face, right?
New York Giants’ General Manager Jerry Reese and his staff make it a priority to acquire talent through the draft, and the offensive line has seen an overhaul in recent years. In the last three draft classes the Giants have drafted three of their five starting OL in the first two rounds: Flowers (9th overall in ‘15), LG Justin Pugh (19th overall in ‘13), and C Weston Richburg (43rd overall in ‘14). Starting RG Geoff Schwartz and RT Marshall Newhouse were acquired via free agency.
- Through six games the Giants are 3-3, average 3.5 yards per carry on the ground, boast a +2 turnover ratio, and have given up just seven sacks (tied for third least in the NFL).
- PFF ranks each OL in their respective position group as follows: Flowers 91st overall, Pugh 10th overall, Richburg 5th overall, Schwartz 15th overall, and Newhouse 100th overall. *These rankings factor in every player who has had any amount of playing time. So, use it at a general barometer, not a concrete ranking system.
- Flowers missed one game (Week 3) and some time in Week 4 with a left ankle injury. He has since started consecutive games (Weeks 5 and 6).
- Beatty is slated to return to game action within the next couple of weeks. It is worth watching whether or not the team moves him to RT, gives him his original position back, or moves Flowers to the right side. For my money, the latter would be ideal.
- According to PFF, the team’s highest rated run blocker is Schwartz at 83.7, and the team’s highest rated pass blocker is Pugh at 83.0.
- The Giants employ a man/gap scheme, fitting their strengths perfectly. The strength of this unit is the interior three linemen. The offense gets by with a system that suits their strengths up front (gap/man scheme) as well as a run-first mentality. There is clear improvement happening with Flowers, and Richburg is one of the premier centers in the NFL. Pugh recently moved inside to guard from his left tackle spot, and it’s an area I like him more in. He still can struggle at the POA latching on and generating movement, but is an excellent pulling OL, excels in space, and is very flexible and balanced. Newhouse is basically a fill-in until Beatty returns. Newhouse is better in the run than pass, and needs work becoming more flexible in his lower half.
Context: Week 1 in Dallas, 3:39 left in the 4th quarter, down three points, and 1st & 10. The team is in 11 personnel against the Cowboys’ 4-3 Under front. There are seven men in the box as the Giants run a power scheme to the weakside.
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First, let’s focus on the LT/LG “deuce block.” Their primary focus is clearing the B gap with a double team of the 3 tech (Tyrone Crawford) back to the WLB (Anthony Hitchens). At the snap, Flowers begins movement by opening up his hips and lounging directly into the DL’s right earhole. His main objective is to move him down the line of scrimmage (LOS) laterally so the RB can cut off his backside. Notice his center of gravity (COG) is low upon impact, allowing his hips to unlock into contact and generate pop, thus movement of the defender. What allows this block to be successful is the initial shock Pugh delivers to turn the DL perpendicular. This strong punch from Pugh gives Flowers a softened target, and makes his job easier. What Pugh does on this play (and countless others) is why I recently tweeted this out:
After studying the #Giants OL in preparation for my article on them, I'm convinced Justin Pugh is one of the top LGs in the game today.
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 22, 2015
Notice Pugh’s stance; it is slightly more narrow than his counterpart’s, and he is very low and coiled. His hip and knee mobility are outstanding and it translates through his kinetic chain, enabling him to maneuver and recover exceptionally well.
Here his initial movement is a lateral step to the right, with his left foot simultaneously moving forward into the double team. His eyes instantly pop out to his next assignment, but not before he delivers a key punch on his first objective. Watch as he begins movement to the second level, Crawford realizes what is happening to him and tries his best to maintain his run fit, making Pugh have to gather his feet in traffic and meticulously work his way around to the LB for the seal. This is not an easy block to execute, yet with Pugh’s technical prowess, flexibility, and balance he continually puts himself in excellent positions to do his job. This synchronization of OL play is what leads me to continually refer to cohesive blocking as aesthetically pleasing.
Lastly, I want to touch on the job TE Larry Donnell does in his long pull across the LOS to kick out DE Demarcus Lawrence. Sidenote: Donnell is used as a FB and primary blocking TE, and while he isn’t particularly efficient at it he plays with grit and determination in blocking assignments.
Donnell never fully gets lateral on his track, instead running at a slight forward angle to ensure he kicks the DE out from the inside, not allowing him to cross his outside shoulder. Not only that, but he gets low about a full yard prior to contact and comes with a purpose. Lawrence makes a mistake by leaving his feet, but give credit to Donnell for the effort and accurate strike to cut the defender down.
Context: The next play of the game, 1st and 10, down 23-20 in the fourth quarter. This time the Giants are in 21 personnel against the Cowboys’ base 4-3 Under front with a safety walked up, giving the defense eight in the box. The Giants run traditional power to the strongside of the formation.
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First, focus on Richburg executing the undervalued “back block” on the opposite side 3 tech (Crawford). This is a surprisingly difficult block as there is significant space between himself and his target, requiring a high level of focus, and a quick “sight picture/sight alignment”. Richburg does an outstanding job of quickly popping out of his stance, turning his hips to target, and subtly working around the pulling LG for an accurate strike.
Typically, Pugh is the team’s designated pulling OL as he is the most athletic of the bunch. Here he has the responsibility of picking up the first man that he comes across, which is LB Anthony Hitchens. Although the end result was a success, look closely at the mistake he makes pre-snap in telegraphing his ensuing movement. He subtly glances over to his right after the LBs rotate, perhaps to get an idea of the man he will encounter on his pull. Pugh’s shortcoming doesn’t appear to have been picked up by any defender, but it is something to keep a close eye on in his film moving forward. As far as carrying out his responsibility at the snap, you can see the type of fluid mover he is in space. He doesn’t turn perpendicular to the LOS instead taking a more upfield approach, which worked brilliantly. The most impressive aspect of Pugh’s game is the body control he possesses to adjust his angles in space, and accurately strike defenders with proper leverage. Here is another example of him taking out his man and effectively sealing the end of the LOS, keeping the RB clean.
For some OL, playing in a phone booth is an area met with struggle because of a deficiency in technique, body composition, or willpower. The latter is an area that describes what makes Schwartz such a valuable piece of this unit. On this block Schwartz is called to move the 2i tech (Terrell McClain) off the LOS and play in a phone booth. At the snap Schwartz fires off with good leverage and inside hands, locking onto the breastplate. From there he widens his base, extends his hips, and begins his drive forward. Once momentum is created his arms extend and McClain clearly does not want any more, attempting to get off the block 2 yards too late, giving up his inside shoulder in the process. From there Schwartz simply seals him off, springing the RB. This type of power football late in the fourth quarter can break a defense’s will and is a thing of beauty to watch.
Lastly, take a look Nikita Whitlock, the 5-10, 250-pound rookie FB/DT who does an outstanding job of picking up the LB off the edge. The most impressive aspects of this play for Whitlock are the explosion out of his stance, and adjustment mid-gait to strike a moving target. His block was a crucial piece of this play’s success.
Context: Week 5, down 27-23 in the fourth quarter with 40 seconds left in the game. It’s 3rd and 10 and the offense is in 11 personnel. The 49ers have seven DBs on the field with a four man DL. The Giants run a middle screen to perfection thanks to a key block from Richburg.
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Focus from left to right. San Francisco runs an X stunt with its 4i tech and wide-9 tech. Pugh does an excellent job of violently passing off the initial man to Flowers, who finishes him off into the ground. Pugh picks up the looping DE Eli Harold quickly and efficiently to solidify the left side of the line, subduing the stunt.
Richburg is who I mainly want to spotlight here. He is uncovered at the snap, scanning the field for any last-minute blitzing defenders. His timing on the release is uncanny, as he quickly peeks right to see the DL upfield and out of his way. Upon releasing he has to neutralize the threat of a DB (Keith Reaser) in space, a difficult assignment for any offensive lineman. His quick anticipation and burst into the open field instantly gives him the superior angle to the threat, as the DB reacts late. He quickly latches on to the defender at the 40-yard line, and as you can see he finishes the block 20-yards downfield. Richburg displayed the awareness, athleticism, and killer instinct to make a key block in a critical situation for his team, another example highlighting why Richburg is a premier center in the NFL.
Context: Week 6 at Philadelphia, Monday Night Football, 12:53 in the third quarter, down 17-7, with 12 personnel. The Eagles are in a 4-3 front with two head up 4 techs, a shaded 0 tech, and a 6 tech over the TE. The Giants run a simple dive play out of an ACE Big look. Power football.
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On this play I want to focus on the LG/C combo block, executed to perfection. First, Richburg is the catalyst for this play’s success. He is squared up against Bennie Logan, a player who has been fantastic so far this season for the Eagles. Known as a quick penetrator, Logan is completely neutralized here. Richburg knows he needs to get to the second level off the double team, immediately looking past Logan upon contact. Notice how efficient and strong Richburg is out of his stance. He immediately wins the leverage battle and locks out Logan away from his chest, freeing himself to focus to his next assignment. Richburg secures his block first, and waits until the last possible second to peel off and pick up the scraping LB (Jordan Hicks). He does so with primarily his right shoulder, maintaining contact with his original block until the last second. Essentially, Richburg took out Logan and Hicks with Pugh hopping on for the ride. Give credit to Flowers as well for neutralizing Fletcher Cox by himself, preventing him from chipping the RB as he maneuvered through the hole.
Lastly, I wanted to feature Flowers and what makes him such a special talent. Coming out of Miami I ranked Flowers as the top OT in the 2015 NFL Draft not because of what he was as a player, rather for the player I thought he would become. I didn’t think his potential was that far away from his production, and felt comfortable inserting him as a starting player somewhere on the OL as a rookie. While I would have preferred to see him kick inside to LG or switch sides to RT, LT has put him into the spotlight prematurely, exacerbating the areas he needs work on, particularly in pass pro against speed rushers. Rather than go in-depth into areas he needs work on, allow me to briefly showcase what makes him so enticing.
Context: Week 2 at home vs the Atlanta Falcons. 1:51 left in the second quarter, 1st and 10, 10-10 game.
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Flowers squared off against fellow rookie and first-round pick Vic Beasley for a couple of quarters before going down with an ankle injury. It was a good battle with both sides getting the better of the other multiple times.
Beasley is lined up in a wide-9 technique with his ears pinned back off the edge. Flowers knows he has to hoof it to compensate for the advantageous angle Beasley has on him to the QB. At the snap Flowers’ initial movement is lumbar flexion, helping to aid his inside leg in creating an explosive movement backward. Notice how Flowers doesn’t open up his hips until Beasley is even with him, denying the inside counter opportunity. His arms are serving as balance beams for his center of gravity, resulting in a very balanced approach to contact. His rear leg is firing controllably, demonstrating an all-around excellent kick slide technique. The result is matching the angle of an elite athlete and pass-rusher, running him around his QB, and forming a clean throwing lane.
Flowers has many underwhelming tendencies to his game, namely wide hands in pass pro, inside counter issues, and overall coordination problems that stem from his base. It is apparent that he will need proper coaching and a relentless work ethic to continually improve and overcome the obstacles in front of him, but you can clearly see on tape that he is working diligently on taking his game to the next level.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout.
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