Giant Ground Game: With a Line Like This, Why Pass?

No one ever begins a story by listing offensive linemen, so let’s set a precedent: the New York Giants offensive line, from left to right, consists of David Diehl (left tackle), Rich Seubert (left guard), Shaun O’Hara (Center), Chris Snee (right guard), Kareem McKenzie (right tackle).

New York’s offensive line is the heart and soul of this team right now, the reason the Giants are currently 9-1 and the favorites to win the NFC title. If these guys get mentioned at all in game summaries, it’s usually to label them as “unsung heroes.” And they are. Offensive linemen are always unsung heroes.

Who was the last interior offensive lineman to win the Heisman Trophy? Trick question: no interior lineman has ever won. Who was the last interior offensive lineman to be named the NFL’s MVP? Another trick question: Lou Groza put in most of his time at left tackle in 1954, when he was voted MVP, but he also did the place kicking.

Championship teams always begin with good offensive lines. Everyone wants a star passer or running back, but a great offensive line will make even second-rate backs look good. The reason the blockers don’t get the credit is because they don’t have any statistics: They are the cause of other people’s statistics, and last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens they caused some pretty impressive numbers.

The Baltimore Ravens’ defense went into the game No. 1 in the league in fewest yards allowed per rush, 2.9, which means, on average, you’d have to run the ball against them four times just to get a first down. On Sunday, the Giants rushed for 15 first downs and 207 yards – the third straight week they’ve run for over 200. Ahmad Bradshaw (9 carries for 96 yards), Brandon Jacobs (11 for 73), and Derrick Ward (11 for 41) averaged 6.8 yards per try. (For the season, Giants runners are averaging 5.3, tops in the league.)

The Giants’ front five mangled the best rush defense in either conference. They ran sweeps to both the right and left with the guards pulling in the classic fashion of Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, annihilating the Ravens’ linebackers beyond the line of scrimmage. (Ray Lewis led his team with 10 tackles, but all were beyond the line of scrimmage.) New York opened yawning gaps on traps and draws, holes big enough to pull rickshaws through. On simple drive blocking plays, they consistently beat a fine Baltimore front line (six first downs came on off-tackle runs).

The game announcers argued as to whether the Giants were out-finessing or overpowering the Ravens’ rush defense. In fact, the Giants’ offensive line did both.

This turned out to be New York’s sort of game, a shockingly easy 30-10 victory. Many observers, myself included, thought the Ravens might be able to put sufficient pressure on Eli Manning to make it interesting, but that turned out to be academic: Not much was needed from Manning as the game was essentially decided by the Giants’ offensive and defensive lines. New York’s pass rush put such pressure on Baltimore’s rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, that he was flustered from start to finish and could never find a rhythm. Cornerback Aaron Ross intercepted two passes, returning 50 yards for a third-quarter touchdown, and defensive tackle Fred Robbins set up a touchdown by blocking a field goal. Those plays alone were pretty much gave the Giants all the points they needed.

The Giants were never really forced to take chances on offense. In this game, they could afford to do what they do best: run the ball on virtually any down behind their jackhammer offensive line.

It’s puzzling, then, that Eli Manning, operating from a position of strength all afternoon, wasn’t more effective. He was 13 of 23 for just 153 yards, one TD and one interception. He was pressured and sacked just one time and lucked out when a second-quarter pickoff was called back on a Baltimore offsides penalty.

One reason why Eli wasn’t better, perhaps, and one reason why the Giants haven’t much relied on the pass all season, is that New York’s offensive line, terrific as it is, is essentially a run-blocking unit. The tackles, Diehl and McKenzie, have reputations as solid run blockers, but football writers from other cities whose teams have played the Giants will tell you that they can be beat by fast outside pass rushers and sometimes overpowered up the middle. The reason this hasn’t happened more often, so the argument goes, is that the Giants haven’t had to rely that much on their pass blocking.

Snee, a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, is equally adept at run or pass blocking, but Seubert has been seen on replay getting whipped by pass rushers up the middle. So the Giants’ offensive line would prefer to run block more often than it is called upon to pass block, as was the case against the Ravens when the Giants rushed on 33 of 56 plays from scrimmage.

It would be interesting to see what happens if some team is able to reverse that ratio and force the Giants to throw more than they run – which means a team with the firepower to take a lead and move the Giants out of their complacent ball-control game. No team is better suited to do that than the Arizona Cardinals, whose quarterback, Kurt Warner, is the best passer in the conference and probably in the league, leading the NFL in passer rating, second in yards per throw at 8.3 (Eli is 21st at 6.8) and with 20 touchdowns against only seven interceptions.

If, however, the Giants defense can contain Warner, then New York can use its best weapon, the running game, to eat up the clock and keep Warner off the field. New York may get through another week without finding out what happens when the game depends on Eli’s passing. I suspect they’d like to go through the whole season without having that question answered.

Giant Ground Game: With a Line Like This, Why Pass?