The light shines on the stars tonight, as the New York Giants (8-4) clash with the Dallas Cowboys (11-1). This “Sunday Night Football” contest, however, will be decided by the men in the trenches. Offensive line play will be under the microscope, and their production goes a long way in determining a winner.
Cowboys Offensive Line
The offensive line unit for Dallas is universally acclaimed to be the strongest in the NFL. Simple case in point, the Cowboys sent three offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl earlier this year. The trio of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Fredericks were all repeat honorees.
That means the play of the unit cannot be considered a one-hit wonder.
At the beginning of the season, Pro Football Focus rated the Cowboys’ offensive line to be the league’s best. True to form, Travis Frederick ranks as the third best center in the NFL with an (88.5) grade. The guard combination of Zack Martin (88.2) and Ronald Leary (82.1) are in the top 20 at the position.
Left tackle Tyron Smith (87.1) rates eighth in the NFL. Right tackle Doug Free is considered the weakest link of the group comes in at a disappointing (52.1) grade.
SportsDay Dallas reported on Dec. 2, 2016, that Free had a tough time against the Minnesota defense. “[Free] was beaten for a sack to end the first half by defensive end Danielle Hunter from LSU. [He] was then beat again for a sack of Dak Prescott late in the third quarter.”
Perhaps the play here is to line up Olivier Vernon opposite Free and try to pressure Prescott or force Free to get help. According to PFF, Vernon ranks third in the NFL with 63 quarterback pressures.
Giants Offensive Line Woes
Thankfully the Dallas does not possess a fierce pass rush with 23 sacks to their credit. That ranks the unit 22nd overall according to NFL.com. But the Steelers rush was also middle of the road, and they seemingly manhandled the Giants’ offensive line.
Having their best offensive lineman, Justin Pugh, out with a knee injury hurts the potential impact here. At the time of his injury, Pugh had an (87.8) grade from PFF. Unfortunately, left tackle Ereck Flowers’ play (48.3 PFF grade) continues to deteriorate as the season progresses. Teams do not make the playoffs with inferior play at quarterback or left tackle.
Having the rest of your offensive deemed as serviceable does not inspire confidence in the offensive unit as a whole. But Bobby Hart, John Jerry and even Weston Richburg can only be classified as average at best.
Journeyman Marshall Newhouse does not come close to matching David Diehl’s production. In addition, John Jerry is not going to make people forget Chris Snee. If there is any way the unit can get their collective act together, Sunday night would be the time.
Ignoring The Offensive Line
As Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News pointed out on Dec. 11, 2016, “Jerry Reese, the general manager who stays somewhat off the radar by avoiding the media, is responsible for drafting struggling left tackle Ereck Flowers, ignoring his offensive line in the offseason, and fielding an offense without any impressive talents at the running back and tight end positions.”
There were a few players available to Reese in the off season, albeit at a price the general manager apparently deemed too high. Rookie tackle Jack Conklin (87.5 PFF grade) has solidified the Tennessee Titans offensive line; obtaining Conklin would have requiring Reese to swing a draft day trade. Veteran guard Josh Sitton was released by the Green Bay Packers at the end of training camp and scooped by the Chicago Bears. Sitton currently resides as the sixth-rated guard in the league by PFF.
Other offensive linemen like Mitchell Schwartz (free agent) or Jason Spriggs (2016 draft) were available to the G-Men. Reese decided to hold firm and make no revisions to the 2015 offensive line.
If the Giants miss the playoffs, Reese’s gamble will have blown up in the general manager’s face. Or perhaps, staying put was not a gamble, but rather player evaluations that almost no one agrees with.
When Reese did pull the trigger, he brought back Will Beatty. Curiously, Beatty has not made his way into the offensive line rotation despite the injuries. That fact alone makes his signing a wasted roster spot.
Whatever woulda, shoulda, coulda exists or existed, this game will be determined if the G-Men can open holes in the rushing attack. They also have to be a wall for Eli Manning in the passing game.
If those two things happen, then the Giants playoff march continues. If not, then this season may quickly evaporate.