The New York Giants will have a lot of areas to address once their season is over, a lot of problems to correct. But the biggest and most important remains their ability to protect quarterback Eli Manning. The offensive line has suffered through a ton of injuries and changes this season, and they've evolved into a strong run-blocking unit in spite of it all. But Manning still faces way too much pressure. And as we look ahead to the 2014 offseason and start prioritizing problem areas, pass protection looms as the one that should command the bulk of GM Jerry Reese's attention. The 31 sacks Manning has taken this year are already a single-season career high, and there are still four games to go.
"We're not real pleased with that, but it's not just the line," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said on his Monday afternoon conference call. "It's your tight ends. It's your backs. It's your ability to get into the right protections. We've had our share of issues. We're doing the best we can to try and straighten that out. And it's not always the newer guys that have entered into the picture."
Coughlin's point about backs and tight ends is important not to overlook. Since the offseason, we have been discussing in this space the extent to which the Giants might miss the peripheral blocking helpers who were on last year's team but not this year's. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who was cut in the offseason for salary and medical reasons, and tight end Martellus Bennett, who got a big free-agent deal from the Bears, are two of the very best blockers in the league at their positions. The Giants weren't necessarily wrong to let either of them leave, but they didn't do a good enough job replacing that element of their respective games.
That said, there are lots of ways they can go about finding a tight end who can block and a running back who can pick up the blitz. When the Giants are thinking about where to commit their major resources this offseason -- their first-round draft pick, for example -- they need to think about the offensive line. They went 13 years without spending a first-round pick on an offensive lineman before taking Justin Pugh this year, but they would do well not to start another streak.
As of right now, the Giants hold the No. 14 pick in the draft. That can obviously change, in either direction, but assuming they stay in that range, they're not likely to get an instant franchise-changer or be able to deal the pick for very much to a quarterback-hungry team looking to move up. No. 14 would be a good spot from which to target a top tackle prospect, and drafting one would help them in a number of short-term and long-term ways. It would improve their depth of talent on the line, which this year's injuries have proven to be an issue worth addressing. It would allow them to consider (either right away or down the road) moving Pugh to an interior line position, where he might develop into a truly dominant player, if they decide that's the best way to use him. And even if this as-yet-unnamed prospect had to start at right tackle, he could conceivably offer a fallback position at left tackle if Will Beatty continues to struggle over there.
And Beatty is struggling. He had a big year in 2012 and got a five-year contract out of it, but he's had some very bad games this year, including the whipping he took Sunday night from Washington's Brian Orakpo. Beatty isn't a classic mauler at left tackle, so he relies on his athleticism and technique to be successful. Too many times this year, his technique has been sloppy, and when that happens he can be a liability.
"It was against an outstanding rusher, but Will got beat inside," Coughlin said. "And yeah, you can characterize that as technique. You can't over-set."
On the right side, Pugh has shown steady improvement and has formed a strong run-blocking tandem with his veteran mentor, right guard David Diehl. Prior to the draft, most projections had him as an NFL guard and not a tackle. The Giants liked him because they didn't know what their offensive line needs would be next year and beyond, and they believed Beatty could play either guard or tackle. So he likely offers some flexibility down the road.
Pugh also has an understanding of the importance of the line improving. Manning was sacked three times Sunday night, and his interception came on a ball thrown while under serious pressure. Pugh said the line takes responsibility for many of Manning's turnovers this year.
"There are times when we're putting guys in Eli's face, or we're not picking up guys the right way and he's got to get rid of it," Pugh said. "So some of it's definitely on the offensive line, and we've got to get better."
Chris Snee could return from his hip problems at right guard next year, but that's no guarantee. Center David Baas is likely gone and will need replacing. Left guard Kevin Boothe, who's been their best and most consistent lineman this year, is eligible for free agency. There are a lot of questions for the Giants to answer on the line, and a lot of work to do to make Manning's protection better. Of the many issues they will confront when their offseason begins, this should be the most important.