Justin Pugh Making Huge Strides in Rookie Season with New York Giants

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Justin Pugh Making Huge Strides in Rookie Season with New York Giants
Elsa/Getty Images

When it comes to the New York Giants' offensive line, there really hasn’t been much to smile about.

Pugh's draft day reaction after learning he became a Giant was priceless.

But one development that should help keep Giants fans feeling warm and fuzzy over the upcoming long, cold offseason is the very bright future of rookie right tackle Justin Pugh.

Drafted by the Giants in the first round (19th overall) out of Syracuse, the only thing that draft enthusiasts wanted to discuss during the 6’4”, 307-pound Pugh’s combine workout was his arms.

That’s right, the sixth-best offensive tackle and the 45th-best overall prospect according to NFL Draft Scout with the “very short arms,” according to his official NFL draft profile page, lacked the ideal wingspan for a tackle.

This unfavorable measurable created lively discussions among numerous fan message boards, as draft-day enthusiasts questioned whether the Giants reached for a player they might have been able to get in the second round.

Pugh’s arm length, however, didn’t bother the Giants.

“People ask about his arm length and that wasn’t an issue for us,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese said shortly after the team made its selection of Pugh in the first round of the draft official.

The rookie from Syracuse had a pretty impressive outing in his first NFL preseason game versus the Colts.

“We looked at him and when you see guys with 32-inch arms playing the offensive line ... I looked at tape after tape after tape and I never could see the arms come into play because I was looking for an excuse to downgrade him, but you can never find that.”

What the Giants got was exceptional value in Pugh, who could potentially move inside to guard and even center given his build and versatility.

That versatility could very well come in handy if the Giants decide to rebuild the interior of their offensive line this coming offseason. If they can’t find a tackle candidate with better measurables, they can leave Pugh where he is.

If they do find a better candidate, they can move the young man inside to one of the guard spots and not have to worry about him missing a beat.

They also found an eager and enthusiastic young man who had played left tackle at Syracuse and who, despite growing up in Eagles territory, was overjoyed upon learning that he was headed to the New York Giants. 

Since his arrival, Pugh has gotten better and better in his technique and in his knowledge of the Giants’ offense. He was supposed to compete with veteran David Diehl for the right tackle spot but was handed the job by default after Diehl had thumb surgery in training camp that kept him out of action for six weeks.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Pugh gets his hands inside of a Bears defender to make the block.

A 12-game starter, Pugh is well on his way to becoming the first Giants rookie to start every game since linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1981.

After a rocky first month of the season due to growing pains that, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) saw him record a minus-5.5 grade, his worst overall score of the season, Pugh’s stock has continued to rise.

In Week 6 against the Chicago Bears, Pro Football Focus graded Pugh with a 3.9 score, his highest overall grade to date.

Six weeks later, in Week 12, Pugh earned another high overall grade, a 3.6, while also earning positive grades in both pass blocking (1.5) and run blocking (1.6) in that game.

“You know, Justin’s progressing along fairly well. In the last few weeks I’ve seen his technique and fundamentals become better,” Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said over the bye week.

Elsa/Getty Images
If he stays healthy, Pugh can be a fixture on the Giants' offensive line for years to come.

“In the beginning, with learning the offense, one, and then learning the techniques that you need to protect in the pass protection, some things were very challenging to him because he was playing against some savvy veterans there, but in the last couple of weeks he’s settled down.”

“I think his awareness has definitely improved and he’s not surprised, if you will, by what he sees on the field at this point,” said head coach Tom Coughlin when recently asked about Pugh. “I would expect that at this point, it would just continue to get better.” 

Former NFL offensive lineman Roman Oben, who played left tackle for the New York Giants from 1996 to 1999, said that Pugh reminds him of former offensive lineman Pete Kendall, a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1996 who also played for the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets and Washington Redskins.

“Tough, smart, competitive—wants to do well,” Oben said when drawing the comparison between Pugh and Kendall, the latter of whom retired after the 2008 season.

“(Pugh) is a lineman who came in with that extra sense of urgency and willingness to compete, and (he) can be a guy that you don’t have to worry about at that position for eight to 10 years, if he stays healthy.” 

Pugh described his progress to the New York Post as being “like night and day” considering he had never played right tackle in his career until he arrived at the Giants.

Recounting how he wasn’t happy with the first month of plays that he put on film, Pugh offered a glimpse of his resolve and determination to win his battles by telling Paul Schwartz of the New York Post that he planned to do something to pick up his game.

“I was upset with how I was playing, there comes a point in time where you say ‘Hey, enough’s enough,’ and you got to go out there and keep fighting, keep battling, Pugh said.

“It’s something that has made the season good for me.

Pugh’s improvement is hard to miss, especially if one looks at his stat line from Pro Football Focus (subscription required):

The Rookie Grows Up
QB Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries
First 5 Games 2 2 24
Last 7 Games 1 0 7

Source: Pro Football Focus

 

In a conference call with the New York media the day after their 24-17 win at Washington, I asked Pugh what it's meant for him to have Diehl lining up next to him.

"It’s been great," he said. "Having Dave there, he’s been around a while, he’s played a lot of football.

"I think that’s something right from Day 1 when I first got here, Dave’s kind of taken me under his wing and tried to show me what it takes to be a professional.  I think that’s definitely something that’s helped me out."

I then asked him how Diehl, who played right tackle last season, has helped Pugh develop.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
David Diehl has been willing to tutor Pugh this season.

"He tries to help me out and tell me what kind of moves those certain guys will make, or how I can adjust my set or get an advantage on certain plays," Pugh said.

"I really think it’s just him showing me how to go out there and battle.  You have to be a fighter out there in the NFL.  Every guy, week in and week out, you’re going against a top-notch player. 

"Obviously, (Washington linebacker Ryan) Kerrigan is a great player and he did give me some trouble at some points in the game," Pugh continued.

"You have to be able to respond.  I think that’s something where you don’t ever put your head down and let one bad play affect the next one.  You go out there and start fresh every play." 

Let’s take a look at Pugh’s growth from his early-year struggles to his recent performance.

 

Short Arms

If you do a web search for “Justin Pugh Draft Scouting Report,” chances are every report you pull up will offer the same assessment when it comes to the negatives, which include short arms and a lack of bulk. 

The bulk issue is something that Pugh can control.  With a full year in the Giants' offseason strength and conditioning program, he’ll become stronger and bulkier and will be better able to withstand bull-rushers.

His 32-inch arm length, however, is what it is—he’s not going to grow any further, and so it’s up to him to make do with what he’s been given physically.

The natural questions to ask are, why is wingspan so important for a NFL tackle and can a short-armed player survive in the trenches?

“You have defensive ends like Mario Williams in Buffalo and some of these long guys like (Minnesota’s) Jared Allen, and if you don’t have the armspan to push them or keep that pocket clean, you’re at a disadvantage,” said Oben.

“If you have short arms, that means you have to be more accurate with your hand placement and your punching, and making sure that your hands are inside. If you get your hands outside of a defender and you have short arms, then you’re going to be in bad shape.”

The hand placement was indeed something that affected Pugh earlier in the season, especially in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers. In that game, which was Pugh’s worst of the season, Pro Football Focus has him responsible for two sacks, one hit and seven hurries.

Against the Panthers, Pugh often lined up across from Charles Johnson, who right from the start was a bad matchup for the undersized Pugh.

via NFL Game Rewind
Pugh and Johnson end up back in the pocket that QB Eli Manning has vacated.

Here are two examples that illustrate the hand placement issues. In the first one, Pugh managed to make contact with Johnson, getting enough of his body into the block.

However, note the location of Pugh’s left arm, which is outside of the defender.

Although Pugh never stopped battling, Johnson was successful in flushing Manning out of the pocket, which is where Pugh and Johnson end up after Johnson beats the rookie. 

via NFL Game Rewind
Pugh's left arm is outside of the defender.

A second example from the Panthers game came on a pass completion to fullback Henry Hynoski. In the frame on the right, notice how Pugh, again battling Johnson, has one hand on Johnson’s shoulder and the other one is down on the defender’s arm.

By not getting both of his hands inside of the defender’s frame, Pugh was pushed backward. This forced Manning to dump the pass off to Hynoski in the flat, as Manning never had a chance to look downfield. Had he had the time, he might have spotted Victor Cruz, who was open on the play.

The good news is that Pugh eventually smoothed out the glitches in his technique to the point that over his last four games, he’s allowed just one sack and three hurries.

Now let’s look at how he’s improved his hand placement.

In Week 6 vs. the Chicago Bears, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Pugh his highest overall score, a 3.9 rating.

Within that rating, they credited Pugh with just one quarterback hurry, which means that the rookie pretty much delivered a shutout in that game.

via NFL Game Rewind
Pugh's hand placement improved as the season went on.

Note in the frame at the right how Pugh has both hands within the frame of the Bears defender. As the play progressed, Pugh was able to push the defender out of the way to allow Manning to complete a pass.

Oben has been impressed with Pugh’s determination to come back and win his subsequent battles, especially if he’s beaten.

“If you are beaten, can you recover? Can you minimize the mental stuff? Those are the things that make an average guy great if you can learn to play within your body immediately, and he’s doing a good job of that,” Oben said.

 

Balance

Because Pugh has such good balance, he rarely falls to the ground after making contact, even if the defense tries to fool him with a stunt. 

One of the reasons for this is that Pugh bends at the waist just enough to give himself the base he needs to hold his ground while also exerting force against the defender.

via NFL Game Rewind

On this play from the game against Chicago, Pugh and right guard David Diehl do a nice job picking up defensive end David Bass (No. 91), who starts off lined up over tight end Larry Donnell. Donnell, meanwhile, tries to deal with linebacker Lance Briggs (No. 55), a matchup that he fails to win. 

via NFL Game Rewind

Here’s another example of a play in which Dallas defensive end George Selvie attempts to bull-rush Pugh in the season opener.

Pugh does a good job of squaring up against Selvie while keeping his hands inside of Selvie’s frame. As a result, Manning is able to complete a 57-yard pass play to receiver Hakeem Nicks.

Oben noted that Pugh’s feistiness often results in the rookie being able to establish a base and punching at his man, which is what you want to see from an offensive tackle.

“You can’t just back up and let a guy through and try to shove him,” he said. “You’ve got to set a little more laterally and hit him and collide with him, and then stretch him.  Otherwise you’re just playing the ‘olé’  game, like the bull fighters.”

 

What’s Ahead

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
If Pugh was this good as a rookie, imagine how good he'll be as he gains more experience.

Ask any player, be it a rookie or a 10-year veteran, if he has room to grow, and in more than 99 percent of the cases, he’ll answer affirmatively.

So with that said, what kind of growth is in store for Pugh? 

In addition to gaining additional strength and bulk to withstand some of the bull-rushers, Oben believes that the biggest improvement that Pugh can make in his game is improving his ability to make pre-snap reads.

“I think he’ll be able to improve his awareness of what he thinks a guy might do based on his alignment,” Oben said.

“If a guy is lined up tight, like right on his outside shoulder, and the linebacker is lined up over the guard, there’s a high chance that guy is going to go inside, so you can’t be surprised by that.

“So that one thing that usually improves for an offensive lineman between Years 1 and 2 is your recognition and awareness of what the guy on the other side might be planning to do. Once you become more anticipatory, you can actually fly off the ball a lot faster and dictate more how the game is played versus just backpedaling and trying to survive out there.”   

 

Patricia Traina is the senior editor for Inside Football. All quotes and information obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Patricia on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.

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