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A Strong Front

Dec. 08, 2008
Dec. 08, 2008

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Dec. 8, 2008

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A Strong Front

Spread the news: The methodical Giants offense is powering through the NFL's toughest division thanks to an unwavering line that puts opponents on their backs and rules the locker room

THE GIANTS wonlast season's Super Bowl and 10 of their first 11 games in 2008 but did notfully move into the radar of public interest until last Saturday morning, andthen only because of the news that their best wide receiver, Plaxico Burress,had raised the ante on his regular misadventures by accidentally shootinghimself in the right thigh with his own handgun at a Manhattan nightclub.Burress's gunplay initiated a classic tabloid frenzy that appeared to havelegs, and made the Giants suddenly and blessedly interesting. ¶ Before that,they had chugged along with dull efficiency. Their marquee player, quarterbackEli Manning, is likably unrevealing, often compared by New York media withDerek Jeter, who possesses the same quality. Their coach, Tom Coughlin, runs aleak-free locker room and controls controversy essentially by refusing toacknowledge its existence. There had been no shortage of more exotic NFL storylines, ranging from Brett Favre to Adam Jones to the hapless Lions to theTitans' winning streak. The Giants could wait.

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue

Now at last camethe Burress Affair, just as his team was preparing to play an NFC East roadgame in Washington. While Burress, who caught the game-winning touchdown in NewYork's 17--14 Super Bowl win over the Patriots, was not going to play againstthe Redskins because of a hamstring injury, the swirl of negativity thataccompanied his self-inflicted wound rose to the level of that most universalobstacle, the Distraction.

Except, not somuch. On a miserable Sunday at FedEx Field, with windblown rain andtemperatures that hovered in the low 40s, the Giants took a Redskins team thathas been in the playoff mix all season and simply toyed with it. New York wentahead 13--0 early in the second quarter and was never threatened, churning outmore than 400 yards against a defense that had been one of the NFL's best,yielding fewer than 280 yards per game. It is tempting to invoke the clichéthat the Giants had tightened their bonds in support of Burress and won thegame in his honor—"We were missing a fallen comrade," said running backDerrick Ward—but it was not that type of work; it was cold and bloodless, theundressing of a lesser team.

"We've beenthrough the gamut," said center Shaun O'Hara, while stripping off hisdrenched and muddied uniform afterward. "We went through plenty last year,and look where we finished. There's experience. There's leadership. Call itwhatever you want. When it's time to play, this team cranks it up."

This team is11--1 for the first time in its 83-year history, with seven consecutive winsand a three-game lead over resurgent Dallas in what remains arguably thestrongest division in the NFL. Manning passed for 305 yards against theRedskins, and massive tailback Brandon Jacobs pounded out 71 yards on theground despite a sore knee that clearly has not healed. The same defense thatmade Tom Brady look human in the Super Bowl 10 months ago sacked Jason Campbellfour times and intercepted him once.

And the heart ofthis unglamorous team beats in a most unglamorous place.

A SNAPSHOT: ONOct. 4, the day before a home game against Seattle, the Giants' offensive linegot together for a private videotape session. The first string—center O'Hara,left guard Rich Seubert, left tackle David Diehl, right guard Chris Snee andright tackle Kareem McKenzie—has started 31 of the last 32 games as a unit.They are typical of the breed: large and lumpy (in a way that belies theirconsiderable strength) but also tough and smart. This is how they prepare as agroup. "It's good to watch tape alone, and we all do that," saysSeubert, "but you can really get on the same page when you watchtogether." What they saw on this Saturday was a blitz package the Seahawkshad used effectively against New York in 2005 and '06. In the film session theyidentified the look and created a name for it, so that any one of them couldcall out along the line if he saw it coming.

(The line is anoisy place. Before the snap, Manning will identify the middle, or Mike,linebacker, and often change the play or blocking scheme. Beginning withO'Hara, the line will then shout out confirmation of any change, or furtherchanges of their own, based on the defense. Grunts and groans follow.)

Whatever the codename—"Defensive linemen are pretty smart," says McKenzie. "If Itell you, I'll have to kill you"—early in the game the Giants came to theline of scrimmage and, almost in unison all five offensive linemen barked thedesignated word. It happened at least twice more in that game, and on eachoccasion the Giants adjusted and picked up the blitz, en route to a 44--6victory. "When you recognize a blitz presnap, and everybody is on the samepage," says O'Hara, "that's the best feeling in the world." It is arare and potent synergy at a place on the field where cohesiveness isessential. And this team has it. "They're a group of guys who workunbelievably well together," says Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith, whogot a firsthand look in a 21--14 loss on Oct. 26. "Strength in numbers, youknow?"

The rest of theleague knows. With no small amount of help from tight end Kevin Boss and266-pound fullback Madison Hedgecock, both integral to the running game, theGiants' O-line has helped Jacobs (950 yards), Ward (630) and Ahmad Bradshaw(310) lead an NFL-best ground attack that averages more than 160 yards pergame. Manning has been sacked 15 times, seventh-best among NFL quarterbackswho've started all 12 games. "They're probably as good as any line in theleague," says Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose typicallystout unit gave up 207 yards on the ground in a 30--10 loss on Nov. 16.

The line wasbuilt piece by piece. Seubert, 29, arrived first, in 2001, an undrafted freeagent from Western Illinois. He became a starter in '02, but six games into thefollowing season he broke his right ankle, fibula and tibia and wouldn't becomea full-time starter again for another four years. Seubert still has a steel rodrunning from his ankle to his knee. Diehl, 28, was drafted in '03 from Illinoisand has missed one practice in six years. Snee, 26, was drafted in the secondround from Boston College in '04, started 11 games as a rookie and marriedCoughlin's daughter, Kate. O'Hara, 31, once a walk-on at nearby Rutgers, wassigned as a free agent from Cleveland in '04; McKenzie, 29, was a free-agentpickup a year later, after he had spent four seasons with the Jets.

This groupstarted its first game together in December 2005; none has made a Pro Bowl.Their work is difficult for a layman to evaluate, taking place in 60 scrumsevery game. "This is no miracle," says retired NFL offensive line coachJim McNally, who was with the Giants from 1999 through 2003 and helped draftSeubert and Snee. "You have four or five really tremendous athletes upthere." It's true: Seubert ran a 4.92-second 40 in college, O'Hara was highschool all-conference in basketball and Diehl says he has "always been ableto move, even though I was bigger than everybody else."

McNally says,"Defensive linemen are always better athletes than offensive linemen. Butwith these guys, they give you a fighting chance."

The line'scollective athleticism allows the Giants' coaches to be more creative than mostin setting blocking schemes. Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich of the 49ers, who lost toNew York 29--17 in Week 7, says, "They do some things I've never seenbefore: They pull the front side guard and the back side guard; both jab stepand both come around. They have enough athletic ability to do stuff likethat."

The offense, likeany effective attack, comprises complementary parts. "Jacobs will get youtwo or three yards if you don't block anybody," says Arizona defensivecoordinator Clancy Pendergast, whose Cardinals lost at home to the Giants37--29 on Nov. 23. Burress, now out of the mix, gave Manning a quick outletagainst most blitzes. Amani Toomer provides sure hands and a deep threat, andDomenik Hixon is emerging as a capable possession receiver. But most of all theGiants' hogs cover up each other's mistakes. "You know what the guy next toyou is going to do," says McKenzie. "That comes from all the time youspend together."

With this group,that extends to time off the field. They eat meals together, lift weightstogether, even on occasion tailgate in the stadium parking lot after games.They prank each other and their teammates, like frat boys run amok. Followingan October pig roast at the stadium, O'Hara stuffed the carcass's head into atrash bag and buried it in Seubert's locker. As a unit, they stalk the lockerroom, stealing equipment and car keys and, says O'Hara, "changing thecharacters on cellphones to Chinese."

Teammatesrespond. The offensive linemen's cleats were painted purple before the SuperBowl, and during training camp a thick layer of Vaseline was applied toSeubert's car's windshield. Evidence points in one direction. "Thequarterbacks," says Seubert. "I asked a witness. I'm sure that's who itwas."

Manning demurs,like a mobster on trial. "Somebody did those things," he says, "butthat's all I know."

McKenziediscourages pranks with his response. "I come back at a higher level,"he says. "You throw a roll of prewrap at me, I'll throw real tape atyou." (Or worse: "You hit Kareem in the [crotch], he'll grabyours," says backup lineman Grey Ruegamer.)

All of thenonsense has a purpose. "This is our job. This is our livelihood," saysDiehl. "But it's football. And we're together all the time. It's got to befun."

THE PROUD,buttoned-up Giants organization faces major decisions off the field in dealingwith Burress—who on Monday was charged with two counts of second-degreecriminal possession of a weapon—and to a lesser extent, linebacker anddefensive captain Antonio Pierce, who was with Burress on the night of theshooting. Moreover, the remaining schedule is brutal, beginning with a homegame this Sunday against the schizophrenic Eagles and then a trip to Dallasbefore finishing at home against Carolina and at Minnesota. The four opponentsare a combined 13 games above .500, and all four are in playoff contention.

But the Giants'whipping of the Redskins would seem to underscore that they are not only closeto distraction-proof but also capable of blowing through the loss of any oneplayer (with the probable exception of Manning). "We have a lot of guys onthis team who are capable of making plays," says Toomer, who caught fivepasses for 85 yards in the win over Washington.

More practically,the Giants' stability is tied to the line, which as a unit is less prone to thehot and cold streaks of a skill player. "We forget about the last play, thelast series, the last game, the last season," says Seubert. "We justworry about the next one."

The Redskins'defense attacked the Giants in precisely the same way that the Cardinals' did aweek earlier: with safeties down low near the line of scrimmage, putting eightmen in the box to stop the run. "I thought they had 12 men down there attimes," says O'Hara. "But that just gave us a chance to prove thatwe're not a one-dimensional team."

Manning wassacked twice, for a total of nine yards, but often had several seconds todawdle through his route progressions. On New York's first play of the secondquarter he completed a bubble screen to Ward on the right side, and McKenzieand Snee escorted the back on a 48-yard gain, like twin steamrollers moving upthe soggy field. The Giants were stuffed for only 28 yards on 15 carries beforehalftime but got 80 yards on 20 carries in the final two quarters.

"The way theyplayed us, there are going to be negative plays," says Diehl. "Arizonadid the same thing. You just keep moving it and moving it, and sooner or lateryou wear them down and things start to crack for you."

One year afterthe NFL was identified by celebrity headliners in New England—Brady, Moss,Belichick—the pendulum has swung back. This year's model is star-free, built ona foundation of wide men whose work is measured by their teammates' statistics."We don't do anything significant," says McKenzie. "We just do ourjobs." Here is a working-man's machine that just doesn't break down.

The line's athleticism allows the Giants to be morecreative in their blocking schemes. "They do things I've NEVER SEENBEFORE," says Ulbrich.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyBANG-UP JOB The bruising 270-pound Jacobs (27) is especially effective when fullback Hedgecock helps clear the way.PHOTOAL TIELEMANS SPEEDON THE HOOF Snee (76) and his fellow blockers are nimble and fast enough tokeep up with the likes of Ward (34).PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSNAP JUDGMENT O'Hara (60) and crew give Manning loads of time to run through progressions and pick apart defenses.