On Sunday, the New York Giants beat the Houston Texans, finally capturing their first win with a 30-17 victory on Sunday. The key to this was getting the offense going and more importantly, shutting down the Texans' Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt.
The offensive line has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny as injuries and new faces led to subpar play over the course of the first two weeks. The Giants line couldn't stop the front seven of either the Detroit Lions or the Arizona Cardinals, and Houston looked like it could provide more of the same.
At the end of the day though, aside from an early sack, Watt was largely a non-factor. The Giants offensive line was able to at least slow him down and at times outright stop him from reaching the ball-carrier or quarterback.
So how did the Giants take Watt out of the equation and can another team do the same?
Put a Tight End on Him
There was a period of the game where every time Watt lined up, tight end Larry Donnell was looking at him. When Donnell was out on a route or on the other side of the field, Daniel Fells was chipping Watt.
Sometimes Donnell would line up on the opposite side of the line, then motion over to the spot in front of Watt.
At times Donnell would take Watt on solo, and sometimes he would be assisting someone else, such as in the shot below.
In this play Donnell and right tackle Justin Pugh double up on Watt, until safety D.J. Swearinger advances and Pugh needs to peel off to deal with him.
Donnell holds his own, riding Watt until the ball is handed off and the play largely over.
A sidenote on this play -- at this point in the game I noticed that the Texans were running a lot of formations with five defensive backs on the field. Swearinger initially lines up as a linebacker, then trails Donnell as the tight end motions. The Giants would attempt to spread the defense out and this seems to be the Houston plan to counter that. They were more worried about the Giants throwing to those extra receivers than they were having the Giants run the ball on them.
As it turns out, that was a bad choice as the extra safety didn't prevent Manning from throwing the ball effectively and running back Rashad Jennings had a career day. By the time the Texans changed that, it was already too late.
Back to Donnell. The upside to this plan was that once the Texans and Watt got comfortable with the motion and assumed Donnell was staying in to block, they could do things like this:
In the above image, Donnell again motions over to the spot in front of Watt, then engages him at the snap. However, Donnell quickly releases and runs a short screen route, and is wide open when Manning delivers the ball.
Moving Donnell around and using him in different ways kept Watt and the rest of the Texans defense from keying off of his movements and allowed the Giants offense to avoid tipping off plays. Donnell did an excellent job of blocking Watt either with help or solo when called upon.
Run Away! Run Away!
Another common tactic -- and a fairly obvious one at that -- was to simply run plays away from Watt. This is a lot easier to do without rookie Jadeveon Clowney in the lineup, and even easier when the Texans were pulling one linebacker for an extra defensive back.
The Giants did this in a myriad of ways, but most frequently they would send Jennings quickly up the gut or off tackle to the left. And when the Texans moved Watt to the right, the play went left. When Watt was set up more towards the middle of the defensive formation (with a linebacker or safety at the end as an edge rusher), Manning would roll left or right or Jennings would run in one of those directions.
With the excellent blocking the line was showcasing, it was easy enough to slow down the likes of Jared Crick, Whitney Mercilus and Ricky Sapp.
The Need for Speed
The Giants went no-huddle multiple times and made it hard for the Texans to sub players on defense or adjust tactics when things weren't working. The quick pace also made the defense more reactive than proactive.
That is to say, the Texans didn't have time to read the offense and adjust what their responsibilities were, which in turn left gaps open and, coupled with the "run away, run away!" plan the Giants used, made it almost impossible to shift Watt to a more effective spot.
There were times when Watt wasn't even on the field, though not too many (according to the gamebook, Watt was present for 67 defensive plays or 94 percent of the snaps on defense). Once in the fourth quarter he was out for what seemed like a whole (albeit short) series. Whether he needed a breather or he got trapped out because of the no-huddle I can't say, but if it's the latter, then mission accomplished.
Pure Rugged Blocking
At the end of the day, it was the outstanding play of the Giants offensive line, which not only shut down Watt but was key in any of the above things working as well as making life easier for both Manning and Jennings. They worked exceptionally well as a unit both blocking at the line and downfield on runs.
A great example of which is the above run by Jennings (and GIF'd by Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus).
On the play, the line does a great job of sealing off the right side of the pass rush and clearing away defenders on the left side. Donnell does a bang-up job trapping Watt inside and away from Jennings, while both left tackle Will Beatty and left guard Weston Richburg clear the way for their running back.
Beatty and Richburg work as a smooth unit, with Beatty engaging with linebacker Brooks Reed from the front while Richburg comes from behind. Then Richburg takes over, stepping in front of Reed while Beatty disengages and takes on safety Kendrick Lewis.
Unfortunately, Beatty falls down, otherwise he would have shoved Lewis into the end zone with Jennings right behind him.'
Every single offensive player I talked to said the same thing -- the offensive line was on fire and both Manning and Jennings credited them with the blocking that allowed both players to have very good days -- in Jennings' case, a career day.
Of course, you can't keep a good man down and sometimes Watt got the better of the blockers he faced.
When It Didn't Work
Watt was held to one sack, but there were several times he was able to pressure Manning or disrupt a play.
He sacked Manning on just the fifth play of the game and it was ugly.
In the shot above, you can see the offense set with the strong side to the left (picture right), with Donnell lining up against Mercilus. Watt is on the weak side, facing off against Pugh. Jennings is behind Pugh, and could step in and help if need be, but that's not the play.
The play calls for Jennings to head towards Manning and take a fake handoff, while the right guard (John Jerry) pulls as if he is a lead blocker. This leaves Pugh in a one on one battle with Watt off the edge.
As you can see below, the outcome was far from optimal.
That's the danger with leaving your offensive line one on one with Watt. While he didn't notch another sack, Watt came close a few times and disrupted some run plays as well. He even came close to swatting down a Manning pass.
The plan worked, but you can see there is risk and a lot of other teams have had far less success.
Should the Buffalo Bills Copy the Giants?
The Texans head home to Houston and welcome in the Buffalo Bills, fresh off their first loss against the San Diego Chargers.
The Bills have a much less experienced (and effective) quarterback in EJ Manuel, but a more consistent (and healthier) offensive line and two solid running backs. The passing offense isn't a fast-paced, but to be honest, prior to Week 3, the Giants offense hadn't exactly been running like a Ferrari.
While Houston moved Watt around against the Giants, let's assume he begins the day on the left side of the defense as he did Sunday at Metlife Stadium. That would put him across from right tackle Seantrel Henderson and right guard Erik Pears.
That's a bit daunting as neither one has been exceptional this year. Pro Football Focus has them both with significant negative grades (subscriber link) and while you always take rating systems on the offensive line with a grain of salt (after all, we don't know what the blocking assignments really are, we can only make educated guesses) both look like they have allowed significant pressures, quarterback hits and sacks.
The best idea would probably be to minimize how many times either one needs to face Watt on their own, either by having a tight end (likely Scott Chandler) helping out or trotting out fullback Frank Summers more frequently.
They could also use one formation I saw the Giants several times and run out dual tight ends. They could have Chandler on one side and a blocking tight end like Chris Gragg on the other.
That way they have the option of Chandler chipping the end on his side and going out on a route while Gragg assists the tackle in holding Watt down.
Otherwise the Bills have to hope that Henderson and/or Pears can hold their own, on their own.
Frankly, that's a risk that the Bills shouldn't take.