EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Offensive linemen are the NFL's largely anonymous performers. They receive far more attention for committing errors than for flawlessly executing their assignments, unlike players who handle the ball or defend those who do.
So, when Joe Judge was fielding seemingly weekly questions from the media about Andrew Thomas early in the season, it was due to a widely held belief outside the Giants' headquarters that their first-round choice was not playing up to his lofty draft status. Judge steadfastly defended Thomas then, as he routinely does with all his players.
If Thomas did struggle early at times, it was due in part to developing techniques that differed from those he played with at the University of Georgia.
"I would say (it was) a little bit different as far as my hand placement," Thomas said. "That's been something that I have been working on and set wise. At Georgia, I was always on a straight and hard 45 angle. Recently, I've been working a little bit more vertical to an angle set just depending on the alignment of pressures."
On Sunday, Thomas helped the Giants rush for a season-high 190 yards and was a key component on a line that allowed only two sacks for five yards in a 17-12 victory against the Seahawks in Seattle.
Judge was asked today about his starting left tackle for the first time in weeks. And while his support has not wavered, something has changed. Thomas, on a post-practice Zoom call with reporters, said he is a better player now than he was in the season's first two months. And he can pinpoint exactly when the improvement became noticeable.
"I would say the Tampa game (the team's eighth, on Nov. 2)," Thomas said. "I think that was my first game that I felt a lot better throughout the game. Obviously, gave up a few pressures, things I had to work on. I think that was the first game where I looked on tape and I felt like I had a good performance. (I want to) just continue to build on that and continue to work."
Thomas was asked to specify one area in which his performance is noticeably better now than it was early in the season.
"For me, the thing that stands out the most would probably be the inside move," he said. "Obviously, in the beginning that was something I really struggled with. With oversetting, that's something I've been working on over the last few weeks trying to get better at. I think that's made the biggest difference."
The key to stopping the inside move, he said, is "lagging on the defender the right way. I would overset a lot of times and put myself in a bad position. You have to trail your defender, trust your athleticism to push a guy around the pocket so you don't give up the inside."
Thomas blocked outstanding defensive linemen every week in the Southeastern Conference. But he often had help from one of his linemates when they tried to go through him to get to the quarterback. In the NFL, his opponents are bigger, faster and stronger and the help isn't always available.
"Like I said, when I was at Georgia, we did that 45 set a lot," Thomas said. "We did a lot of slide protection, so if I did overset, the guard a lot of times would be right there. We run a little bit different protection here and the way we spot and set was going to be different. I had to break that habit. Obviously, going against more talented rushers has an effect on that, too. They read your hips, they read your inside hip. Things like that."
Thomas has adjusted to facing top of the line talent every week – just as he knew he would. When Judge was fielding those questions early in the year, Thomas was receiving similar queries when he spoke to the media. But he never let the negativity bother him.
"You have to keep a level head," Thomas said. "Coach talks about ignoring the noise. That's a big thing that I've learned to do. Whether you are performing well or not performing so well. You just have to keep a level head. Continue to work like it's your first day and eventually things will work out for you. Even if they don't, just continue to work hard. Try not to pay attention to the outside things."
Thomas and all of the linemen had to make a midstream adjustment last month, when Dave DeGuglielmo replaced Marc Colombo as the team's offensive line coach.
"It definitely was a difference having a different coach," Thomas said. "My approach is to take everything I can from whoever is leading us, whoever is getting us right for the game. Technique wise, there were a few minor details, but the play scheme, all that is the same. There's just a few minor details that are different. Play wise, I have just been continuing to work the technique that I've been taught. I think it's starting to click more, but I'm still working every day to get better."
No one is more pleased about that than Judge.
"There were a lot of questions about him early in the year," said the first-year coach, whose 5-7 first place team hosts the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. "This guy has never blinked. He's never wavered. One thing about Andrew is he's played aggressive for 60 minutes in every game this season. I see that in practice every day. He's very intelligent, he's very insightful, he has that quiet demeanor to him where you know he's digesting everything you say. Then when he asks questions, he asks the right, smart questions. But I see him playing very aggressive, I see him playing effectively, and I see his level of play improving.
"But that's natural for any rookie through the course of the season and just getting more and more experience, especially with the way he had to start this season. Look, this guy came in baptized by fire. He saw some of the top rushers in the world out of the gate. This guy stepped up to the plate and he fought his butt off for 60 minutes and he kept improving, kept improving, and I see him improving every day."