EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Given the attention and importance accorded the Giants' offensive line, it was fitting that Joe Judge's first day-after-game Zoom call with reporters began and ended today with questions about that unit.
The line has three new starters – center Nick Gates and tackles Cam Fleming and Andrew Thomas, the Giants' first-round draft choice this year – and was challenged throughout the season-opening 26-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last night in MetLife Stadium.
The performance was a mixed bag, which is typical in most games and certainly unsurprising after a spring with no on-field work and a summer without preseason games. Daniel Jones threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns and the offense put together drives of 87, 75 and 75 yards. However, the first of those possessions yielded no points because Jones faced a heavy rush, his arm was hit by Bud Dupree and his pass was picked off in the end zone by Cameron Heyward.
The play was indicative of the duress Jones was frequently under. He was sacked three times and Pittsburgh was credited with eight quarterback hits. The running game gained only 29 yards on 20 attempts, including Saquon Barkley's stat line of 15 carries for six yards.
But Judge, who conceded that public criticism of players will not be a frequent feature of these postmortems, praised the O-line group and the individuals he was queried about.
"First off, I'm really pleased with how they played as a unit together," Judge said of the group that also includes guards Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler. "It was the first time they got to go into a competitive situation against a foreign opponent, so obviously, a lot of different looks, both in individuals with the personnel as well as collectively as a scheme. I thought throughout the night they did make some necessary adjustments. We'll make a lot of improvement going forward, but I'm pleased with the way they competed and the way (position coach) Marc (Colombo) made some adjustments in the game."
All eyes were on Thomas, the left tackle who was the fourth overall selection in the draft. Thomas went head-to-head much of the night with Dupree, who had four tackles, including two for loss.
"I think he showed he has a lot of ability in this league, and there's a reason he's here," Judge said. "He fought really hard. I think he played well overall. He learned a lot of valuable lessons going against a top opponent like Bud Dupree. That's something you can't simulate. I don't care who you have on your defensive front, he's just different from guys you may have. He plays with a distinct motor. He's a tough competitor. You have to have a lot of respect for him. For Andrew to have his first NFL competition in a game against a guy like that, that says a lot for how he was able to hold up throughout the game."
Fleming, the right tackle, is a seven-year veteran who was signed as a free agent on March 26. He started 26 of the 75 games in which he played for New England and Dallas before joining the Giants. Like Thomas, he had a challenging first assignment, lining up opposite T.J. Watt. The two-time Pro Bowler and 2019 first-team all-pro was credited with just one tackle, but he did intercept a Jones pass to set up the Steelers' first touchdown.
"I thought Cam fought his butt off last night," Judge said. "Obviously, he went up against one of the best players in the National Football League with T.J. Watt, and he did a good job overall. There's a play or two that you always have to go back on, how can we correct it going forward? But I'm very pleased with what Cam did for us."
Gates received a similar review after his first-ever game at center. A tackle at the University of Nebraska who started two games there and one at guard last year, Gates was installed at center in training camp.
"I think Nick Gates overall handled himself pretty well," Judge said. "Again, there are always things that you have to improve on. We're going to look at the tape, we're going to be very critical about that. But I'm very pleased with the way he came out and competed last night. He handled a lot of calls, a lot of different fronts from these guys. These guys played against some bulldogs out there last night. They have some good players. I think Nick did a good job overall really standing up to it."
The O-line and the rest of the team will get their next text Sunday against the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field.
"As a unit, we just need to go ahead and keep improving collectively," Judge said. "That's the biggest thing. The one thing about those bigs is it doesn't matter how one guy plays. It's all five have to play in-sync, all the time. They have to get that chemistry ou're referring to going forward. I have no doubt that there's going to be a lot of improvement going forward. I'm very confident in all the guys we have involved in our offensive line, both the five from last night and all the other guys on our roster. We're going to keep working with these guys and improving."
*Judge, like most NFL head coaches, is reluctant to say anything negative publicly about his players, so don't expect criticism even when it might seem to those outside the Giants' headquarters that a player might deserve it.
"To be honest with you, I think it's my job to support the players," Judge said. "I think it's our job internally to make corrections and adjustments that are necessary. But I don't think you're going to see too much different from me than you've seen already, if that kind of paints a little bit of a picture for you. I kind of am who I am every day. But internally, we'll address things always. We're going to be very blunt and honest. We're very transparent in this organization, and we'll always be very direct with what we have to do to correct it."
*After performances that don't meet his standards, Judge will have to honestly critique the players and point out their errors while also helping them make corrections and keep their confidence high. How will he balance those sometimes conflicting objectives?
"I'd say on a weekly basis, that will always be a little different," he said. "Sometimes a team needs some encouraging, sometimes they need a 'come to Jesus' meeting. Whatever each week calls for, that's what we're going to go ahead and have. I think that no matter what tone you do it in, it's always about teaching. Players don't go out there and intentionally make mistakes. They don't go out there and intentionally screw up. Whatever tone it requires to get the message across, we better be teaching them so that when they leave that meeting, it's clear in how they have to improve and what they have to correct going forward. That to me is the emphasis for myself and every coach on this staff."
*Speaking of first-ever occurrences – the game vs. Pittsburgh was Judge's debut as a head coach. He was a special teams coach throughout his collegiate and NFL tenures as an assistant and he was also the wide receivers coach last year in New England.
"There were definitely some differences last night," he said. "Obviously, I think I've grown accustomed to a lot of that stuff throughout just being at practice and scrimmages and handling a lot of the different phases. There's a difference in-game. It was the first game that I haven't had a specific position group or group of guys to actually get out there on the field. To be honest with you, one of the weirdest things was not having that clock in my head of, 'I have to be out there on the field at a certain time.' Obviously, I want to be out there as early as possible to watch warmups, see how the guys are doing, see how they're moving around, get a feel for their energy. But there's obviously some differences in there. I didn't feel weird about anything. It was just a little bit of a change."
*Darius Slayton scored both of the Giants' touchdowns while catching six passes for 102 yards. His two touchdown receptions against the Steelers increased his total to 10 since Week 5 of the 2019 season. That is the highest total by an NFL player during that span, putting Slayton just ahead of tight ends Jared Cook of New Orleans and Mark Andrews of Baltimore, who have nine. In addition, Slayton's two-touchdown game was his NFL-best fourth since last season's Week 5. Andrews is next with three.
*Jones threw 41 passes, increasing his career total to exactly 500. He has completed 310 (62.0%) for 3,306 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a passer rating of 87.0.
*Jones completed 26 passes vs. Pittsburgh, the third time he finished a game with that number. He has also completed a career-high 28 passes three times. Jones has never completed 27 passes in a game.
*With 22 yards on four carries, Jones led the Giants in rushing for the third time in his 13 games as the Giants' starter (also vs. Dallas and at the Jets on Nov. 4 and 10 last year). Jones's 13-yard scramble in the fourth quarter gave him the team's longest run in a game for the fourth time (tied once with Golden Tate).
*The Giants released wide receiver Alex Bachman from their practice squad and returned offensive lineman Chad Slade and safety Sean Chandler to the squad. Slade and Chandler were activated yesterday. The former was in uniform but did not play, while Chandler was on the field for 14 special teams snaps.
View photos from the Week 1 matchup between the Giants and Steelers on Monday Night Football.