EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Fittingly, Nate Solder is on to Tampa Bay. And so are the rest of the Giants' offensive players and coaches.
The unanimous opinion is that Solder and his four teammates on the offensive line played their finest game of the season in the Giants' 27-23 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Monday night. No less an authority than head coach Pat Shurmur said, "it was their best game."
The Giants averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt – a figure aided mightily by wide receiver Sterling Shepard's 27-yard run – and Eli Manning was sacked just once on 32 dropbacks after absorbing 31 sacks in the first eight games.
But Solder, the team's left tackle, knows that what's most important is this week, not last week.
"That's always the goal, to play your best game the next game," Solder said. "Our focus has to be 100 percent on playing Tampa Bay. It can't be what we did, what we didn't do. We need to take the things we did well, keep doing them, taking things we didn't do well and improve them."
The Giants fielded their fifth different starting offensive line combination against the 49ers. Recently-acquired Jamon Brown stepped in at right guard and joined Solder, Will Hernandez, Spencer Pulley and Chad Wheeler and provided the run blocking and pass protection the team has too often lacked this season.
And while Solder, a two-time Super Bowl champion with New England, offensive captain and the most experienced member of the group, tried to downplay the significance of the line's performance, just about everyone else was impressed.
"I was very encouraged," Shurmur said. "We did some good things running the ball, we can still get better. We chose to throw the ball 32 times, Eli was only sacked once and there were reasons for that sack that didn't relate to the quarterback or protection. That's encouraging. When you can protect for a quarterback of Eli's quality, they can do good things. Not that they're going to miss throws once in a while, but it always starts up front and I think we said that all along. I told the line that (yesterday). I was talking about the game and I said, 'Don't take offense to the fact that we're going to go as far as you'll block for us.' It's the reality of it. It was their best game so we just want to build on that."
"I think probably one of the best things we did was pass protect," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Now that was one game and guys did a really good job in all the down and distances and against some pressure as well. I think it goes back to not just them, but getting the ball out on time, guys getting open on time, things like that, but the continuity is important and hopefully we can have some similar results this week with the same guys."
Manning completed 19 of 31 passes for 188 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. At least a couple of the incompletions were drops. He had time to scan the field and select a target most of the night.
That was most evident on the Giants' final possession when he completed six of nine passes on a 75-yard march that ended with his game-winning, three-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard. Manning benefitted from a clean pocket and led the type of late-game drive that has defined his career.
"I thought the offensive line did a great job, and I thought we did a good job mixing up different protections and different drops," Manning said. "Try to get the ball out on time and get it to our playmakers. I thought our concepts were concepts that our guys knew really well, and can get open in a timely fashion."
"He's just comfortable back there in the pocket," said Odell Beckham, Jr, who caught Manning's first two touchdown passes and drew a key defensive pass interference penalty on the deciding series. "He can deliver the strikes. The first touchdown when we scored was him moving up in the pocket, moving back, adjusting right, setting his feet and throwing it, finding the open zone. When he's got time to throw, he's going to be dangerous. The O-line has just got to do a better job like they did this week at blocking for Eli, giving him time. If they can do that, it's going to be tough to stop."
Beckham, like Solder, is on to the Buccaneers.
"The thing is we got to keep getting better, and I think we have gotten better," Solder said. "This has got to be another week. We can't stay stagnant, we can't get worse. We got to keep continuing to improve."
*Every player on the roster fully participated in practice today.
*The Giants announced that running back Jonathan Stewart, who has been on injured reserve since Sept. 28, has been designated for return/returned to practice. That begins a three-week window – which expires Dec. 6 – in which the Giants must decide to activate Stewart or keep him on I.R. for the remainder of the season. Because Stewart must sit out a minimum of eight games, he is not eligible to return to the active roster until Nov. 26, the day after the Giants play in Philadelphia.
Stewart, an 11-year veteran and first-year Giant, played in the season's first three games before being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. He gained 17 yards on six rushing attempts.