O-line real key to Giants offensive explosion

In far too many ways – and none of them good – they were the most talked about offensive line in the NFL last season. It started in the preseason when Joe Theismann went on ESPN and called them the worst in football. No matter how they played, that was an analysis that hovered over them all year.

Now, here's what everyone is saying about the offensive line this year: Nothing. Nothing at all. When most people talk about the Giants and the NFL's highest-scoring offense they praise quarterback Eli Manning and all the skill players. Now that the offensive line is playing well, it gets completely overlooked.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "We do our jobs, get out of the way and let the so-called real athletes take credit for everything.

"And that's fine by us. I'm glad that guys like Plaxico (Burress) and Amani (Toomer) and (Jeremy) Shockey and Tiki (Barber) and Eli are doing well and getting the credit. They really are the guys making the plays."

Maybe that's true, but there's only one reason why they've been able to make those plays during the Giants' incredible offensive start to the 2005 season. When they're running they've had plenty of room, and when they're throwing they've had plenty of time. As they learned last year, it doesn't matter how talented their "real athletes" are if the offensive line isn't getting the job done.

And though there's a long way to go, the much-maligned line is definitely getting the job done this season. Though the Giants' rushing average is down from the unbelievable 161.7 they had through the first four games last season to 115.7, that number is still very respectable. The big improvement, though, has come in the number of sacks allowed, which was at 17 through four games last season.

This year through four games they've only allowed six.

That puts them on pace to tie the franchise record of 24 sacks in a 16-game season set in 2002. The better news is that the previous four best seasons in that category – 2002 (24), 2000 (28), 1990 (29) and 1997 (32) – were all playoff seasons. Two of them ended in the Super Bowl.

So why have they suddenly jumped from the so-called worst line in football to arguably one of the best? Some of it is personnel – specifically the addition of 6-6, 327-pound right tackle Kareem McKenzie, which allowed David Diehl to move back inside to guard. Some of it is Manning, who is more mobile than last year's original starting quarterback Kurt Warner, who took 39 of last year's 52 sacks in his nine starts.

Some of it, though, is just a natural progression. Left tackle Luke Petitgout, O'Hara, and guards Diehl and Chris Snee have been together now for more than a full season. And they always said building an offensive line was going to take time.

"It takes a while for those guys, always, to find a camaraderie and find a common step among them," Manning said. "You always face growing pains with a new line as they did last year. Hopefully now they're hitting their stride.

"They all have skill. They all have talent. But yeah, now they do have a rapport. That's almost as important as having the skill."

"They're playing well together, that's the biggest thing," receiver Amani Toomer added. "Offensive line is less about the man-to-man match-ups and more about how the different layers work with each other to stop the defensive line as a group."

The truth is that rapport or chemistry or whatever they want to call it began building last season, especially late in the year. The brunt of the line's struggles came during the first nine games of the season when Warner was making their job difficult by holding the ball in the pocket far too long.

At the time that sounded like an excuse – certainly Warner felt like he was being made an unfair scapegoat – but the numbers after Manning took over proved the point. In the final seven games of the season, the Giants' quarterback was only sacked 12 times. In other words they were giving up 4.3 sacks per game when Warner was behind them, and when Manning took over the average dropped all the way to 1.7.

The more the numbers dropped, the better everybody seemed to feel about the Giants' line. More importantly, they started to feel better about themselves.

"I think right now, coming into this season, it was really just our confidence and our ability to execute the offense the way it's supposed to be," O'Hara said. "This was our second year. We harped on it all preseason, how much more comfortable everybody is in this offense, and I think that's showing on Sundays. That's coming out."

"We know we can be great," Diehl added. "And we want everybody to know that any time anything is on the line, we're going to be there and we're going to be solid. Whether it's third and long or third and short, we're going to be the guys that are going to get people moved, get those holes open and do whatever it takes to get the job done."

If that happens, the Giants could become a contender faster than everybody expected. And if that happens, maybe everybody – even Theismann – will start saying nice things about the offensive line.

"We've always considered ourselves as a much better group than maybe we've gotten credit for in the past," O'Hara said. "You have to have that confidence in yourself and that faith in yourself that you're doing the right thing and that things will come together and eventually things will start going in the right direction.

"We're just happy that we're not the whipping boy anymore and that we can concentrate on positive things."

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