COMMENTARY | While league rule changes and the multi-billion dollar fantasy sports industry have put a sharp focus on NFL skill position players, the old adage that most football games are ultimately won or lost in the trenches still holds true.
Of course, that overused phrase, "skill position players," is somewhat unfair given that many offensive and defensive linemen are in fact highly skilled, and have a direct result on whether the so-called "skill position" players put up big numbers.
The New York Giants know this all too well.
Giants' Offensive Weapons Going to Waste with a Banged Up, Porous O-Line
Offensively this season, the Giants have been like a fancy sports car stuck in heavy rush hour traffic instead of cruising on the open road.
Sure, New York has its two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning, and his primary targets -- wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle -- who during the opening week of this year's NFL season, became the first trio in team history to each post 100 receiving yards in a game. And they add to that mix, the potentially explosive, yet still mostly untapped running back David Wilson in the backfield.
Yet what good is all of that talent when the Giants' sieve of an offensive line barely lets all of that horsepower out of the garage?
Whether in pass protection or with run blocking, that unit has failed miserably over New York's three losses to start the season.
It was bad enough that with a dynamic speedster like Wilson (albeit with Wilson having fumbling issues in Week 1), that the Giants rushed for their lowest yards (73) ever over the season's first two weeks; had their fewest rushing yards for a game (23) in 24 years during Week 2; and through the first three weeks, rank last in the league with a scant 44.7 rushing yards per game.
Basically, that lack of production has made a liar of the commercial in which Dunkin' Donuts claim that Manning and the Giants run on Dunkin' -- because they really don't run on anyone this year.
That may not be quite as bad as it sounds, however, considering New York won its last Super Bowl, two years ago, despite an NFL-worst 89.2 rushing yards.
But, what was particularly troubling last week, was that a passing game which led the league with 390.5 yards per game through Week 2 -- while Manning amassed the highest two-game total (812 yards) of his 10-year career -- lost 100 yards off of that average (to 290.3 yards per game) in Carolina, as Manning finished with his fewest passing yards (119) since the Giants' 2008 regular season finale, while his line allowed him to get sacked seven times, including a team-record six in the first half.
Even worse, the offense produced just 18 net yards including just one passing yard by halftime.
Devoid of adequate size, the Giants' offensive line relies on finesse and technique -- attributes that don't normally translate to success against the physicality of typical NFL defensive fronts.
Making matters far worse, the group has been besieged by injuries.
Veteran right tackle David Diehl has been hampered by a thumb issue that forced rookie first-round pick Justin Pugh into the starting lineup long before he would have been ready for such an assignment (on that note, Pugh will draw next draw linebacker Justin Houston, the NFL's sack leader, who has exactly half of Kansas City's NFL-high 15 sacks).
One spot over, right guard Chris Snee has taken a major step back from the four-time Pro Bowler he used to be, while dealing with an injury to the hip that was thought to have been his good one (not the one that was surgically repaired over the offseason).
Center David Baas has rarely been healthy since arriving in New York from San Francisco, and is now trying to fight through his latest ailment, this time, with his neck.
As for the ones who are healthy, left guard Kevin Boothe's play has regressed so far this year, and left tackle Will Beatty seems to be feeling the pressure of trying to live up to the five-year, $38.75 million contract he was given before the season, to anchor Manning's blind side for years to come.
Beatty, who allowed three of Carolina's seven sacks and negated what would have been a Wilson touchdown run with a holding penalty, while New York was still in the game last week, admitted that he allowed the thought of the first sack he gave up to linger in his head a lot longer than it should have. So, he'll apparently have to get mentally tougher as well as physically.
The D-Line Hasn't Been Much Better
For all of the negative attention paid to the Giants' offensive line thus far, their defensive line, limited by a key injury, has similarly been unproductive.
New York's pass rush, which has produced just three sacks this season (tied for the league's fewest), has been mostly non-existent.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is still trying to fully recover from back surgery and return to the dominant player he was two years ago, when he recorded a career-high 16.5 sacks. Thus far, he only has one, as does his fellow first-round pick, Mathias Kiwanuka, since he moved back to defensive end in the wake of Osi Umenyiora's offseason defection to Atlanta (where Umenyiora has posted two sacks and a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown this year).
Meanwhile, defensive end Justin Tuck, who had 38 sacks and 16 forced fumbles while averaging 66.5 tackles per season, from 2007-10, has recorded just 9.5 sacks and one forced fumble since, including a mere half-sack in 2013.
A Far Cry from Giants Lines in Recent, Prior Years
Not that long ago, the states of the Giants' lines were a lot different.
Throughout their 2007 Super Bowl championship year, and for the next 1½ seasons, New York kept the same offensive line intact for what is still a league-record 38 consecutive games. That lineup included Diehl at left tackle, Rich Seubert (where Boothe is now), Shaun O'Hara (in Baas' current center spot), Snee at the same position as now, and Kareem McKenzie at right tackle.
Ever since the streak ended, the Giants' offensive line has been in a constant state of flux, with interchangeable parts filling in gaps due to mounting injuries or underwhelming play.
Of course, New York did manage to win another Super Bowl title in that time, but age and a lack of physicality are seemingly catching up with the Giants' offensive line, and unless players like Pugh and Beatty lead the way for the future, the team might end up wasting the remaining prime years that Manning has with what could be the Giants' most talented receiving corps they've ever assembled.
As for the way the defensive line was, look no further than that 2007 Super Bowl, when New York sacked quarterback Tom Brady five times and repeatedly introduced him to the Arizona turf during the Giants' upset win that denied the New England Patriots the chance at becoming the first NFL team to finish 19-0.
Tuck had two of those sacks, and Michael Strahan (who had a sack in the game) was the type of vocal defensive leader that perhaps New York appears to be missing now, with Tuck off to a slow start this season.
Brady was sacked by Tuck twice more, when the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl again, four years later.
Until Pierre-Paul is able to get back to what he showed a couple of years ago, New York's pass rush seems like it may remain only a shell of what it was in its 2007 and 2011 championship years.
Is There Still Time to Turn Things Around?
Off to their worst start in 17 years, even with all of their gifted offensive threats at those ever-coveted "skill positions," lacking a solid game in the trenches on each side of the ball has thrown the Giants into a big ditch, one that may be too deep from which to emerge.
Jonathan Wagner is a regular contributor for Yahoo Sports, covering the New York Knicks and New York Giants. You can also catch him as a Knicks beat writer for New York Sports Day and a co-host discussing a variety of sports topics on the New York Sports Geeks internet radio show. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanJWagner.
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