On the outside, Justin Pugh is one of eight. He’s got that digit tattooed on the inside of his right arm, scrawled sideways like an infinity sign, to signify the never-ending friendship he and his lifelong buddies have enjoyed. They grew up together, they’ve gotten in trouble together, they’ve stuck together.
And they all have their roles. Pugh? He’s the muscle. Especially when they go out and things get dicey. In a bar, at the shore, there is a certain moxie and freedom that comes from knowing the 6-5, 311-pounder is standing right behind you.
“They’re all littler guys who always run their mouths,” Pugh said of the seven others in the informal fraternity. “We go places and I have to be the protector. Offensive linemen, that’s in our nature, to help out guys around us.”
So no one should be surprised that on the inside, in the Giants’ locker room, Pugh plays the same role.
During this wretched start to the season in which the Giants have totaled only 13 points in two losses, it’s the offensive line as a whole that has taken the brunt of the criticism (left tackle Ereck Flowers in particular has been publicly flogged for his level of play). The best protection from an offensive lineman has not been anyone blocking for Eli Manning but Pugh deflecting the vitriol aimed at him and his group.
Most offensive line units have a voice, the one guy who is the unofficial spokesman. Pugh, in many ways, has become this offensive line’s public defender.
“I don’t shut up, so that’s probably why,” Pugh told Newsday this past week about his role as the group’s vocal leader. “None of the other guys talk too much, so I feel the need sometimes to stick up for our guys. I’ve felt the need to voice my opinion. I’m never one to keep quiet, so if I feel a certain type of way, I’m going to tell you.”
Pugh notes that such a personality has its pros and cons. Last year, for example, he went on a lengthy half-joking diatribe against the city of Philadelphia, his de facto hometown (he grew up just outside the city in Newton, Pennsylvania).
“It made a whole city hate me one time,” Pugh said of his outspokenness. “At other times, though, it’s helped me defend guys that I care a lot about in this room. I’m happy. I’ll take the good with the bad if that’s the case.”
It’s a strange dynamic that Pugh has to be the one who takes the hits, the questions about the line’s inadequacies, when he is arguably the best feature in the group. Rarely are those pointed queries aimed at him directly. When people ask why the line can’t block, why the Giants can’t run and why the unit has not improved, they’re generally talking to Pugh but about the other four players. He plays a role in what at times looks like complete dysfunction on the field, certainly, but it’s pretty clear he is more a part of any possible solution than any current problem.
Even when he had to move to right tackle early in the game against the Lions last week, leaving his familiar place at left guard when Bobby Hart re-injured his ankle on the game’s second snap, he received praise for his grittiness even if his performance was far from perfect.
“I think he went out there and competed his tail off,” Ben McAdoo said of Pugh’s game.
Yet it is Pugh who gladly absorbs the slings and arrows.
“That’s fine by me, because at one point in my career, someone was defending me,” Pugh said. “My rookie year when I was struggling, you had David Diehl and Chris Snee who stood up for me and went to bat for me. Eli [Manning] always had my back. I think that’s just the nature of the business. As you go and you learn you can play in this league, you learn that we’re a family, and if someone comes at one of your brothers, man, you have to stick up for him.”
Pugh doesn’t defend his teammates blindly. He knows a lot of the criticism is deserved.
“If the fans want to go out and boo, I can’t fault them,” he said. “We haven’t put anything really good out there on tape so far to prove them otherwise.”
But he also had a message for those who are at their wits’ end watching the five-man group stumble through the first two games of the season.
“Stick with us,” he said. “Don’t turn your backs on us just yet. Give us a chance here.”
After Monday’s game, he gave a passionate speech about the soft-spoken Flowers and trying to help build back his confidence after allowing three sacks in the first half.
“They keep beating you down, beating you down,” he said. “He’s a human being, we’re all human beings, and I’m looking forward to picking my brother up.”
Pugh was asked about that soliloquy during a quieter, less intense moment during the week.
“I like to talk, I like my opinion to be heard,” he said. “I feel like I have some thoughtful things I can come up with that I want out there. Don’t get me wrong, every single one of these guys can defend themselves. There is no question about that. But I feel the need to stick up for my guys no matter what.”
Some stronger play certainly would make that easier, but the wall of solidarity has yet to show any cracks.
“There hasn’t been any type of finger-pointing at each other or at us coaches,” offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said of the mood of his underachieving players.
“You get a sense of what’s in here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “what their character is like, and this isn’t a group of guys that are looking to quit or looking to point fingers or looking to make excuses. It’s a prideful group. It’s a competitive group. It’s a group that is frustrated, but I think in a positive way that there’s more of a determination and more of a resolve to get this thing headed in the right direction.”
Pugh has become not just the embodiment of that sentiment but its voice.
“Everyone always forgets about the concept of team,” Pugh said. “One of our coaches, [assistant defensive line coach] Rob Leonard, talked about it [Thursday]. He was like, ‘People forget it’s a team, it’s not one person.’ When we lose, everyone is looking for that one person to blame. When we win, everyone is looking for that one person to glorify. But there are 11 guys out there. That’s what makes this game so special, and I’m happy to do my part in that.”
And if that means using his words to help his teammates, so be it.
“Just like outside of here,” he said, “if someone comes at one of my brothers, I’m gonna have their back in a heartbeat.”
Line of attack
The Giants have had trouble protecting Eli Manning and running the ball.
8 sacks allowed (tied for fourth-most in NFL)
97 rushing yards (fewest in NFL)
0 rushing TDs
3.2 yards per rush