Justin Pugh was in college the first time he heard the suggestion. His head coach at Syracuse, Doug Marrone, told him that he might be better suited to play guard in the NFL. The life-long tackle didn’t want to hear it. He heard it as an insult.
“I was always trying to prove that wrong,” Pugh said.
For his first two seasons with the Giants, he did a fair job of doing just that. He started at right tackle as a rookie first-round pick in 2013 and played there again in 2014. At the end of that season, the whispers began to build of a move to the inside. Pugh resisted. He stood in front of his locker on the final day of that 2014 season and attempted to entrench himself in the position he loved.
“I really don’t like those questions because I came here to play tackle,” he said then. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job at right tackle so I plan on staying there.”
This week, he stood in front of that same locker as the starting left guard for the Giants. As one of the key parts to an improving offensive line. As a player who seems to have found a home he never knew he wanted. As someone who is having the best year of his career at a position he once was loathe to consider.
Even last year, Pugh’s first at guard, was not a full embrace of the transition. By Week 3 he was starting at left tackle in place of injured rookie Ereck Flowers. He went back to guard but he started at right tackle in the regular-season finale.
Well, when right tackle Marshall Newhouse suffered a calf injury earlier this season, the Giants moved second-year player Bobby Hart into that spot. Pugh would have been a logical choice, given his experience, but the Giants never seriously considered moving him. Pugh was grateful.
“I think last year that would’ve been in the conversation,” Pugh said, admitting that he might have spearheaded the talk. “This year, they’ve kept me at guard and I’ve enjoyed my time in there. I think I’m going to get better and better at the position.”
No ducking Donald
Pugh has played well so far this season against some stout competition. He hasn’t allowed a sack, was the one bright spot for the offensive line against Mike Daniels and the Packers with several ferocious hits that de-cleated opponents, and handled Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.
This week, though, is the big test. The Giants face the Rams. Pugh faces Aaron Donald.
“He is one of the best defensive tackles in football,” Pugh said. “His get-off is incredible, he has great speed and quickness with his hands . . . He’s not the biggest guy in the world. When he walks in, you’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s probably one of the best defensive tackles in football.’ You probably wouldn’t even think that. But you put on film and he has gotten like 37 quarterback hurries, three sacks.”
Enough to have Donald in early Defensive Player of the Year conversations. Pugh’s job is to stop him.
“Obviously it’s the one-on-one battles in the middle,” Pugh said. “Me and John [Jerry, the right guard] and Weston [Richburg, the center] just have to go out there and do our job. Give Eli time. You see what 10 and 13, all these receivers can do when they have some time. We have to go out there and give them time. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”
The Rams’ pressure does leave them with a vulnerability.
“I think their biggest thing is they stop the run while getting to the quarterback,” Pugh said. “That style of play leads to finding creases in the defense. Like I said, that front seven is a scary front seven. Those guys get after it. You have to make sure you’re bringing your A game against them.”
Pugh said he feels confident against Donald because Daniels and Jernigan presented similar styles.
“But,” he said, “I think he is the best of the bunch.”
‘The most fun’
Pugh is quickly emerging as one of the best of his bunch as well.
“I’ve been doing some good things,” he said. “I always say, I don’t have the best technique in the world. It’s something I always try to work on. Coach [Mike] Solari is always on me about getting my technique better and better. But I’m going to go out there and fight. That’s something I always do. No matter what happens, I’m going to go out there and battle. Whoever I’m going across, they’re going to know that they were in a football game that day. That’s something that I try and take pride in.”
While the guard and tackle line up next to each other, the positions require different skillsets. Tackles play in space, often need to display more athleticism against edge rushers, and typically use their long arms to create the edge of the quarterback’s pocket. Playing guard is more like hand-to-hand combat in close quarters. Guards typically face bigger, beefier players at defensive tackle or nose guard.
Pugh’s versatility may have helped the Giants in the past few years, but it likely was not a benefit for Pugh himself.
“I’ve rotated so much from right and left tackle to guard,” he said. “It’s been nice to be at that same position throughout the year because I’ve been able to capitalize on some nuances and tricks of the trade. Last year it was left guard for a few games and left tackle for a few games. Making that transition is tough, trying to go back to left guard while you’re in that tackle mindset. It’s been nice to be in the same position.”
The result is unquestionably Pugh’s finest season yet.
“At the end of the day, offensive line play is not about one person,” he said. “It’s all about the five guys up front. We have to be a unit. It’s protecting each other. I think this is the best group I’ve been a part of and this is the most fun I’ve had playing.”
Guard may not be greener when it comes to the money tackles make, but for Pugh, embracing the position after stubbornly stiff-arming it for years, has been a revelation.
“The grass,” he said of the proverbial other side, “you never know how it’s going to be.”