Giants rookie offensive tackle Justin Pugh was selected in the first round for a reason, and come Sunday night, Big Blue hopes to get an immediate return on their investment.
Pugh, a Syracuse product, will begin his career as the starting right tackle for a Giants team in the middle of reconstructing their offensive line after a couple of key players went down with injuries and will not be available to play.
David Diehl, the regular right tackle, is out following thumb surgery, while starting center David Baas is out with a sprained knee. The reshuffling of positions — including regular left guard Kevin Boothe going to center — is what made Pugh’s start possible.
But it’ll likely be a bumpy road for the rookie, as he’ll be seeing a lot of All-Pro defender DeMarcus Ware. The perennial Pro Bowler is switching from outside linebacker to defensive end in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s new 4-3 defensive look (four linemen and three linebackers), which means he’ll be attacking the Giants’ offense from different angles.
Pugh is aware of what Ware can do and is hopeful he can keep Ware off quarterback Eli Manning, while also keeping down his pregame meal.
“I’m excited to get out there and play in a big game like this right off the bat and help this team win,” Pugh said, adding he won’t engage in guard Chris Snee’s pregame vomiting ritual. “I’m more of a dry heave guy. I dry heave a lot. I do get a little nervous right before I go out. I won’t be nervous all week [but] then I get into the locker room, waiting to go out and I’ll probably be a little nervous. You feel it in your stomach. ... I know what people think [worried about a rookie starting opposite Ware], but whoever I go up against I’m going to go out there and compete. That’s all I can do. I can’t hope that they don’t line him on my side. Getting into that [thinking] is just a sticky situation.”
Pugh, who will be just the second rookie offensive lineman to start on opening day since 2004 for New York, said he’s honored by that distinction, adding that the first guy to do so, Snee, will be of great help since he’ll be lined up right next to him.
“It’s great having him there. He’ll be great for me [by] just being out on the field and making sure that if I do something wrong on one play, forget about it, we’ll drive on, we’ll get better the next play,” said Pugh. “He’ll keep me going and make sure I’m staying focused.”
The focal point of the Giants’ offense has long been the pass, especially with someone like Manning calling the plays. But it’ll be interesting to see how much of a change in their game plan — if any — Big Blue makes, considering the right tackle is a neophyte and the line as a whole is under construction.
Add in the fact that Dallas’ customary defensive front has changed, and matching up with the Cowboys in a hostile and loud environment may force the Giants into adding a few wrinkles, just out of sheer preservation of their franchise quarterback.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said it’ll be a challenge in facing a Cowboys defense that has undergone a change in philosophy for the third straight season.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Gilbride said when asked if he thinks the Giants’ reworked offensive line going against Dallas’ revamped defense will alter his scheme. “You’d like to say it’s not going to influence at all what you’re doing, but I don’t know how realistic that is. I think you have to take into account the matchups and make some decisions where you have to offer some assistance. ... We’ll have to wait and see.”
The unflappable Manning doesn’t think any tinkering is needed. He’s a firm believer that executing the play is paramount and that a player who’s best prepared should be worry free.
“I don’t think it affects the way you approach it. There’s still a lot of studying, preparation and watching a lot of film [and] hopefully go out there and execute in blocking up DeMarcus Ware,” Manning said. “They might be lined up in a little different spots now, and DeMarcus Ware might be called a D-end now, instead of an outside linebacker, but it doesn’t change up a whole lot.”
Big Blue notes ...
» Pugh will be the first Giants first-round pick to start a season opener since tight end Jeremy Shockey in 2002, and the first rookie of any round since linebacker Greg Jones in 2011. The last Giants offensive rookie to start an opener was tight end Michael Matthews in 2007, also at Dallas.
» According to Dallas’ depth chart, Pugh should be mainly blocking hybrid linebacker/defensive end Anthony Spencer. Spencer, though, hasn’t practiced since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on July 25. If he misses the game, George Selvie, a fourth-year player out of South Florida — and former bookend with Jason Pierre-Paul in college — is expected to start.
» Pugh won’t be the only neophyte making his first career start on the offensive line, as James Brewer will share that distinction at left guard. Brewer takes Boothe’s spot, who will start at center for the injured Baas.
» Giants players voted on five captains Thursday. It’s the most since the 2008-09 season. The incumbent captains are quarterback Eli Manning, defensive end Justin Tuck and linebacker/long snapper Zak DeOssie. Newbie selections guard Chris Snee and safety Antrel Rolle round out the group. It is the sixth consecutive season Manning has been elected a captain, the fourth time for Tuck and the third for DeOssie.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.