You can’t blame this one on the offensive line.
The target of ire game after game and year after year should’ve been more overmatched than normal Monday night, but instead delivered an encouraging performance — even if lost in the shuffle of yet another blown double-digit lead by the Giants.
Warned by a familiar foe to watch their necks, the Giants’ offensive line found some guts in a 25-23 loss to the Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium.
Starting left guard Will Hernandez’s streak of 2,523 straight snaps played to begin his career ended because he is on the COVID-19 reserve list, forcing Shane Lemieux into the starting lineup next to Andrew Thomas on an all-rookie left side. The Giants sporadically rotated in Matt Peart for Cam Fleming at right tackle, putting three rookies on the line simultaneously.
Yikes! Except not.
“I saw some good improvement for all three of those guys,” coach Joe Judge said. “Some of the good things are when you don’t notice them being out there. That means things are going in the right direction.”
The offensive line bought quarterback Daniel Jones all kinds of time to move around and convert two fourth downs, including a fourth-and-16, on the 13-play touchdown drive that nearly tied the game in the final minute.
Now the question becomes: Will the Giants keep this line together?
Steady right guard Kevin Zeitler, 30, is a chip before Tuesday’s trade deadline, especially if his $12 million salary cap hit in 2021 is considered too prohibitive.
“I think there is a great future to this O-line,” Zeitler told The Post before the game. “The amount of young, talented guys we have finding their positions with a mix of veterans makes this an exciting place to be right now. Not having a chance to do OTAs this year really was a pain, but there’s a lot of determination in this room. The longer we’re together, the better everything will be.”
Hernandez’s positive test took him and six other linemen deemed “close contacts” by an electronic tracer off the practice field Thursday, leaving the Giants with four blockers and a fourth-string tight end in front of Jones. But the Giants persevered and maybe can use the strange week as a launching point.
Former Giants pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul declared he was returning home with the Buccaneers and “coming for their necks.” Pierre-Paul had one of the Buccaneers’ two sacks, but it was a harmless one-yard loss of a scrambling Jones.
Thomas, who has allowed the most pressures of any tackle duo in the league, played his best game since the opener.
Wayne Gallman ran for a two-yard touchdown behind two rookies, with Thomas standing up Anthony Nelson before shoving him to the ground in the end zone. Gallman handed the ball to Lemieux for the celebratory spike.
“Shane is not afraid to mix it up,” Judge said. “He’s a tough dude. He got in there and played with some nastiness.”
Even when Jones threw two interceptions, the quarterback’s faulty internal clock deserved more blame than the protection.
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