When the Giants drafted Justin Pugh at No. 19 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, the selection was met with mixed reviews. He was not the desired size of a franchise tackle and there were questions about where and how the Giants planned to deploy him. Pugh started every game of his rookie season at right tackle and allowed only three sacks. He was back at right tackle the next season, starting 14 games.
In 2015, the Giants decided to try Pugh at guard, where he eventually settled into the position he's at now -- left guard. The move has been a godsend for the Giants' beleaguered offensive line as Pugh, according to the analytical website Pro Football Focus, has become one of the best in the game at his position.
Going into Week 5, PFF wrote, "Pugh has become an All-Pro level guard, and currently leads the rankings at PFF with a 90.4 grade." That week against the Packers, Pugh topped all Giants on offense, earning a 77.8 grade. He followed with a strong performance against the Ravens, Pugh was tops again, grading out at 84.0. According to PFF, Pugh has not surrendered a single sack this season.
"I've been doing some good things. I always say, I don't have the best technique in the world. It's something I always try to work on," Pugh told reporters Tuesday. "Coach Solari is always on me about getting my technique better and better. 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."
This week Pugh will face the challenge of facing Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald, who was selected directly behind Odell Beckham, Jr. at No. 13 in the 2014 NFL Draft. All Donald has done in the first two seasons of his career is be named to the Pro Bowl twice, earn All-Pro honors last year, and recorded 23 sacks in 38 games played. Remember, that sack total is coming from the defensive tackle position.
Pugh knows the furor in which Donald plays, having faced him in college when he was at Syracuse and Donald at Pittsburgh.
"He is one of the best defensive tackles in the football. His get off is incredible, he has great speed and quickness with his hands," Pugh said. "I played against him in college too, so I have played against him a few times. He plays with great leverage. He is not the biggest guy in the world though. When you walk in, you aren't going to be like, 'Oh. That is 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 -- it has been nice these past few weeks, I have kind of gotten to play guys similar in build and quickness in Mike Daniels and [Timmy] Jernigan. But I think he is the best of the bunch."
Pugh acknowledged that Syracuse won that game but the circumstances were very different than they will be this Sunday in London.
"I was playing left tackle at the time, so he was still really young then. I think he was still a sophomore in college and it was my junior year and I played against him," said Pugh. "Then I remember the first game back playing against him, I think we beat them 14-13, but then I could tell he was going to be a really good player because I never really struggled with guys in college and then that was the first time where I was like, 'Whoa. This kid has got a little something.' So he is definitely a really good player."
Good player in an understatement. Donald (6'0", 285), who was deemed by many scouts as too small to man the trenches in the pros, has proven every single one of them wrong. His quickness, intelligence and savvy have prevailed and the Giants will be battening down the hatches this week. Pugh knows he'll need his "A" game Sunday, but he's been bringing that all year long.
"Thus far I would say he's the best," Pugh said when asked to grade Donald. "Honestly, the wiggle room for the best, there's like five guys that come to mind in terms of defensive tackles. I don't want to say he's the best defensive tackle. Obviously there's some guys that are really good. It's an exciting challenge for us. We have to make sure we go out there and get ready to play a game. They have a front-seven that is up there with anyone else in the NFL."
Donald is a three-technique tackle and will line up over both guards and the center at times. Pugh knows it may take a village to stop Donald this week.
"Obviously it's the one-on-one battles in the middle," Pugh said. "Me and John [Jerry] and Weston [Richburg] 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. Make sure we're extra discipline this week just because of all the travel. New environment, new place. We're looking forward to that challenge."
It will be a matchup worth keeping an eye on this weekend.