SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The New York Giants' offensive line had a different look Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers. It was the fourth different combination used this season for a group that had yet to meld into a serviceable unit.
Based on the very early returns, the fourth time might be the charm.
Quarterback Eli Manning was pressured on a season-low 13 percent of his dropbacks Monday in a 27-23 comeback victory, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. He faced pressure on just four of his 32 dropbacks.
When the immobile Manning has time, he is an immensely better quarterback. He threw three touchdown passes against the 49ers after totaling just eight in the first eight games.
“I thought the offensive line played great,” Manning said. “I thought they did a good job.”
This was a drastic improvement, as Manning was sacked 31 times entering the contest. The 49ers got to him just once on Monday night.
The biggest change for the Giants was that they committed to the run early and inserted newly acquired Jamon Brown at right guard 12 days after being claimed off waivers. Brown, a 340-pound pickup truck of a man who played all 59 snaps, allowed a sack and was flagged for a holding penalty. But he helped in the run game and flashed signs of a player who can become a regular in New York's lineup.
There was one play in particular -- a first-quarter touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. -- during which Brown stood out. He made a last-second adjustment to pick up looping outside linebacker Cassius Marsh as he darted up the middle toward Manning. Brown recognized the stunt just in time and drove Marsh past the Giants quarterback, which allowed Manning to throw a 10-yard strike to a wide-open Beckham in the end zone.
After weeks of a seemingly endless run of sacks and a lack of points, this was a welcomed sight.
“It was more of a feel thing,” Brown said. “Me and [right tackle] Chad [Wheeler], we felt they ran that stunt pretty late, to the point that is was more a natural thing and they fell into it. For me, being on the inside, I can see both guys. I have that advantage. Chad, he has his eyes outside on the end. He can’t really see both of them.
“I just could kind of feel the 3-technique [defensive end] rushing a little wide and, you know, my antennas went up that it was a stunt. And lo and behold, there it was. I was able to sit inside and collect a D-end on the way inside.”
This was especially encouraging, considering Brown did it with just a few days to prepare -- and that recognizing stunts had been such a problem for the Giants early in the season. It provides hope that maybe it was a step in the right direction for an offensive line that has barely been competent for several years.
The Giants might finally be able to settle on the combination of prized free-agent signing Nate Solder at left tackle, rookie Will Hernandez at left guard, waiver-claims Spencer Pulley at center and Brown at right guard and Wheeler at right tackle. It’s not an overwhelming group, but these linemen can now build off the performance and develop some continuity that can potentially be a building block for the rest of this season and potentially beyond.
Brown proved to be an upgrade over John Greco, who had started the previous two games at right guard. Brown had a pass-block win rate (PBWR) of 81 percent. League average is 77 percent for a guard. Solder and Wheeler also played perhaps their best games of the season against the 49ers. Solder had a PBWR of 94 percent on Monday night; he was at 69 percent on the season entering the contest.
The Giants as a team had their best PBWR of the season by a wide margin at 60 percent on Monday night. They averaged 36 percent coming into the contest.
“I thought we did a good job. We had Jamon Brown in there and he did a good job,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think there was still some bad plays in there, but for the most part, I thought they did a good job protecting Eli. We had the one sack. We did some things to sort of protect him, and I thought those guys battled. We found a way to make some yards running the ball, as well. So I think probably as a unit, that’s probably their best performance.”
Shurmur helped the line by running the ball early and often. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley had 15 carries in the first half. That was a season high for a half. He had only topped 15 carries in a full game twice before Monday night, and it helped prevent the 49ers from attacking the quarterback on every play. San Francisco had just four QB hits in the contest.
Then Shurmur began moving Manning outside the pocket by design. There were several called rollouts and plays in which the pocket was moved. This appeared to make Manning more comfortable, something the Giants haven’t been able to do much this year.
“I thought we had a good game plan and tried to just stick with the run,” Manning said. “We’re good with it, we’re patient with it and it’s gotten us into some third-and-manageables -- and not having to hold the ball long and getting the ball out of time and doing a good job.
“Hit some play-action, hit a few things down the field.”
And maybe the offensive line is finally trending in the right direction.