Ultimately, Justin Pugh was set up to fail.
The veteran offensive lineman, who was just one year removed from a torn ACL while with the Arizona Cardinals, was signed to the New York Giants practice squad —the team that drafted him in the first round in 2013 — on Oct. 4 to provide some semblance of depth to a depleted and dysfunctional line.
Just 11 days later, with little time to ramp up, the 33-year-old started in the Giants’ 14-9 loss against a vaunted Buffalo Bills defense at left guard.
“Justin Pugh, straight off the couch,” he said in his NBC player introduction on the Sunday Night Football telecast.
Justin Pugh keeping it real in his first game back 😂 @JustinPugh
— NFL (@NFL) October 16, 2023
With the first 10 minutes of the game, Pugh was forced to move to left tackle when Joshua Ezeudu went down with a toe injury to make an already thin offensive line — which was without starters Andrew Thomas, Shane Lemieux, and John Michael Schmitz. He hadn’t played at left tackle since 2019.
There were shaky moments, including a whiff on Bills edge rusher AJ Epenesa on the final play of the first quarter that resulted in a sack of backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of the injured Daniel Jones. But ultimately, Pugh exceeded any sort of expectations that might have been placed upon him.
He played all 77 offensive snaps in the loss as the Giants’ offensive line allowed just three sacks, which is a significant decrease compared to recent weeks. New York allowed 11 sacks in a Week 4 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and an additional seven last week to the Miami Dolphins.
“I feel good, I’m in one piece, I played the whole game,” Pugh said. “I’ve never in my whole career been a part of something like that. It’s just a testament to the guys we have in the room, the fight we have in the room.”
The Giants certainly weren’t short of fight. They were down to the 1-yard-line with a chance to win the game in the final moments of the fourth quarter, but couldn’t find a way to get into the end zone. It was the most competitive they’ve been in weeks, though, after losing three straight by an average margin of 18 points.
“We fought, we had a chance on the 1-yard-line with a chance to beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday Night Football,” Pugh said. “I’ll take that all day long.”
“You don’t get trophies for trying so I appreciate their efforts,” Giants head coach Brian Daboll added. “We moved some O-line guys around, we practiced some of it like that just in case it happened. We put Pugh out at tackle, he hasn’t played tackle since 2019.”
For a Giants offense that simply has been unable to figure out how to protect its quarterback, Pugh’s performance while, as he described it, “knocking the rust off,” makes his presence on the line a no-brainer at least for another week.
“There’s a lesson in this somewhere where you’re dealt a sh—y hand and you go out there and play the best you can. You go out there and you play for your guys.”