Commentary

Harrington has reason to be nervous

Atlanta's patchwork offensive line will have its hands full on Monday night trying to protect Joey Harrington from the Giants' fierce pass rush, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: October 14, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- With starting right offensive tackle Todd Weiner sidelined by arthroscopic knee surgery, New York Giants left defensive end Michael Strahan was scrambling last week for videotape of Tyson Clabo, the young blocker he will face on the Atlanta Falcons' undermanned line for Monday night's game at the Georgia Dome.

It was a fruitless pursuit because Clabo, who has primarily lined up at guard during his career, has never started a game at tackle.

Still, no video reference material, no sweat, right?

After all, with 133½ career sacks, Strahan is tied with Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor for the most sacks in franchise history. And that superior resume should be enough to get Strahan and his front-four colleagues through the matchup against a suspect Atlanta blocking unit comprised largely of not-ready-for-prime-time players.

Except that Strahan is a little, well, antsy about this matchup. It seems that the lack of familiarity with Clabo, who spent an apparently forgettable two-week stint on the New York practice squad in 2004, hasn't bred contempt, but rather concern.

"If anything," Strahan told New York reporters, "it makes you nervous."

Well how do you think Falcons' starting quarterback Joey Harrington feels? In a game that might redefine the term high anxiety for Harrington, injuries to Weiner and 14-year veteran Wayne Gandy mean Atlanta will play with two youngsters who have never started an NFL game at tackle. And one of them, rookie left tackle Renardo Foster, is an undrafted college free agent. Adding to the problem, the Falcons also have a rookie starter at left guard in second-round draft pick Justin Blalock.

Michael Strahan
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty ImagesMichael Strahan, sacking Donovan McNabb in Week 4, may have plenty more sack opportunities against the Falcons' patchwork line.

Nervous? One might suggest instead that Strahan and running mate Osi Umenyiora -- who notched six of the Giants' dozen sacks in a Sept. 30 beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles -- should be salivating. They face the prospect of an evening spent running through pass-protectors who offer no more resistance than, say, a couple of turnstiles. And the Giants, winners of three straight games, almost certainly aren't going to be able to resist the temptation to come at Harrington, hardly the most elusive quarterback in the pocket, with everything they have.

"It's a pretty big concern," acknowledged first-year Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino, who once worked for Giants counterpart Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville, perhaps understating the most apparent mismatch in the game.

If it is any consolation for Petrino, his offensive line has demonstrated some improvement in the past few weeks. After surrendering 13 sacks in the first two outings of the season, the unit has allowed just five in the ensuing three games. But Strahan and Umenyiora are like sharks when it comes to attacking the pocket, and Clabo and Foster might be the equivalent of fresh chum in the water for a defense tied for the league lead in sacks (17) through the first five weeks of the season.

Overlooked in a three-game winning streak during which the pass rush has grown fierce, and when quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Plaxico Burress have authored plenty of big plays, is that the New York defense has played well in all facets. The unit has surrendered just 44 points in the past three games, holding two opponents to 17 points or less in that span.

"For whatever reason, it took two games for us to get accustomed to things, and we played those first couple [games] like it was all just totally foreign to us," said middle linebacker Antonio Pierce of the scheme installed by first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. "But now we've got it down pretty good."

The Giants offensive line, unlike Atlanta's, has come together nicely and has been a quiet key to their success.

Despite the fact starting tailback Brandon Jacobs missed three games with a knee injury, and standout left guard David Diehl has moved outside to replace left tackle Luke Petitgout, the Giants' line has performed admirably.

The Giants have averaged a respectable 117 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush. And the New York line has given up only six sacks, fourth fewest in the league. That's a level of protection more often associated with Manning's big brother.

"We've had a few things we've needed to fix up, but for the most part, we've gotten stuff ironed out," said Manning, who has assumed a more prevalent leadership role in his fourth season. "The line has played really well all year. I think we're all settling more into a kind of comfort zone now. We've moved past the rough spots."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.