The hands were going to be a problem. Duke Manyweather knew it. He didn’t necessarily see the train wreck against Dallas coming, but the offensive line coach knew his longtime pupil, Giants right tackle Evan Neal, was going to have problems dealing with All-Pro Cowboys defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence.
Manyweather tried to prepare Neal, then just a rookie playing in his third career game, for what was to come. He told Neal he couldn’t show his hands early to Lawrence, who was one of the NFL’s leading experts at knocking them away.
“Lawrence isn’t a D-lineman you can present hands to early,” Manyweather said. “The reason being, he’s a big double swipe and cross chop guy. And those guys trigger that move based off of hands.”
But Neal couldn’t adjust.
.@TankLawrence announcing his presence early. 😤
— NFL (@NFL) September 27, 2022
PEDE MÚSICA DEMARCUS LAWRENCE! 3 SACKS!
— NFL Brasil (@NFLBrasil) September 27, 2022
Four quarters and a 23-16 Giants defeat later, Neal sat in the Giants locker room looking crushed after Lawrence and fellow pass rusher Micah Parsons wreaked havoc on the offensive line and quarterback Daniel Jones. The Cowboys hit Jones 12 times, which was the third most of his career, according to TruMedia. Neal was responsible for three of those sacks. Beyond the sacks, there also was an ill-timed false start penalty as the Giants tried to mount a last-minute comeback.
It was a disaster.
“Sometimes when you get the panic mode, or you’re in your rookie year, stuff like that, you kind of just revert to what you think is going to work for you, instead of trusting the technique and trusting some of those things that may be new,” Manyweather said later.
In the aftermath, the Giants’ No. 7 selection immediately took responsibility for his role in the team’s first defeat of the season.
And it wasn’t just a line to reporters. He told his coaches the same thing.
“It was classic Evan,” Manyweather said. “‘My man, I gotta get better.’ Plain and simple. He was like, ‘Man, that sucked. I gotta get better.’”
Will Giants be better but miss playoffs? NFL analysts weigh in on expectations for 2023
After Neal’s rookie season ended, he took some time away, traveling then enjoying some downtime at home in Okeechobee, Fla.
“But after a while, I started to get the itch again,” Neal said. “And I was like, ‘You know what, let’s lock back in.’”
Neal recovered well from the Cowboys debacle, surrendering zero pressures or sacks the following week against the Bears. From there, like most rookies, he endured an up-and-down campaign. For the year, Neal surrendered eight sacks, 37 pressures, 23 hurries and 10 hits in 13 games (he dealt with a sprained knee that cost him four games in the middle of the season). All but the hurries — right guard Mark Glowinski allowed 27 — were team-highs.
Neal entered the offseason knowing he had to improve ahead of Year 2.
Part of Neal’s issues, his coaches said, stemmed simply from switching from left tackle during his final season at Alabama to right tackle for the Giants. While Neal had played right tackle for the Crimson Tide, he spent each season in a different role, moving from left guard as a freshman to right tackle as a sophomore to left tackle his final year.
Then there was the talent leap from college to the NFL level to overcome, along with the understanding that what worked in Tuscaloosa might not necessarily work the same against players the caliber of Lawrence.
Still, there were tangible aspects of Neal’s game he could address.
Manyweather and Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson got together and chatted about that very topic. They brainstormed, and the three lists, including Neal’s, featured plenty of overlap.
“I think the biggest thing was consistency in his pass set and then how he used his hands,” Manyweather said. “Those were his gifts and his curse last year. Those were things that got him in trouble: not being consistent in his set, not being balanced in his pass set and not having a plan with his hands that was effective for the NFL level.”
The biggest conclusion they drew was that Neal needed to refine his stance. Having the stance where it needed to be would, in theory, allow for improvements in other parts of his game.
“These big guys are always told to bend and get low,” Manyweather said. “Well, the fact of the matter is, you draft big physical guys to be f—— big and physical. And me and Bobby were on the same page with that. We want Evan to be big. We want Evan to play big, so to speak. So that means not shrinking himself in his stance, not curling up where he’s like coiled up. We want guys to (have) to rush through all 6-foot-7, 340 pounds of Evan. If Evan plays like that, staying square in his sets, being patient with his hands … it’s very difficult for guys to get around him.”
Neal took the idea of being vulnerable and asking for help one coach further, connecting with former Bengals four-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson. The pair spent three days together in New Jersey working on his stance.
“To me, it looks like on your film and in working you out, you’re struggling (with moving from) left tackle to right tackle,” Anderson recalls telling Neal.
Anderson told Neal he had seen Hall of Fame tackles struggle with the transition. That disorienting switch also was something Anderson could relate to himself. During his final NFL season, with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, Anderson was asked to contribute on overload protections on the left side as a tight end. He hadn’t played on the left side since his rookie season 12 years earlier.
“It’s like being in a dream and fighting and punching, and your punches can’t land,” Anderson explained. “That’s how it feels when guys change sides. You lose all the power you think you have, and it just feels so awkward. It’s like your equilibrium is off.”
Howe: Intel on all 32 teams, including Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson bounce-back potential
Combine that shift with the challenge of facing some of the most athletic players in the NFL in one-on-one situations, and it can be a lot, especially for a rookie. It’s also important to remember how unnatural playing offensive line can be. While most athletic sports stances naturally lunge forward, offensive linemen lean backward in pass protection.
For Neal, improvement would come by cultivating a stance he could spring out of easier while becoming more and more comfortable using the opposite side of his body as his dominant side in his pass protection stance. Like Manyweather, Anderson believed Neal was too hunched over and his back leg was too spread out at times, allowing elite athletes to fly past him.
Johnson echoed that the Giants wanted Neal and all of their offensive linemen in general to be efficient movers, never wasting an inch on a step.
“He’s like a big, dancing bear,” Anderson said. “He’s just an agile guy. So his thing is, he has to use that to his advantage. His advantage is his quick feet, big-ass body and long-ass arms. The faster he can get set up and get in a good position where he can move, the better off he’s going to be.”
In front of the mirror in his house, Neal practiced.
In and out of his stance. In and out of his stance.
Over and over again, each day so he could become more comfortable in it.
“What feels good, what doesn’t feel good?” Neal said of his repetitions. “How am I putting all of my pressure on my kickoff leg and my push leg? Am I balanced? Can I see myself getting in and out of the stance consistently?”
He studied it all.
On one of their three days together, Anderson and Neal watched film in the lobby of Neal’s apartment complex. Passersby recognized the Giants’ tackle and one, a martial arts instructor, even stopped to chat. Naturally, the topic turned to hands.
Simply put, in mixed martial arts, if you get countered, you get knocked in the face. In football, if you get countered, like what Lawrence did to Neal in Week 3, the quarterback gets sacked.
Anderson said Neal’s stance during his rookie season impacted the way he played his hands, making them a little wilder than how the right tackle needed them to be. The feet set the tone for the hands. Without the feet in position, there’s almost no point in throwing hands.
“Evan wanted to kill people with his punch every single time,” Manyweather said. “(But) your strike doesn’t always need to be vicious. Sometimes a well-timed and accurate strike is enough just to get the defender off his course.”
After OTAs, Neal spent five and a half weeks in Texas training with Manyweather and other veterans from across the league, including the Chargers’ Rashawn Slater, the Commanders’ Charles Leno and the Dolphins’ Terron Armstead. Manyweather said the time spent talking through scenarios and being around experienced veterans helped Neal process how and when to better use his hands.
In conjunction with the technique work, Neal also focused on his diet. He worked on becoming leaner while adding more muscle. He hired a private chef while in Dallas and stuck to healthy foods, staying away from snacking. The added benefit for Neal was his private chef was a former player: Brandon Antwine, a defensive tackle who played on Florida’s national championship teams in 2006 and 2008. Along with cooking for Neal, Antwine also served as a good sounding board for the changes Neal was working through.
After all of his work, Neal arrived at Giants camp feeling good about his body and technique. An offseason spent working at the same position as the year prior left him feeling more comfortable in his role.
“The muscle memory came back exponentially,” Neal said. “A lot of the things that I learned last year, I feel like they’re carrying over, and I just feel a lot more comfortable at right tackle now. … It’s been dope.”
While Neal missed part of camp with a concussion, Johnson has seen improvement. He highlighted Neal’s balance, which derives from the stance adjustments.
“With that has come some confidence, so I see that coming through just in his personality around the guys,” Johnson said. “It’s really good to see a young guy mature from Year 1 and Year 2.”
Giants players predict breakout candidates: Tre Hawkins, Deonte Banks most popular picks
That a looming Cowboys rematch is what lies ahead for the Giants in Sunday night’s season opener is certainly poetic for Neal.
Back in prime time, he’ll have the opportunity to show the world the progress he’s made.
Manyweather, however, isn’t making a big deal out of it. To him, it’s just the first game of a long season and one that can’t be put on a pedestal. Manyweather just wants to see Neal execute the things they worked on this offseason.
But there’s no denying the spotlight will be brighter.
Neal has said he hates bringing up the Dallas game, but he still does because he’s never endured a performance like it. It was his “welcome-to-the-NFL moment,” a career low point.
Nearly a year removed, he’s looking beyond that performance after addressing it so many times.
“I just want to move forward from it,” Neal said. “I learned what I had to learn; I made the corrections, and now I’m here.”
For Neal, that may be true. But if he wants the rest of the world to move forward with him, he knows what he must do.
(Top photos: Mitchell Leff, Rich Schultz / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.