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October 1, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Offensive Lines Clear Paths to Success

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 1, 2004

From Pop Warner football to the NFL, a team's ability to gain yards and score points is hugely dependent on the skill of its offensive line. If the linemen can't hold off the pass rush, the quarterback won't have time to throw. If they can't create holes for the running back, the ground attack is rendered useless.

That's what's been happening in Miami, where the Dolphins offense has gone completely off the rails. For the casual observer, it's easy to blame the surprise retirement of running back Ricky Williams or the poor play of quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Jay Fiedler.

The reality is that no running back is going to be successful without some blocking in front of him; no quarterback can get the passing game going with defenders constantly in his face. Wade Smith and Damion McIntosh have both started at left tackle for Miami, but neither has the speed to contain the kind of quick pass rushers most 3-4 defenses throw at them. None of the Dolphins' interior lineman can overpower defenders, which all too often results in running backs getting hit in the backfield.

In New York, the improved play of the Jets line is probably the biggest reason why Curtis Martin and the offense have played so well. Second-year man Brandon Moore has made a big impact as the new starting right guard. So has veteran Pete Kendall, whom the Jets signed in August to play the other guard position. The pass protection is better because these two guys are more athletic than the players they replaced.

Their biggest contribution, however, has been in the running game. With Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae leading the charge, the Jets' interior line has been dominant at the line of scrimmage, and that's why Martin is off to such a good start.

When you study line play, it becomes clear that pass protection and run blocking don't always come as a package deal. Some players are ferocious run blockers but couldn't keep their grandmothers off the quarterback. Others protect their quarterback like Secret Service agents, but can't get any kind of push at the line of scrimmage to open a hole.

Last year's Lions were a perfect example. They allowed just 11 sacks all season, but the run blocking was terrible, to which their league-worst 1,338

total rushing yards would attest. The team compensated by focusing on what they did best: Detroit threw the ball on 61.4% of their offensive plays, the most of any NFL team. On the other side of the spectrum, the Ravens built a line of big physical blockers that is well suited to Jamal Lewis's power running game.

There is an abundance of statistics for the so-called "skill" positions, but there are no good numbers to evaluate the play of individual linemen. The offensive line works as a unit, and while we can discern noticeable differences from watching film, there's very little on the stat sheets telling us who's a stud and who's a dud.

The best approach is to evaluate these guys as a unit, not just because it's statistically convenient, but because that is how the offensive line actually works. If your line features one future Hall-of-Famer and four slow, overweight losers, you've got trouble. It doesn't matter if the superstar takes out two defenders on his side, because the other four will let enough rushers get through to make a play. The offensive line is only as good as its weakest link.

Run blocking requires a lineman to make contact with an opposing defender and move him. Being effective requires aggressiveness and pure physical strength.

Pass protection is more about reacting to defenders, and requires quickness and technique. Good pass blockers will maintain a pocket from which the quarterback can throw, and they will establish passing lanes through which the ball can be cleanly thrown. But it's not enough to simply keep the defender from touching your quarterback. If the quarterback is rushed or has to scramble, it affects the outcome of the play.

In my annual football scouting books, I rate each offensive line by its collective ability to perform in each of those two areas. Looking at the early numbers, the Jets have emerged as one of the best teams in both categories.

The NFL average last year was one sack allowed for every 16.1 pass plays (defined as pass attempts plus sacks). Last year, the Jets were slightly better than that at 17.0 plays per sack. This year, the Jets line has allowed just one sack in 57 pass plays, the best in the league.

The Bills and Cardinals, on the other hand, are among the worst teams at protecting their quarterbacks, allowing a sack about once every seven plays. It should come as no surprise, then, that these two teams rank 31st and 32nd in points scored.

Run blocking is evaluated by the average number of yards the team gains on each rushing attempt. While this may be more of a reflection of the team's running back than the performance of the line, careful study shows that that those two things can be statistically separated.

The Vikings line has been consistently rated in the top 10, even though they've had three different featured running backs in the last four years.

Last year the Minnesota line ranked sixth in run blocking, even though their leading rusher, Moe Williams, ranked 20th in the league in rushing average.

Maybe the best illustration is the Dolphins, who ranked fourth in run blocking in 2002 and 27th in 2003. The running back was the same - Ricky Williams - but they replaced three starters on the line and dropped from 4.7 to 3.7 yards per carry.

The same change has occurred in New York, where Martin has seen a dramatic increase in his productivity behind a retooled offensive line. Last year, Martin averaged 4.0 yards per carry, slightly below the league average of 4.2.This year, he's averaging 5.2 yards a carry, and it's not because he has started wearing magic shoes. Everything starts with the offensive line, and because the Jets line is playing better this year, the whole offense is playing better.

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