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Spread the blame when examining bad O-line play


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Spread the blame when examining bad O-line play


By Pete Prisco

Tell Pete your opinion! CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Oct. 14, 2010

Sitting in my hotel room two Sundays ago watching Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler taking a beating at the hands of the New York Giants, it hit me how bad the offensive line play has become in the NFL.

Hit after hit, one that knocked Cutler woozy, I couldn't help but think that the poor offensive line play in the NFL wasn't just a Bears problem, but rather a league-wide issue.

Former NFL coach John Madden is part of a promotion that gives out a weekly award to the best offensive line of the week.

Picking just one a week is probably hard to do.

"There are a lot of lines out there that are struggling," one AFC general manager said. "The quarterbacks better hope it improves. They're getting killed."

It's not so much that the sack numbers are up. But the hits on the quarterbacks are. In 2009, there were two teams -- Jacksonville and Buffalo -- who had their quarterbacks hit more than 100 times. In 2010, there are five teams on pace to do so.

"It's not just the sacks, but the hits are adding up," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The hits and hurries take their toll."

After seeing poor line play for the first five weeks, I thought it was a good time to find out why it's taking place.

In speaking with a handful of coaches, general managers, players and former players, there were several reasons given. Here's a breakdown of some of the reasons:

College spread offenses are killing line play

Former Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli is the best offensive lineman I've seen with my own two eyes. So I sought out his opinion as to why line play isn't as good this season as it was maybe five or 10 years ago.

"It's the spread they use in college," Boselli said. "It doesn't allow them to be taught the techniques you need to have in the pro game. I talk to linemen now who didn't know how to get in a three-point stance when they came out of college. They never had to do it. In the old days, when college teams ran the triple-option, the linemen had a hard time adjusting to the pro game. That's what we're seeing now with the spread."

Colleges that use the spread, an offense that is being seen more and more on that level, don't ask offensive linemen to get in that three-point stance, which means the run-blocking is much different than on the pro level and it's tough to learn how to pass block out of a two-point stance.

"It's even that way in high school now," Boselli said. "So where are they learning the pro techniques?"

Ranking NFL's Offensive Lines

No. Team

1. New York Jets

2. Baltimore Ravens

3. Tennessee Titans

4. New Orleans Saints

5. Atlanta Falcons

6. Miami Dolphins

7. New York Giants

8. Green Bay Packers

9. San Diego Chargers

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

11. Denver Broncos

12. Minnesota Vikings

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Kansas City Chiefs

15. New England Patriots

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

17. Cleveland Browns

18. Carolina Panthers

19. Houston Texans

20. Washington Redskins

21. Indianapolis Colts

22. Dallas Cowboys

23. Philadelphia Eagles

24. San Francisco 49ers

25. Cincinnati Bengals

26. St. Louis Rams

27. Arizona Cardinals

28. Detroit Lions

29. Seattle Seahawks

30. Chicago Bears

31. Oakland Raiders

32. Buffalo Bills

When they get to the league, and that takes time. That's why you see some young linemen struggling when they get to the NFL.

Speed of the defenses

It's all about speed on defense now. The faster your defensive players, the better your defense will be.

The NFL has moved away from bigger, stronger defenses and instead the trend is to move to the athletic players who can run.

The big safety is now a linebacker. The big corner is now a safety. The big linebacker is now a down end. The big end is now a tackle.

"Those guys on defense can all run," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "That makes it tough to hit them. They're fast. They move. They're athletic. It's not like you're just lining up and hitting the big guy in front of you anymore."

That speed makes it easier to get to the quarterback on passing downs. That's why you see smaller defensive ends like the Colts have in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

"It takes time adjusting to all the speed coming at the quarterback," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "And they're coming from all over. It's cornerbacks and safeties. Those are hard guys to block when they're on the move."

That brings us to the third reason.

Many more looks from defenses up front

Defensive coordinators are much more creative now. They come with all kinds of exotic blitzes.

Identification is a must.

That takes a smart center and a line that understands the line calls. There have been three rookie centers starting in the NFL this season, and two still are. That can make it tough in terms of communication.

When you have a team like the New York Jets under Rex Ryan that has so many different looks up front, that can challenge even a veteran center.

"There are so many blitzes now," Coughlin said. "You have to do more preparation. They come from all angles, all spots, all positions."

"It would be tough for us to play with a rookie center in front of [quarterback] Matt [Ryan]," Dimitroff said.

The center on the Falcons line is veteran Todd McClure. He isn't the biggest or most physical center, but he excels at making line calls, which is more essential in the NFL these days than ever before.

Run blitzes on first down

It used to be teams blitzed on passing downs and in the red zone. Now they blitz more on run downs, which makes it tougher on offenses -- and especially offensive linemen.

"Now coordinators blitz a lot on first down with their linebackers and people think the linebackers have great instincts but they were blitzed into the play," one AFC general manager said. "Even the use of line stunts vs. the run is up. Next to the quarterback position, the offensive line position must be taught the most [footwork and technique] due to the multiple fronts/stunts/blitzes and defensive looks in general."

That makes for a learning process. But with a dearth of good offensive linemen, it doesn't allow for the learning curve. Rookies often play right away. That leads to mistakes while learning.

"There is a lot more run blitzing on first down," Smith said. "Teams want to put you in a second-and-long situation, trying to put it to their advantage. That's why you see run blitzing up on first down. It can make it tough on a line."


Playing on the offensive line takes precision. You need five guys working together.

That's hard to get with injuries.

Of the 32 teams in the league, only 13 have started the same offensive linemen in all of their games this season. One of those teams is Tampa Bay, and that streak will likely end Sunday when center Jeff Faine (calf) is expected to miss the team's game with New Orleans.

The Panthers started the same five players in all their games, but they have been without projected starting tackle Jeff Otah all season because of injury.

"More than any other position, it is the position that you need cohesion," Dimitroff said. "You want five guys who can work together. You're better off having five good players who can work together rather than some stars who don't work well together."

The move of the umpire to the backfield

Holding penalties are up because of the move of the umpire from beyond the line of scrimmage to behind it.

That move makes the umpire focus more on holding in the middle of the line, and it frees the referee and other officials to focus on the tackles.

That has forced offensive linemen to be more sound in their techniques since holding is getting called more. Not all players are that sound, which can mean more missed blocks and more hits on the quarterback.

As if those guys up front needed anything else to impact their game.

"It's seems to get tougher every year for those guys," Coughlin said.

In turn, it makes it even more dangerous to be an NFL quarterback.

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