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Five Big Reasons Why Teams Win


Offensive linemen, the NFL's long-ignored giants, are finally getting their due. We rank the league's strong, silent types



October 29, 2005; Page P6

The men who block for a living are becoming a much bigger part of today's National Football League -- and not just because they average about 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds.

For years, the five linemen on each team's offense have been anonymous foot soldiers, recognized only for mistakes or the guts hanging over their belts. Jerry Kramer made a block that won the Green Bay Packers the 1967 NFL championship, but drew acclaim only through the magic of instant replay.

Now, the value -- and profile -- of offensive linemen is soaring. In the past offseason, teams spent more money on average in bonuses (about $2 million per player) for offensive tackles, the men who protect the quarterback from the defense's most dangerous pass rushers, than on any other position besides quarterback.

In 2001, players at almost every other position on the field were getting higher average bonuses than offensive linemen; this year, linemen (offensive tackles, guards and centers) rate fourth overall in average bonus money.


• Rankings: How the Lines Stack Up

• Keeping Score: The NBA's Medical Bills1

• Game Plan: On TV2

Broader changes in the NFL are behind this new premium on the big lugs on the line. Teams are throwing the ball more than ever -- 10 teams are calling for passes on more than 60% of their plays this year -- so glamour-boy quarterbacks are spending more time standing and looking for an open receiver while large, angry men try to tackle them. Those angry men on defense are getting faster, too, as coaches are increasingly favoring speed over size in defenders. As defenders rush from unexpected parts of the field in more complex blitz schemes, it's largely up to the offensive linemen to block them.

At a time when virtually every athletic endeavor is evaluated using statistics, concocting a recipe for an effective offensive line remains a highly subjective science. Two common traits link the top blocking units: Quick feet and brains. (Yes, brains. Forget the stereotypes.) A long pair of arms also helps to keep defenders at a distance; scouts and general managers now put a premium on offensive linemen with arms at least 35 inches long.

But there are plenty of differences among good lines, even in their most basic prerequisite: size. Teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos manhandle defenses with (relatively) smaller players, while most guys on the well-regarded Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs lines haven't seen their feet in years.

So which teams block best? We modified formulas developed by FootballOutsiders.com, a fan Web site, to come up with a measure -- Offensive Line Effectiveness -- that rates the line's role in a team's success on offense. We found a strong correlation between blocking and winning; The teams with the best records have many of the top-rated offensive lines in our rankings, which take into account both pass-blocking and clearing lanes for running backs to carry the ball.

It figures that the league's only remaining unbeaten club -- the Colts -- came out on top. Also high on the list are the Bengals (2005 record: 5-2), Broncos (5-2), New York Giants (4-2), Washington Redskins (4-2) and Seattle Seahawks (5-2).

But there were some surprises. The Buffalo Bills line sneaked into the top 10, even with the team underachieving at 3-4. And the Philadelphia Eagles, at 4-2, showed up in the bottom five in offensive-line play, largely because of their ineffective running game.

These days, the best lines do one thing exceptionally well: Protect their quarterback. As defenses devote ever more energy and ingenuity to trying to smash passers into the turf, offensive linemen are being recognized -- and paid -- as the important bodyguards they are.

"Defensive coordinators sit back the whole offseason saying, 'How can we get to [the QB] to punish him?' A premium is being put on pass-blocking right now," says Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson.

Block heads: The Indianapolis Colts offensive line was No. 1 in our rankings.

Indeed, the sack -- tackling an opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, often with catastrophic results like a fumble or big loss of yards -- has emerged as game-changing play. Since 1999, only once in 66 playoff games did a team allow more than two sacks more than its opponent and still manage to win the game, according to a recent study.

And defenses are stocking up on sack specialists -- "trained assassins," in the words of Mr. Anderson -- to wreak havoc on opposing passers. Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds and is probably the best of a group of star defensive ends possessing a freakish combination of strength and speed, earlier this season made Baltimore Ravens standout left tackle Jonathan Ogden look like he was standing in wet cement. Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, says the growing number of speedy sack specialists might explain why offensive holding penalties -- illegally grabbing the jersey of a defender in an effort to keep him away from the ball carrier -- on pass plays are up 61% this season.

But offensive linemen have to contain these rushers for today's pass-happy offenses to score. While blocking on running plays is largely a function of being stronger and, often, meaner than your opponent, pass-blocking takes a lot more athletic ability than you'd expect to find in a 300-pound frame. "Anybody can knock a guy in front of him," says A.J. Smith, general manager of the San Diego Chargers. "Pass blocking is an art."

In pass blocking, quick feet are a lineman's best weapon. Watch the feet of veteran Chiefs tackle Willie Roaf. When a play begins he springs out of his stance like he was playing barefoot on burning coals, whether he's sprinting toward the sidelines to throttle a defender or shuffling to get his body between a darting, juking defensive blitzer and the quarterback.

Their bellies may protrude a bit, but NFL linemen are world-class athletes. Motor-learning experts say that to propel Mr. Roaf's enormous frame so quickly, his legs and rear end must be teeming with fast-twitch muscle fibers, making him an evolutionary oddity. Rice University assistant professor of kinesiology Peter Weyand says evolution left small people with most of the fast-twitch muscles. Every so often, however, someone like Mr. Roaf slips through the cracks.

The best lines use their brains as much as their brawn. The engine that makes the Colts line go is the head on the shoulders of center Jeff Saturday, known for his ability to get his teammates in the right blocking schemes amid last-second changes on both sides of the ball. Watch Mr. Saturday's hand signals, not quarterback Peyton Manning's, at the line of scrimmage and you'll see there are two players directing this offense.

Here, some other line stars to watch, if the TV camera lingers on them long enough. Among tackles, the biggest men on the line, few do their jobs as nimbly as the Seattle Seahawks' Walter Jones, the St. Louis Rams' Orlando Pace and the Chiefs' Mr. Roaf. Guards on many running plays are asked to swing around the line, or "pull," and clear a path for the ball carrier, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Alan Faneca and the Carolina Panthers' Mike Wahle probably do that best. The best centers are the ones that get their teammates in the right position: The New York Jets' Kevin Mawae -- now injured, probably for the year -- and Jeff Hartings of the Steelers join Mr. Saturday in that group.

Rank Team (Record) OLE Comment

1 Indianapolis Colts (7-0) 5.29 Tops in run- and pass-blocking -- and No.1 by a mile

2 Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) 2.97 QB sacked on only 4% of passing attempts

3 Denver Broncos (5-2) 2.4 The Broncos always run the ball well

4 New York Giants (4-2) 2.33 Much improved after 52-sack season last year

5 Washington Redskins (4-2) 2.29 The 'Skins have an offense again

6 Seattle Seahawks (5-2) 2.24 Tackle Walter Jones is best in the business

7 San Diego Chargers (3-4) 2.19 Sturdy line anchors NFL's most productive offense

8 Atlanta Falcons (5-2) 2.16* Still need to improve on pass protection

9 Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) 2.1 Three All-Pro candidates in this group

10 Buffalo Bills (3-4) 1.95 Running game boosts underachieving team

11 Cleveland Browns (2-4) 1.81 Run blocking solid but pass protection poor

12 Oakland Raiders (2-4) 1.79 Huge line's play just average so far

13 Tennessee Titans (2-5) 1.77 One of league's best at protecting QB

14 Chicago Bears (3-3) 1.76 Center Olin Kreutz is a standout

15 Miami Dolphins (2-4) 1.75 Pass protection solid, offense is not

16 Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) 1.74 Offense averaging most yards per pass

17 New Orleans Saints (2-5) 1.72 Running game in top 10 in NFL

18 New England Patriots (3-3) 1.64 Free agency and injuries have hurt

19 Green Bay Packers (1-5) 1.64 Injuries to skill players have made line's job harder

20 San Francisco 49ers (1-5) 1.63 Pass protection as bad as rest of team

21 Houston Texans (0-6) 1.61 QB David Carr sacked a league-high 35 times

22 Detroit Lions (3-3) 1.6 Guard Damien Woody highlights this subpar unit the lone bright spot here

23 Dallas Cowboys (4-3) 1.59 Injury of left tackle Flozell Adams leaves a giant hole

24 Carolina Panthers (4-2) 1.59 Addition of guard Mike Wahle a big help

25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) 1.49 Team as a whole is performing better than line

26 St. Louis Rams (3-4) 1.46 Left tackle Orlando Pace can't do it all

27 Jacksonville Jaguars (4-2) 1.36 One of league's most punchless offenses

28 Philadelphia Eagles (4-2) 1.23 Pass-heavy offense tough on line

29 Baltimore Ravens (2-4) 1.1 Running game no longer a strength

30 New York Jets (2-5) 1.05* Injury to All-Pro center was devastating

31 Minnesota Vikings (2-4) 0.98 Once-vaunted offense has deteriorated

32 Arizona Cardinals (2-4) 0 366-pound T Leonard Davis can't block everybody

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