I've always thought the offensive line is the core of building any good team. A great O line will make a good QB look great, and an average running back look good. It can weaken another team's defense by keeping it on the field longer, and set the tempo for a game. I've also said that 'skill position' is a misnomer in the NFL; many of the so-called skill positions are really 'natural talent' positions—you can learn things that will make you better, but without certain attributes you will be hard-pressed to be a star. But O line is a true skill position, where you can learn technique that can turn guys with limited athletic ability into star blockers. So this week, let's start with two questions about the offensive line...
The offensive line is confusing to me, and I have a few questions about it. What is the difference between a tackle, a guard and the centre other than where they stand? How are pass-blocking and run-blocking different? Why do people always talk about the left tackle being so important?
OK, Ed, its Oline 101. The differences between the positions are important, but not always crucial. The center is usually in the middle of the line, and snaps the ball. With the increasing number of shotgun snaps, this is not as easy as it sounds, especially as he then has to block while concentrating first on his snaps. Centers are usually the guys who call the blocking assignments for the rest of the line, by recognising what front the defense has line up in. Tackles traditionally seal the edges of the line, while guards traditionally have been the most active of the blockers, asked to pull on trap blocks and sweeps. Against odd fronts they have to get out on linebackers; against even that's usually the center's job.
Pass-blocking is the equivalent of sumo wrestling: you're trying to keep someone from pushing you past a certain point, and the O lineman is in effect defending his territory against the rusher. In run blocking, the offensive lineman becomes the aggressor; O linemen love long sustained running drives, because they know the snap count and where they want to go, while the defensive lineman becomes the one who has to react, rather than act. Run blocking can be man-to-man, where you drive a specific man out of the hole, or zone, where you clear an area, and more and more teams use influence blocking, directing and using fakes to get the defenders to move in a direction for just enough time for a runner to go past.
Finally, the left tackle is the most important because most quarterbacks are right-handed, and thus the left side is their blind side. Sacks from the blind side can result in more fumbles, though there is an argument that having your best pass rusher work against the right tackle gives him more of an advantage and means he's in the quarterback's face to influence more bad passes (Michael Strahan played left defensive end for the Giants, for example). Of course, if your QB is a lefty, like Michael Vick, the RT is protecting his blind side.
Do you think the Patriots' offensive line is strong enough this season, without Matt Light and with Logan Mankins struggling to get healthy?
I think the O line probably is a worry for New England. That left side you mention was very efficient, but Brian Waters, the ex-All Pro guard and Berlin Thunder center, who did such a good job for them at RG last year, still hasn't shown up and it's assumed he's finally retiring (although he might just be doing a Walter Jones), and Robert Gallery, who was signed as partial cover for Mankins, also retired. Sebastian Vollmer's back issues continue, so the whole thing is in a state of flux. But I've got two words for you: Brandon Gorin. The Pats won a Super Bowl with Gorin as their starting RT, and like so many ex-Pats, he never had success elsewhere. They won with ex-Claymore Joe Andruzzi, cut by the Packers, starting at guard. The Pats have invested high picks to reload at tackle, but I think line coach Dante Scarnecchia is a master of making it easy—watch and you'll see their blocking is all about controlling and directing, not about powering people off the line, and it also helps that, in Tom Brady, they have a QB who can execute quickly and take some of the pressure off the line. The line's a worry right now, but I have no doubt it will be sorted out.
Why does the league not realign the league to ensure the areas of the country a team represents is represented in where they are actually are from? (i.e. Dallas in the NFC East, Baltimore in the AFC North). I understand the league wishes to maintain rivalries but the names just don’t correlate with all team’s geographical location.
Actually, Simon, it has been a lot worse at times in the past; the Baltimore Colts spent decades playing in the West, while the Chicago (later St Louis) Cardinals played in the east (because the Bears were in the West). Atlanta used to be in the NFC West, and the Cards and Cowboys stayed in the East because, as you suggest, of traditional rivalries.
Today it makes pretty good sense, and I think the Dallas-Washington, and Dallas-New York matchups trump Dallas' slight outlying of the Division. I don't have a problem with Baltimore in the North, though I wouldn't mind their switching with Indianapolis. I can see where certain rivalries are worth preserving, but the reality nowadays is that 'classic' rivalries seem to grow every few years. What makes less sense is aligning by current strength to create 'competitive balance' rather than geographic logic: when the college Big 10 conference created two divisions, the awkwardly named 'Legends' and 'Leaders', they missed a perfect opportunity to create a balanced league by simply dividing east-west along the Indiana-Illinois state line, and though the powers in college football tend to remain powerful, unlike the NFL where there is competitive balance, it was a mistake.
Do you think Nickel will become the default defensive line-up in the future in the league and do you think we could see the end of the 3-4 as linebackers become more coverage rather than pass rush orientated?
It's true that many teams now spend more time in sub packages like nickel than they do in their basic looks, whether 4-3 or 3-4, and I think you will see more teams using a 3-3 alignment more often. I think you'll also see more use of big safeties close to the line replacing linebackers in order to get better coverage. But one of the 3-4 defense's strongest points is that it makes it far easier to achieve blitz looks while still rushing only four—and the 3-4 outside backer who can drop into coverage as well as rush will be too valuable to disappear. There is a natural ebb and flow to the battle between offenses and defenses, which sometimes is helped unnaturally by rule changes, but right now the influx of college offensive looks, spread formations, wildcats, and the like, is forcing NFL defenses to adjust—the idea that athletes were too good at the NFL level to allow teams to run the spread is being proven wrong.
After scoring a touchdown if some players are then penalised for taunting the other team/ using a prop etc, and this penalty is assessed on the kickoff, does this not put the kick off team back to where they were prior to the rule change last year, and give them more of a chance of a kickoff return and hence a fumble, would it not be better to assess the penalty on the Point after Kick, making a chance to miss more likely and thus losing a point
While you're right to notice the anomaly, the real argument against would be the possibility of injury, which is why the NFL seems to be trying to phase out the kickoff return. The reason the 15 yard penalty on the kickoff hurts is that the potential loss of field position for the kicking team is huge, and that far outweighs the possibility of a fumble. The other half of the equation is that, even if you move the extra point back 15 yards, its still 'only' a 34 yard kick. I take the point that the miss factor would go from about 1 per cent to maybe 10, and it might be worth considering for that reason.