It’s only fair to warn you, what you are about to read is not glitzy. In fact, it’s dull. Dull to the point of boring. The names Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Larry Fitzgerald, Hines Ward and Brian Westbrook are all going to appear only once in this piece: right now. The rest is devoted to the 300-pound hogs who have chaperoned their respective teams to the Conference Championship round. The thesis is this: the strongest common thread between the NFL’s four remaining offenses is laudable front line play.
The Eagles, Cardinals, Steelers and Ravens do not have the best offensive lines in football. In fact, none of these teams even have the best offensive lines in their respective division (the Giants get the nod in Philly’s NFC East, a healthy Seahawks front five highlights Arizona’s NFC West and, although the evidence was not as explicit this season, most experts will tell you that, man-for-man, the Browns have the most talented O-line in the AFC North). But none of the final four teams would be here if they didn’t have an offensive line that – pardon the cliché – overcame obstacles and, more importantly, got better as the season wore on.
We’ll bring Arizona back into the picture in a minute. First, we need to recognize something. The Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all had to replace world-class offensive linemen this season. In Philadelphia, right guard Shawne Andrews battled depression and a slew of injuries and never got on the field in 2008. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers had to move on without seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, who bolted for the big green in New York (interpret “big green” however you want). Equally as significant was the loss of right guard Kendall Simmons (torn Achilles) in early October and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) in December. That’s three first-tier veteran offensive linemen. Finally, in Baltimore, the Ravens had to fill the 6’9”, 350-pound void left by future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Fascinatingly, all three teams replaced their dominant former linemen from within. The Eagles asked undrafted 24-year-old Nick Cole to step away from the fringe and into the starting lineup at right guard. The Steelers turned to unknown Chris Kemoeatu to succeed Faneca, then surprised experts by replacing Simmons with untested Darnell Stapleton, rather than sliding right tackle Willie Colon inside. And, like last December, swing tackle Tra Essex once again filled in for an injured Smith. As for the Ravens, they rolled some very heavy dice by having gifted but green Jared Gaither step in at left tackle to protect franchise rookie Joe Flacco’s blindside.
With unproven commodities replacing formidable cogs, the Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all saw the same pattern unfold: their young replacements struggled early in the season but, thanks to the help of the veterans around them, and the team’s patience and commitment to its scheme, they ultimately prospered by winter time.
This brings us to the common thread of “significant improvement” that defines all four remaining teams. Take a look:
In September, there was a passel of questions about the aging bookend tackles on Philadelphia’s front line. Right tackle Jon Runyan and left tackle Tra Thomas both came in as decade-long veterans who had spent their careers gutting out injuries and fist fighting defensive ends. The question was, could they continue to hold up?
Between the tackles, in addition to the issues at Andrews’s right guard spot, Andy Reid and the coaching staff had serious questions about left guard Todd Herremans, who was plain awful in 2007, when he battled a lingering knee injury.
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As it’s turned out, Runyan and Thomas have been their usual gritty selves. With no depth behind them, it’s not implausible that Philly could re-sign both men after their contracts expire in a few weeks. Cole has become reliable enough at right guard. Herremans looks like a keeper as well. In fact, he’s been the team’s best offensive lineman in 2008.
The Cardinals front five was supposed to coagulate last year with the arrival of longtime Steelers line coach Russ Grimm. But, thanks to callow personnel and, oh, about a 60-year history of ineptitude casting a pall over the Cardinal trenches, Grimm’s efforts didn’t pay dividends. Until this season.
Wildly inconsistent young guard Duece Lutui improved his technique just enough to avoid the demotion that was staring him down late in training camp. And mouth-wateringly-talented Levi Brown has started to justify his status as a former No. 5 overall pick. Brown, a right tackle, still needs to rediscover the nastiness that defined him at Penn State. But in the meantime, he has shown flashes of brilliance and cut back on the routine blunders that used to stymie this Cardinal offense.
Pittsburgh’s improvements are perhaps the most impressive of all, given how the Steelers have essentially replaced three standout veterans with three camp bodies. As a unit, the line still has a little trouble diagnosing complex blitz schemes – something that could hurt them Sunday. But they’ve made enough progress to enable Bruce Arians’s now-pass-happy offense to flourish down the stretch. And, as we saw against San Diego in the Divisional Round, all five Steeler linemen also know how to be true Steeler linemen, which is to say they can clobber defenses in the run game when called upon.
Joe Flacco gets heralded for his magnificent caretaking abilities, but the real source of Baltimore’s offensive survival-turned-surge is the play of the front five. Jared Gaither is maturing on the left side. Opposite him, right tackle Willie Anderson has been remarkably close to the All-Pro form that defined his career as a Bengal. None of the knee problems Anderson had in Cincy seem to have followed him east.
Inside, Jason Brown has shown the leadership abilities coaches coveted when they anointed him the long-term replacement for underrated center Mike Flynn. And last, but far from least, are the two young guards: Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs. Chester, a college tight end who was selected in the second round in 2006, snuck back into the starting lineup after Marshal Yanda went down. Often overpowered as a rookie, Chester has finally found a comfort zone at the pro level, and he has been capitalizing on the quickness and agility that made him a tight end in college. Quick and agile are also appropriate adjectives for Grubbs – along with powerful, smart, nasty and consistent. Simply put, the team’s first-round pick in 2007 is already an elite NFL offensive lineman.
For more from Andy Benoit, visit www.NFLTouchdown.com