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Line Dancing

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Arizona Cardinals Introduce Kyler Murray Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I keep reading a plethora of posts from Cardinals’ fans who claim the Cardinals’ perennial offensive line woes are a function of Steve Keim’s poor judgement of NFL offensive line talent. Many of Keim’s dissenters point out the irony that Keim was an offensive lineman himself. In fact while starting 36 consecutive games at LG for the Wolfpack of N.C. State, Keim was a team captain, offensive line MVP, and 2 time All-ACC selection. He played a year for the Miami Dolphins (1996) and Edmonton Eskimos (1997) before his pro career was cut short due to injuries.

Where Steve Keim may deserve scrutiny, is not so much for a lack of understanding as to what makes for a good NFL offensive lineman, it’s mostly about placing too much stock and faith in older, injury-prone veterans. Last year was a prime example---Keim gambled big-time on LG Mike Iupati and RT Andre Smith---plus LT D.J. Humphries and newly signed UFA RG Justin Pugh were coming off injury marred seasons.

However, let’s not forget that all 4 of those players were 1st round draft picks. But, alas, none of these 4 players made it past Thanksgiving (3 to IR, 1 waived). Games played: Iupati (10), Humphries (9), Smith (8), Pugh (7). As they say, “you can’t help the club from the tub.”

Keys To Good offensive Line Play:

1. Coordination.

2. Continuity

3. Style of Offense

Coordination

The most important coordinator on the offense is the offensive line coach. His job is to get the line moving in complete unison and syncopation. It’s like choreographing line dances. Every dancer must be in step with the others.

The biggest problem for offensives lines is that defensive coordinators keep moving the furniture in order to create confusion and to wreak the kind of havoc that spoils the offensive line’s syncopation.

Offensive line play is akin to links in a chain. If one link breaks, so does the chain.

Thus, when offensive line coaches instruct their players---part of the time is dedicated to honing run and pass blocking techniques, which is way of getting all of the players in step---but the majority of the time needs to be spent on hammering home the rules that will enable the offensive line to counter for the kind of stunts, slants, loops and twists the defensive line is going to throw at them.

One major rule and priority is: protect your play side gap. If a defensive lineman or linebacker charges that gap, you have to abandon your normal assignment to take the first gap threat away. But---here’s the rub: when you do that, the linemen next to you have to adjust and cover for you. This is where smart offensive lines adjust by calling out the help--the communication is key.

On twists and TEX stunts the tackle has to pass off the in-slanting end to the guard and then fan out to take the looping tackle. The guard has to react quickly to gain leverage on the in-slanting end so that the end doesn’t quickly slip the block and get straight to the QB. In reverse---if the DT out-slants on the OT, and the DE come looping around inside, the guard has to pass off the DT to the OT and then fan back to be in a position to square up on the in charging DE.

Blocking these kinds of twists and TEX stunts is like trying to defend a pick and roll in basketball. It’s the same syncopated principle of “hedge and recover.”

Another key rule is when your man picks a side and tries to rip or swim over you---you ride him like a one man sled. Leverage the side he wants to take and drive him laterally as far as you can.

Continuity

Obviously, keeping the same 5 OL healthy and in sync is of paramount importance. So much of how well an offensive lineman performs hinges on the play of the teammate next to him. There is no question that offensive linemen to the same side develop an advantage over the competition when they have created the kind of chemistry that comes through hundreds of reps and constant communication.

Kliff Kingsbury believes in repping plays over and over until the offense has developed a syncopation versus all kinds of defensive looks and counters. This philosophy is offensive line friendly and it aids and abets the T-G-C chemistry on each side of the line.

Style of Offense

Cardinals’ fans got a very good 5 year look at Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” style of offense. That offense was predicated on having a rock solid pocket QB who could threaten the defense vertically---thus the first option was often the deep post or go route and then a check down to the 2nd level. These plays put pressure on the offensive line to maintain a good, functional pocket for the QB. As we know---BA often kept his OTs on islands and if the OT was overmatched by the DE, as Jared Veldheer was versus Demarcus Lawrence, for example, the QB had little to no chance and was constantly in the line of fire.

The Patriots under Josh McDaniels and offensive line coach legend Dante Scarnecchia emlpoy a vastly different style. It is an offense that is predicated on quick reads and throws and a power running attack when the box number are in their favor. In the passing game, Tom Brady attacks the defense in 3 waves---the first is to have a TE or WR threaten the seam, which should draw help from the FS---the second is to hit the slot WR over the middle on an “oppo” route, which means the slot WR runs and in or an out cut opposite of where the CB is leveraging him---the third wave is to slip the RB in behind the second level where he is a safety valve and if he makes one man miss, he’s got chunk yards.

Last year the Patriots traded for a new LT, Trent Brown, after the FA departure of Nate Solder. The other 4 OL (LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RB Shaq Mason and RT Marcus Cannon have been playing together for a three years now. All 4 of those players were drafted or signed as rookies by the Patriots and developed by Scarnecchia---a 3rd rounder for Thuney, 4th rounder for Mason, a 5th rounder for Cannon and a UCFA signing for Andrews. trent brown was originally a 7th round pick of the 49ers and they got Brown and a 5th round pick (LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, Purdue) for a 3rd round pick (CB Travarius Moore, Southern Mississippi).

Great Coaching

Ultimately, offensive line success is a product of great coaching. Tom Brady has said many tomes that he believes that Dante Scarnecchia is the G.O.A.T. offensive line coach. Bill Belichick frequently offers high praise for Scarnecchia.

“Dante’s greatest strength is his ability to get the entire line — and that sometimes includes tight ends, fullbacks, running backs, and occasionally the quarterbacks — to think together, to see things consistently in the same manner, so we can all operate as a team,’’ Belichick said.

“I think I have a way of doing things,” Scarnecchia said when asked about his coaching philosophy. “Be strong in what you feel what is right, get them to buy in, show them the merits of doing it the way we want it done. And if they see it, you’ve got it. If they don’t see it, then you don’t got it.”

“He’s a great coach. Very detailed-oriented. Great communicator with his players. He holds you to a high standard, which is very good,” left guard Joe Thuney said. “You can tell he has such a passion for the game. It’s been consistent for the entire duration that I’ve been there.”

Last year, Scarnecchia was able to keep the continuity of the offensive intact. And even though Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkwoski missed multiple games due to Edelman’s suspension and Gronk’s injuries, Tom Brady was sacked only 21 times (14 fewer sacks than in 2017) and the Patriots were 5th in the NFL in rushing yards.

Why the 2019 Cardinals Have a Chance

* Kliff Kingsbury’s spread offenses over the past six years have been very QB friendly in terms of sacks. Check out the stats over the past 5 years:

2014 559 attempts---13 sacks---Davis Webb (majority of passes)

2015 564 attempts---21 sacks---Patrick Mahomes

2016 653 attempts---30 sacks---Patrick Mahomes

2017 541 attempts---29 sacks---Nic Shimonek

2018 535 attempts---26 sacks---Alan Bowman

* During those 5 years, only 1 Texas Tech OL was drafted: T Le’Raven Clark (3rd R 2016---Colts), but look at the number of skill players drafted over that span:

2014---TE Jace Amaro (2nd---Jets)

2016---RB DeAndre Washington (5th---Raiders)

2016---WR Jakeem Grant (6th---Dolphins)

2017---QB Patrick Mahomes (1st---Chiefs)

2018---WR Keke Coutee (3rd---Texans)

2018---WR Dylan Cantrell (6th---Chargers)

* What Kingsbury believes in---stretching the field horizontally and vertically, having an array of playmakers makes life easier on the QB & OL and in spreading defenses out, it is easier to run the ball effectively.

* OL coach Sean Kugler has been building a reputation as one of the brightest up-and-coming OL coaches in the NFL. Max Starks played for Kugler in Pittsburgh and had this to say: “He’s one of my favorite coaches of all time. He is a very technical coach and is really a teacher. That’s something that’s rare in today’s offensive line coaching philosophy, being that teacher as well as a coach.”

* Kugler has 29 years of coaching under his belt and the former head coach at UTEP has been an OL coach with the Lions, Bills, Boise St. (the undefeated year that they bet Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on the Statue if Liberty play), Steelers and Broncos. He was coached in college by Andy Reid (OLC---UTEP) and Kugler has coached under some creative offensive minds in Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Chris Peterson, Bruce Arians, Todd Haley and now Kliff Kingsbury. If you haven’t watched Kugler’s interview on Cards Coaches Chronicle, it’s fabulous:

* Kingsbury and Kugler have a set of veterans to work with: D.J. Humphries, J.R. Sweezy, A.Q. Shipley, Justin Pugh, Marcus Gilbert and Max Garcia, plus a talented group of 1st or 2nd year linemen in C/G Mason Cole, T Korey Cunningham, C/G Lamont Gaillard, T/G Joshua Miles, G Colby Gossett, T Will Holden and T Desmond Harrison.