The Beauty of Good Offensive Line Play


I played offensive line in college at Northwestern University. What’s that? You want to see a video of me getting horribly beat by 2017 Philadelphia Eagles 1st round pick Derek Barnett in the 2015 Outback Bowl? Ok, well here you go:

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(Hell of a fumble recovery though)

I remember when people who didn’t really understand football used to ask me what position I played, I would respond with: “Have you seen the Blind Side, yeah, I play that position, just on the right side”. Offensive line was, for a long time, the most unsung, undervalued position on the football field. Things have changed. Not only is it now routine for teams to take o-lineman in the top 5 of the draft, but understanding and appreciating good offensive line play has become more and more the norm the for the casual football fan.

What the world is starting to take notice of is the most beautifully misunderstood position in sports. A position that somehow requires you to have an unwavering aggression and a disciplined patience at the same time. You must think analytically, perhaps more than anyone on the field short of the QB, but also have the ability to shut your mind off and not think about how you are about ram your head against another man’s. A position where you must combine nimble feet, with utter brute force. It’s an anomaly of a position and typically, has some of the most interesting, quirky players in any football locker room. So what’s up with this newfound appreciation for the guys upfront? I will try to show you why the position is so important, unique and dare I say, beautiful.

The Importance:

The best way I can describe how an important the offensive line is to a teams offense is this: a play where the o-line does not do its collective job, will not work without an incredible individual effort from a skill player. Conversely, a play where the o-line does its job, only has a chance to work. For instance, the quarterback could still make an errant throw or the unblocked linebacker could fill perfectly on a run play. The o-line acts as a proverbial first check point for the offense. Once you pass that check point, your play has a chance to work, when you don’t, your play does not.

Here are the top five teams from this past NFL season in DVOA run blocking and pass blocking:


The only team listed above that was not over .500 was the Green Bay Packers, who had issues at QB  that were impossible to overcome. This point does not need to be beat into the ground, simply put, there are very few stronger correlations to a teams success than good offensive line play.

The Difficulty:

I know I am biased, but I believe offensive line to be the most difficult position to play on the football field. I will layout why I believe this to be true.

– It is the most technically unnatural position on the field. There is a reason that o-line have the fewest amount of true freshman playing in college of any position. The skill of offensive line must be learned. The problem is, the technique is incredibly unnatural and requires incredible amounts of practice to master. The best way for me to articulate this point is to show you:

The clip that I had posted before of me getting toasted is actually a perfect example of the often counter-intuitive science of offensive line technique

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From film study I knew that Barnett had a phenomenal first step and in order to not get run around, I needed to get back in a hurry. Off the snap, I actually do a pretty good job of getting into my kick-slide and put myself in a position to block Barnett. But, where everything goes array is right before the point of contact. While attempting to strike a blow and stop his rush, I way overextend and lunge.

Here is a better example of this at work (also includes a filthy club move by Gerald McCoy):

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A balance must be struck between patience and aggression. Be too aggressive in pass protection and you will get oh-lay’d like I did above. Be too patient and passive and you run the risk of getting bull rushed into oblivion (see below):

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Although different, a similar balance must be struck in the run game. Be too aggressive and lunge out your stance and you’re looking at a face full of grass and a busted run play. Be too passive and you’ll get pushed into the backfield, giving the ball carrier nowhere to put the ball.

Here are both sides of the coin in action:

Too passive:

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Too aggressive (eyes on the right guard):

To find examples for both of these I just googled Aaron Donald highlights and I knew I would be able to find clips. That’s how good he is. Anyway, if you didn’t know, Aaron Donald is really good.

-The margins for error are so slim. Something that you come to understand as an offensive lineman is that you can be playing a fantastic game, but if there is one bad play where you get beat and let up a sack, its all for naught. A very good o-lineman will grade out (on scale where each play is given a plus or a minus) anywhere from 88-94% over the course of a game. An average to below average lineman will grade out anywhere from 79-84% over the course of a game. If an average game has 70 plays in it, that means the difference between a very good and average o-lineman is about ~3 plays. Compare this to a quarterback where a 65% completion percentage is elite. Offensive lineman have an important job on every single play, there is not a play off. There are no run plays the opposite way where they have no affect on the play like there are for wideouts or defensive backs. Yet, the scale on which success is judged is razor thin. All of this adds up to a position that has one of the most responsibilities of any on a team, while also being graded on arguably the toughest scale.

– There are the least amount of built-in advantages to the position. In pass protection, you are literally moving backwards as fast as you can, all while somebody is running full speed at you, trying to run either around or through you. In the run game, you must move the defender somewhere against his will, if it is a stalemate, he is doing his job. Furthermore, when you are playing on the road, many times you are on a silent snap-count. This means that the one advantage you have over the d-lineman, is gone, in nearly half the games you play in. I contend that a third and long, on the road, where everyone in the stadium knows its a pass, as a offensive tackle blocking a wide defensive end on a silent count, is one of the hardest things to do in sports.

Here is a clip of our game against Wisconsin, at Wisconsin in 2015. Thankfully this is not me in this clip (sorry Blake), but the point of the clip is that our left tackle had no chance from the jump. #47 on Wisconsin times the snap perfectly, our left tackle does not, because we are on a silent count, and he pays the price:

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The Beauty:

When done correctly, offensive line play is beautiful. Whether it is two gigantic men working in perfect symmetry on a double team to forcefully drive another man four yards downfield against his will. Or its a 315lb man, moving ever so nibbily on his feet, backpedaling both urgently and smoothly, to dispatch a speed rush. When you know what you are watching and can appreciate the difficulty and importance of it, a once maligned art transforms into something beautiful. Let’s take a look at whatever it is this biased washed up lineman is talking about:

(eyes on the left tackle #77)

You probably thought I was going to start with a bone-crushing pancake (we’ll get to those), but, no, in order to fully appreciate offensive line play, you have to appreciate a play like what is shown above. Tyron Smith is the best pass blocking tackle I have ever seen. You are watching a man take an incredibly difficult task and make it look easy. Remember my whole piece about the balancing act that must take place between aggression and patience? Here is a perfect example of that at work. Smith waits until the defender has broken his cushion then places a simple, yet efficient two handed punch to re-direct his rush. He doesn’t drop his head and over-extend like I did against Tennessee, but he also doesn’t let the defender get into his chest and keeps him at an arms length with his perfectly timed punch.  It’s goddamn beautiful if you ask me.

You want bone-crushing pancakes, okay, fine:

I remember the first time I saw this play I audibly gasped. You just don’t see a man La’El Collins’ size, run that fast and successfully attack two different people in space very often. I cannot over-stress how difficult blocking smaller players in space is. To get a clean shot like that in space requires ridiculous timing and the absence of hesitation.

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Quenton Nelson is the best interior lineman I ever watched on film throughout my time at Northwestern. He deserves every bit of praise that he is getting and should be a top 10 pick. One of the phrases that gets drilled into your head as an offensive linemen is ‘find work’. If you aren’t doing anything, you are hurting the team. This mantra is especially important for guards in pass protection as many times they are not in 1 on 1 situations and have the ability to help other parts of the protection. Here is a perfect example of that. When the guy in Nelson’s zone slants out to the tackle, he is left without work. Ideally, he would slam back into the center and create a chain reaction that would eventually push the right tackle to the blitzing linebacker, but, Nelson realizes this is not currently feasible given how fast the blitzer is coming. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands, runs to the other side of the formation and delivers a kill shot. Special stuff.

Alright I’ll stop talking and just let you enjoy a few clips:

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Shout out to OL Watchdog for some awesome clips. Thanks for reading.

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