Reshuffled O-lines struggling to jell

The Texans' O-line woes in Week 1 were a microcosm of what transpired around the entire league, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: September 13, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Want a recipe for disaster on the opening week of the regular season?

Try this one: Start with a liberal dose of defensive coordinators determined to attack the opposing quarterback at all costs. Mix in a heaping helping of offensive line units significantly reshuffled in the offseason. Finish it off with a dozen new starting quarterbacks, most of whom logged scant playing time in the preseason, eight new starting tailbacks, and just for the heck of it, toss in a pinch of injuries to some key players.

If that sounds like the formula for a toxic stew, one whose finished product is a lot of offenses that were, frankly, pretty offensive, well, it is. And the primary ingredient for so many offenses being half-cooked right out of the regular-season oven, it seems, is that nearly half the offensive linemen were either new starters or starting at new positions.

"If you have maybe one [new starter], it shouldn't be that much of a problem," said Houston center Mike Flanagan, a former Pro Bowl performer signed as an unrestricted free agent to help stabilize a Texans unit that implemented a new zone-blocking scheme in the offseason. "But when you've got almost an entirely new line, it's going to take a while to come together. We'll get better. But I know people don't want to hear that right now with the way we played [on Sunday]."

Indeed, the Texans represented a microcosm of what transpired around the league last week: lots of linemen in new places. An aggressive opponent in the Philadelphia Eagles, with a blitzing scheme and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson determined to demonstrate that the sack slump they suffered in 2005 was an aberration. A quarterback all too accustomed to the view from the Reliant Stadium turf and a rookie tailback making his first regular-season start.

David Carr
Hunter Martin/WireImage.comDavid Carr was sacked five times in Houston's Week 1 loss to the Eagles.

The result: Quarterback David Carr, who entered the game having been sacked once every 8.9 dropbacks in the first four seasons of his career, was dumped five times. The callow Houston running backs rushed for a measly 70 yards. And not surprisingly, the Texans, who mustered just 241 total yards, lost their season opener by a 24-10 count.

Houston didn't have a single offensive line starter manning the same position he did for more than eight games in 2005. And the Texans started a rookie third-round draft choice (Charles Spencer) at the critical left tackle spot. But they were hardly the only team in the NFL that paid the price for entering the year with a dramatically overhauled offensive line.

Of the 160 offensive line starters leaguewide in the opening week, 69 were either players with new teams, blockers playing new positions, or rookies. That's an average of 2.16 new starters per team, and 10 clubs had three or more new starters. Wonder why the Oakland Raiders were so offensively inept, beyond the typically uninspired play of quarterback Aaron Brooks, who ponders his options longer than it takes Mel Brooks to conjure up his newest screenplay? The Raiders had five new starters on the line.

Never mind that Raiders head coach Art Shell and offensive line coach Jackie Slater are Hall of Fame offensive linemen. League rules prohibited the pair from suiting up.

And so Raiders quarterbacks were sacked nine times, with Brooks absorbing seven of them, and Oakland netted just 87 rushing yards in being shut out by the San Diego Chargers.

"I just think it's hard for any offense to take on that many new starters [on the line] and try to function at a high level right out of the box," said Atlanta tailback Warrick Dunn, who posted a league-best 132 yards in Week 1 running behind a line featuring just one new starter (left tackle Wayne Gandy). "That's what gives us an edge. Our guys know what they're doing, because they've been doing it together for a lot of years. Their job is to create a lane, and my job is to get up into that lane, and you can see the coordination between the two."

Around the league, though, such coordination was mostly lacking in the opening week. The optimist might point out that, like in baseball, where the pitchers almost always set the tone coming out of spring training, defenses characteristically rule in the early weeks of the NFL schedule, and things eventually even out. But the situation was so treacherous in the first week that one has to wonder how many quarterbacks might be laid out, or how many tailbacks will be in traction, by the time offensive line units meld.

There were 81 sacks last week, an average of slightly more than five per game, and that is a pace that would set a new high since the NFL went to the 256-game schedule in 2002, when the Texans came into the league as an expansion team. Of the 32 starting quarterbacks, only four -- New Orleans' Drew Brees, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, Washington's Mark Brunell and San Diego's Philip Rivers -- didn't hit the deck at least once.

Seventeen starters went down three times or more. Kansas City backup Damon Huard was sacked four times in relief of Trent Green, who was actually injured outside the pocket on a scramble, as the once-impenetrable Chiefs line surrendered seven sacks overall. The Raiders allowed nine sacks in a game in which they completed just eight passes.

The league quarterbacks, though, weren't the only players absorbing plenty of lumps behind poor lines. Running backs suffered as well. There were only three games in which both teams ran for 100 yards or more. There were, likewise, three games in which neither offense posted 100 rushing yards. Thirteen teams registered less than 90 yards on the ground, six had less than 70 and three had 50 or less.

"Let's face it, you can have all the best skill-position players in the world, and if your line isn't doing its job, you're going to be in trouble," said Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, whose unit was one of just six in the league to return intact from 2005. "It all starts up front. It goes good up front or it can go bad up front. This week, I guess, it went real bad for some people."

There were a few exceptions. Kudos to the New Orleans staff, which fielded five new starters, including two players (rookie right guard Jahri Evans and fourth-year right tackle Jon Stinchcomb) making their first regular-season starts. The Saints' line nonetheless kept Brees spotless and helped their tailbacks carve out 150 rushing yards. The Minnesota Vikings' line, with four new starters, surrendered just one sack. But successful results for lines with more than two new starters were rare.

Perhaps the most surprisingly disappointing performance was turned in by the Seattle Seahawks, who played without star left guard Steve Hutchinson, now with the Vikings. The Seattle staff was confident veteran Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack could slide comfortably into Hutchinson's starting spot. But when left tackle Walter Jones was forced from the game for a few series, the once-indomitable left side of the Seattle line looked all too mortal. The Seahawks allowed five sacks and managed just 91 rushing yards.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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