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MHR University - Individual Roles on the Offensive Line

MHR University - Individual Roles on the Offensive Line

(and QB Adjustments)

Denver Broncos fans have a lot to chew on for this upcoming season. In terms of the offensive line, there are many considerations to talk about. Consider:

  1. Denver drafted several OLmen in the 2010 draft.
  2. Denver continues the move away from the zone block into the gap block (sometimes mistakenly called "man block").
  3. A prominent first round pick (Tim Tebow) is left handed.
  4. Denver will likely continue towards the singleback formations, eschewing the need for a FB on the roster.

Let's talk a little bit about the roles of individual OLmen, and how they change (or don't) under the expected program for 2010. See you after the jump!

The importance of being "right"

Let's start with a basic theme throughout football. Most run plays are to the center-right of the line. There are many reasons for this. First, we are in a right tilting world when it comes to cognitive function. About 85% of the world is right handed. We read (in western culture) towards the right. In military protocol, the senior officer or NCO walks to the right, and the right side is a place of honor reserved for one's flag. Dating back to ancient warfare, the best spearmen lined up on the right.

In football, the "strong side" refers to the side that the TE lines up on (almost always the right side). So ingrained in our pysche is the concept of "right" as dominant, that many broadcasters will erroneously assume that the right side is always called the strong side (even former players).

The runs not only go the right more often than not, but the go to the center. In euclidean geometry, the straightest way between two points goes along a straight line. In physics, we know that "bulling" ahead picks up yards when resistance is met, but starting to one side and turning leads to a loss of speed and momentum (as everyone from fighter pilots to submarine commanders now).

This isn't to say that other runs are inferior. Runs to the outside have a higher probability of long yardage, yet have a lower rate of success. Runs to the left side are often played because of the surprise factor or to take advantage of a mismatch. However, since the best run blockers are on the right side of the line we will see more runs to the right side (the pass blockers guard the QB's blind side). In the NFL, only the San Diego Chargers (in our own AFC West) have tried to make major advances in testing the left side for dedicated running routes.

Given the above points, we can now consider the roles of our OLmen.

Individual roles of the OLmen

The center (OC) has a unique problem. He must hike the ball to the QB while still maintaining the ability to either fend off a pass rush or support a run blocking scheme. There is no room for error (as a botched snap can lead to a turnover). The OC must not only be able to make perfect snaps every time (with opponents bearing down on him), but he is also the closest player to the ball, the QB, and (most often) the running lane. In addition to all of this, he often is tasked with reading the pass rush assignments (QBs take this role too, but QBs are burdened with several responsibilities, and often the OC reads the DL better because the DL is his specialty on every single play). In today's NFL, we often prize the left tackle (LT) the most on the OL. Given the sheer number of responsibilities for the OC, one can make the case that it is the OC who deserves the credit as "the OL's anchor".

But for sheer run blocking, the right guard (RG) is the player selected by coaching staffs. Again, most runs are to the center-right, and with the center already encumbered with snapping the ball, the RG gets the primary task of clearing a lane for the runner.

The right tackle (RT) is the lesser of the two tackles. Both are tasked with preventing the common pass rushes and blitzes from the outside, but the left side features two qualities the require the better tackle to play the left side.

  1. The blind side is to the left side of the formation in most cases, and
  2. The right side has some help (commonly, there is a tight end [TE] playing the right side),
  3. Defenses place their better pass rushing DEs and OLBs on the offense's left side.

In opposition the concept that the "lesser" tackle plays the right side, it is the "lesser" guard who plays the left side (as less runs go this way).

Before I get a lot of hate mail for my use of the terms "greater" and "lesser", it may be worth noting that while the better pass blocker is the LT, and the better run blocker is the RG, it is in fact the LG and RT who are most often jacks of all trades. In other words, the LG and the RT may not be specialists in run and pass blocking (respectively), but they are more often required to do accomplish both roles of blocking more so than their specialist counterparts.

Are there changes for left handed QBs?

Do teams switch around these players when a left handed QB shows up? Surprisingly, the answer is most often "no". While any guard and tackle can move to the other side of the line, years of practice make them more used to blocking in their positions (in terms of body mechanics, balance, and anticipating certain nuances from the DLmen - who themselves have certain ways they prefer to play the game depending on where they line up). Further, because OLmen play as a team (coordinating their blocks in real time and not just by the script), shuffling linemen can cause the effect of disrupting years of work built up in knowing what the guy to the left and the right will do in any situation. Runs still go to the right, and the run oriented side of the line is still needed on this side. WRs and TEs shouldn't be expected to change their routes (and the big playbook in their heads) for the sake of one player either. And while the defense may scheme a little differently for a left handed QB, their position assignments won't change either.

Consider also that unless the team has a depth chart full of lefties, the disruption if a back-up right hander comes in would be further chaos. Even for a QB, the coach isn't likely to disrupt all of the other positions on the team. Little nuances exist for every player on the team, and making a symetrical change to how the players line up and what their roles are is a much more difficult proposition than many can imagine.

In other words, a left handed QB doesn't switch the field around so that the game is played in a "mirrored" manner. Instead, a left handed QB changes the entire dynamic of the game.

Impact on Denver / QB adjustments

I anticipate that there may be some bumps in the road for our OL, magnified for the line by each starter that is new to starting for the team. However, one advantage of dropping the zone block program is that adjustment periods for new OLmen will be much shorter.

Also helping the adjustment period will be Denver's system, which features blocking TEs (often two) and quick screens to the edges (which keeps DCs from wanting to over-commit LBs to assisting in attacking the center of the OL).

Without a FB to assist in blocking the center, a mobile QB like Tebow could further assist the team. I won't get into the middle of the Tebow debate here. As a Broncos fan (as well as from a coaching perspective) I am behind whoever is on our roster - starter or back-up. I am pulling for either QB to lead our team to the promised land. My point in bringing up Tebow is as follows.

Defensive coordinators follow a rule of thumb when it comes to how to blitz a QB. Mobile QBs are dangerous if they get out of the pocket, so we want to crash the pocket from the outside (the edges) to keep him from moving. On the other hand, pocket passers do their best when allowed to stay in place to read the field. For pocket passers, DCs like to attack the pocket from inside (straight ahead) to "flush out the QB" from his prime spot. With changes on the OL coming in terms of manpower and scheming, a mobile QB furthers the difficulty for DCs the Broncos will face.

The strength of the Broncos OL right now is the play of the OTs. Both are excellent pass blockers, making blitzes from the outside difficult. If the interior of the OL is the weaker point for Denver, a QB who can run out of the pocket (with amazing pass blocking from the OTs and blocking TEs) should have plenty of time to do his thing. Never the less, if Kyle Orton is starting he will continue to make passes to the edges (and screens) which should kept attacking defenses honest.

Last, what about reports that Coach McDaniels is training Tebow to be a pocket passer? This title (on a recent AP article featured in Yahoo Sports) was a little misleading. Denver is doing nothing of the sort (as the article correctly points out). The coaching staff is bringing in a new rookie QB the way that any team does, by focusing on refining skills and unlearning some of the bad habits that come with college football. He will first master his mechanics, learn the playbook, and only then be allowed to mix in his own skill set.

The game of football is faster and more brutal at the pro level. The difference in also noticed in how much more intellectualy difficult the game is at the pro level. One example: In the case of Tebow (as with Manning and Elway, to use two prominant examples), he doesn't use the pro form for throwing that requires the ball to start near to the QB's head. One can get away with this in college (where the defense may take longer to get to a QB), and college coaches have less time to develop QBs because they only limited times with the players (in terms of NCAA restrictions on practice time as well as the length of time a player is in college). College coaches thus are often focused on winning now.

Do some QBs come out of college with better mechanics? Sure they do. But QBs often rise and fall regardless of how well they learned in college. Peyton Manning's incredible ability to track multiple receivers at the same time made up for his mechanical shortcomings, and John Elway's amazing athletic skills made up for the same issues that Manning had. Players with good mechanics have also busted (and we can name many first round busts).

Frankly, Kyle Orton hasn't received a fair shake either. For years he has been bounced from starter to back-up to starter again, as well as playing with mediocre talent (Chicago's OL and WRs) and switching teams / systems. He hasn't been given any consistency to develop. And still (like Tim Tebow) he is a winner, putting up better than respectable stats.

Denver continues to be a team in transition, but it is a team that is slowly becoming deep in several positions (we recently turned down Jacksonville inquiries into another Denver QB, Brady Quinn, whom we haven't even talked about in this article).

Denver may not have hit any home runs in this draft (depending on one's perspective), but I believe Denver is following a smart, team building strategy. With three OLmen, two WRs, and a QB taken in this draft (and some other picks as well), Denver is putting together a young team full of high quality people. The approach seems to be value based; in other words, we may not have "elites" at every position, but we won't have stars at some positions at the expense of other positions. And despite this approach, elites will emerge anyway.

The bad news is that I don't see Denver as a deep playoff team. However, I think my predictions for last year were on target (8-8 record, but with improved individual play covered up by a new coach, new coordinators, a new QB, and a tough schedule). The good news is that I still see the team on an improvement track. I think we had a solid draft, the team has another year to gel, and the schedule is easier (at least in terms of teams; MHR editor in chief John Bena points out that Denver has several difficulties to overcome, including three consecutive road games, an away game for a MNF match up, a final game that the team can't "take off" as it is against a strong division rival, and yet another away game for an opener).

I'll hold off on my final predictions for the season until I see our pre-season play (team chemistry and player performance, not wins and losses), but for now I think Denver is on course.


Have any questions about the offensive line, the QB position, or anything else "Xs and Os"? Drop your question or comment in the comments section below. Ideas for future MHR-U articles are also deeply appreciated.

Remember, we love to get into the nitty gritty of "deep" football talk, but we love folks that are new to the game as well. There's no such thing as a question that is too simple or "easy". If I don't know the answer, someone on the staff, or one of our incredible members likely has the answer you're looking for. Team and football history, offensive and defensive systems, techniques, contracts, sports medicine, sports law, etc, - MHR has you covered.

Steve Nichols