An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
13 Dec 2006
by Michael David Smith
I'm a glutton for punishment.
How else to explain my decision to watch the Oakland Raiders' offensive line on every play of their 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals? I was curious to see just how bad this much-maligned offensive line was, whether any of the individual linemen had promise, and whether the line of a team whose head coach, Art Shell, and position coach, Jackie Slater, are Hall of Fame tackles, looked like it had soaked up any of their wisdom.
The results weren't pretty. Running backs Justin Fargas and ReShard Lee combined for 14 carries for 34 yards. The Raiders' median run on the day was two yards, and the most common result was zero -- Fargas got stuffed at the line three times. Quarterback Aaron Brooks was sacked four times, hit while throwing six times and pressured on most of his other dropbacks.
The most talented Oakland offensive lineman is probably right tackle Langston Walker. (This is like talking about "the youngest Golden Girl.") Walker is massive and surprisingly quick for his size, and if run-blocking were the only important part of a lineman's job, I might even describe him as a good player. On a first-and-10 sweep around the right end by Fargas, Walker led the way with a great kickout block on Cincinnati's strongside linebacker, Rashad Jeanty. It was very impressive to see a guy Walker's size have the quickness to get out in front of a play like that.
But pass blocking was another story. On second-and-7 in the first quarter, Brooks had to hurry his throw because the blitzing Kevin Kaesviharn was pressuring him. Kaesviharn came around the corner, but Walker didn't seem to see him. Walker blocked down when he should have looked to stop the rush from the outside, and that gave Kaesviharn a clear path.
Late in the first quarter, Walker gave up the Raiders' first sack when he was matched one-on-one with defensive end Robert Geathers. When Geathers won the individual matchup, Brooks rolled to the left, but Geathers caught him from behind for the sack. Justin Smith, the end on the other side of the line, helped collapse the pocket by knocking left tackle Chad Slaughter back.
On passing plays, Smith and Geathers generally did whatever they wanted. Geathers finished the day with two sacks, and Smith hit Brooks as he passed three times. Slaughter is a 6-foot-8, 340-pounder who had started only one game in his career before this season. Smith was too much for him. On a third-and-18, Slaughter just barely slowed Smith down, and Smith drilled Brooks as he threw. (Surprisingly, Brooks delivered a nice pass to Alvis Whitted, who beat Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a 19-yard gain.) Slaughter was pressed into duty at left tackle this season when Robert Gallery went down, and he clearly doesn't belong there. A guy that big can always find a job in the NFL, but a team that wants its quarterback to stay healthy won't start Slaughter at left tackle.
As inexperienced as Slaughter is, he's actually a more seasoned player than the Raiders' pair of rookie guards, Paul McQuistan and Kevin Boothe. Boothe was terrible. On a first-and-10, Fargas tried to run behind Boothe, but Boothe never budged Sam Adams at all, and Jeanty brought him down for no gain. I was very impressed with Jeanty, a first-year NFL player from Central Florida who spent the last three years up north with the Edmonton Eskimos. He was injured for the whole month of October, and it's not a coincidence that the Bengals' defense has improved as Jeanty has gotten more playing time in recent weeks.
Boothe, a rookie from Cornell, seemed to have communication problems with Walker, the tackle next to him. Cincinnati's second sack came on a third-and-7 late in the second quarter. Domata Peko lined up at left defensive end opposite Walker, while Geathers lined up at left defensive tackle opposite Boothe. At first both Oakland linemen made their blocks, but then Geathers looped to the outside, and that's where Walker and Boothe got confused. The correct move would have been for Walker to take Geathers on the outside and allow Boothe to take Peko to the inside. Instead, Walker stayed with Peko, and Geathers got to the outside with Boothe unable to slow him down. Geathers chased Brooks out of the pocket and sacked him for a loss of three.
In the third quarter the Raiders went for it on fourth-and-1 with a handoff to ReShard Lee. The play called for Lee to go over the left tackle, but Boothe, lined up at right guard, did such a bad job on Sam Adams that Adams brought Lee down from the backside. It was an absolutely horrid block from Boothe. He hardly even laid a finger on Adams. I hope he personally apologized to Lee after the play.
McQuistan is a rookie from Weber State who looks more like a tackle than a guard. He had a false start in the first quarter, but other than that I thought he turned in a fairly solid game. In fact, if I were Shell, I'd be tempted to give McQuistan a shot at left tackle, where Slaughter isn't getting the job done. McQuistan might not be up to the task just yet, but a rookie from Weber State probably has a lot more room for growing on the job than a sixth-year player who has bounced around the league like Slaughter.
Center Jake Grove looks like a decent player who could be pretty good if he had better teammates. On a second-and-5 pass, Grove did a great job in one-on-one blocking on Adams. The whole line held up on the play, actually, but these are the Raiders we're talking about, so Brooks' pass bounced off the hands of tight end Randal Williams and into the hands of middle linebacker Brian Simmons for an interception.
When Grove didn't play well, it often looked like he was having more communications problems with the rookie guards on either side of him. On a second-and-4 in the second quarter, defensive end Bryan Robinson rushed directly between Grove and Boothe. Grove got a slow first step, and Boothe never even seemed to notice Robinson, who rushed straight at Brooks and forced him to throw the ball away.
That's the second time I've mentioned communications problems with the two rookies. Although all rookies have a period of adjusting to the NFL, when you watch linemen who don't seem to know their assignments, it's hard not to blame the coaches. I agree with Ron Jaworski: On the offensive line, it's not always about talent. It's about communication and understanding between the five guys on the line, with the tight end and fullback working in harmony.
Of course, the blocking problems in Oakland aren't limited to the offensive line. The Raiders' tight ends did a lousy job blocking as well. On a second-and-4 handoff to Fargas, Oakland lined up with two tight ends to the right, Williams and Courtney Anderson. Williams missed his block on Jeanty completely, allowing Jeanty to hit Fargas behind the line of scrimmage, and Anderson didn't hold his block long enough, allowing Simmons to finish the tackle.
In addition to spreading some blame around to the tight ends, let's not pretend the protection problems are all the blockers' fault. It just wouldn't be an Aaron Brooks game without the patented 15-step drop. On a third-and-8, Brooks took a shotgun snap. When Justin Smith beat Slaughter and got in Brooks' face, Brooks backpedaled. When he finally set up to pass, he was 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and had three Bengals in his face. He heaved the ball in the air, and Simmons knocked it down immediately for an incompletion. That is about the best result possible when Brooks starts to backpedal, but it's best not to do it at all.
The big question mark for the Raiders' line is Robert Gallery, the third-year player who was the most highly touted offensive line prospect in years when the Raiders drafted him out of Iowa. Gallery has been injured for much of this season and missed Sunday's game, and when he has played it hasn't been pretty. His failure to develop into a solid player is a major disappointment for the Raiders, and his contract is a major strain on their salary cap.
It's too late to hope Gallery will turn into the player the Raiders thought he would be, and unless he'll agree to a team-friendly restructuring of his contract in the off-season, it's time for the Raiders to sever ties with him. All hope isn't lost for the entire line, though. Walker and Grove seem salvageable, and McQuistan looks like he could turn into a good player. That leaves two spots on the line that the Raiders need to address in the off-season. But can the current brain trust in Oakland be counted on to fill those spots wisely? If not, we could be in for more Aaron Brooks backpedaling in 2007.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
50 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2006, 2:31am by Ray J