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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Applause for the big guys up front

By Ross Tucker
ESPN.com

The NFL's wild-card weekend was refreshing, or at least encouraging, for a former offensive lineman like me. That's because line play up front on both sides of the ball -- the battle in the trenches -- really was the difference in the games, or most of them, anyway. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Isaac Redman's career-high 121 yards on 17 carries were perhaps the notable exception.

It was refreshing because line play seems to have been steadily de-emphasized in recent years. From the Year of the Quarterback on ESPN to fantasy football's ever-increasing popularity, it seems as if the only players who matter to the vast majority of fans and members of the media are the ones at the so-called "skill" positions. Maybe on some level it has always been that way. But it sure feels as if the arrow is pointing up for the guys who touch the football and down for the ones who don't.

Maybe the events of wild-card weekend will focus more of the conversation on the big guys up front on both sides of the ball.

The Houston Texans' offensive line, arguably the best in the NFL, was able to get Arian Foster to the second level consistently untouched against the Cincinnati Bengals on his way to 153 yards on 24 carries. The defensive line did its part, as well. J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell in particular harassed Bengals QB Andy Dalton into a subpar day that included three interceptions and a couple of other batted-down balls. Line play carried the Texans franchise to a first-ever playoff victory.

The same thing happened in New Orleans. The Saints were able to run the ball with their three-headed monster -- Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory -- but the Detroit Lions really didn't even try. The pass rush in the game was pretty much a wash. Although the Lions entered the contest with the much more ballyhooed group, any edge Detroit had was slight.

It was more of the same in New York on Sunday. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw pounded the Atlanta Falcons' defense behind a strong performance from the blocking unit, and the Giants' defense stopped the Falcons on two fourth-and-inches quarterback sneaks.

Sensing a trend here? It's not a coincidence. It's also the main reason all three games were already decided with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That wasn't the case in Denver, where the line play was even and so was the score until Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard Broncos touchdown on the first play of overtime to end it.

Line play is important. Here's my ranking of the eight remaining offensive lines in the postseason:

1. Houston Texans: Center Chris Myers and tackles Duane Brown, Eric Winston are absolute studs. Wade Smith is very underrated at left guard. Houston has been able to play the same five guys most of the season.

2. New Orleans Saints: The best pair of guards in the NFL leads this group, which has had issues at the right tackle spot.

3. Baltimore Ravens: The pair of guards in Baltimore isn't too shabby, either, although the tackles can be inconsistent.

4. New England Patriots: That this team is 13-3 in spite of all of the injuries up front is a testament to line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

5. Denver Broncos: They've benefited from the ability to pound the rock, but it can't be easy to pass block for Tim Tebow, given his penchant to hold the ball and run around in the backfield.

6. San Francisco 49ers: Mike Iupati is a monster at left guard, and generally steady Joe Staley makes the left side of the line formidable.

7. New York Giants: It hasn't been a great year for this group, but it has played better lately.

8. Green Bay Packers: Injuries have greatly hampered a unit that has clearly taken a step back from this time last season.

From the inbox

Q: I am so confused as to why Jerry Angelo (or maybe Lovie Smith) still has his job after so many busted drafts, poor "character" acquisitions on a team that claims to prioritize character, and clear mismanaging of the offense (lack of O-line, no QB depth, no weapons for Jay Cutler to throw to, botched Devin Hester experiment at WR). Given how great the aging defense and special teams have been, it seems criminal. So help me out. What are some good things that he's done to keep his job thus far?

Mitch from Barrington, Ill.

A: Obviously, this email is outdated because you got your wish and Angelo was fired last week. I still want to answer it, however, because I was surprised by the move and frankly don't agree with it. Every single front-office executive has hits and misses. They are not unlike baseball players in that regard. They all have a batting average. It is pretty easy if you support an executive to point out all of his good transactions -- and of course the opposite holds true, as well. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to wins and losses. In Angelo's case, the Bears got to their first Super Bowl in 21 years under his watch and hosted the NFC Championship Game last year. This season they were 7-3 and looked primed to make a playoff run until their starting QB got injured and Matt Forte, by far their most productive player, went down. Although the Bears absolutely should be criticized for the play of their backup QBs this season, there are about 20-25 franchises that would have been thrilled to have the Bears' record during Angelo's tenure in Chicago.

Q: I can't let the NFL season conclude without seeing if I am truly a blind fan, or if I've stumbled upon something here. I believe that the group of Penn State linebackers currently on NFL rosters is one of the finest, as a group, ever to play in the NFL at one time from the same school. In alphabetical order: NaVorro Bowman, 49ers; Dan Connor, Panthers; Tamba Hali, Chiefs; Josh Hull, Rams; Sean Lee, Cowboys; Aaron Maybin, Jets; Paul Posluszny, Jaguars; Tim Shaw, Titans; Cameron Wake, Dolphins. That list includes pass-rushers, run stoppers, sideline-to-sideline players, and special teamers. I don't know that any single LB can be considered elite, or even the best Penn State has offered over the years, but as a group, they have to be close to the best. What do you think?

Nick from Wyomissing, Pa.

A: I grew up in a family that had Penn State season tickets for years and share your affinity for Linebacker U, but I had never really thought about the current crop the way you laid it out. What really jumps out to me is the emergence of Lee and Bowman this year. They are both on the cusp of being elite -- if they aren't there already -- and Posluszny was so highly regarded as a free agent that he signed a deal making him one of the highest-paid linebackers in the game. As for pass-rushers, Hali and Wake already are two of the best in the league and Maybin was a surprise stud in that area for the Jets this year. I can't think of a better group of linebackers from one college in the league at the same time, although the University of Miami has had a pretty good run for a while with Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason and others. What makes Penn State's group unique is that the players are all young and should be in the league for years. It's a real credit to Ron Vanderlinden, their linebackers coach for much of the past decade.

Q: It seems that the typical NFL team has a very large number of plays in the playbook. How much time in practice does any given play get? Are some in the book never practiced yet still used? How does a replacement player grasp the depth of the playbook?

Ben from Montreal

A: It varies greatly depending upon the opponent, the game plan for that week and how much a team plans to run a particular play. If it is a new play for that week, it might get 5-10 reps in the week of preparation, and a staple play that the team has run all year might get only one or two. If a play is in the game plan for that week, it is very likely that the team would practice it. There are always plays that teams spend a lot of time on during training camp that never get run all season, or, in some instances, show up in the game plan randomly in Week 13 because the coaches feel they can be useful even though the team hasn't run them since August.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.