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Continuity Leads to Chemistry for Offensive Line

Posted Oct 28, 2010

Before he took a moment to answer the question, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo looked around searching for something to satisfy his superstition concerns about it.

That’s because, through seven games, his offensive line has employed the same starting five in each contest and the last thing he wanted to do was put a jinx on it.

“I mean, knock on wood,” Spagnuolo said. “Every game you go and all five are the same, that’s a good thing.  So I think those guys get more and more comfortable.”

Tackle Jason Smith bumped heads with end Chris Long in Thursday's practice and was what Spagnuolo called "a little bit fuzzy." It remains to be seen if that will end the streak this week.

While it might not seems like a big deal to an outside observer for the same five linemen to play in every game for the first seven games of a season, it certainly stands as quite an accomplishment considering the state of that group in the past six plus years.

Consider that since the Rams started the exact same line for every game of the 2003 season, no Rams team has been able to put the same group of five in the same positions on the field for more than a consecutive series of five games.

So it is that the combination of tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, guards Adam Goldberg and Jacob Bell and center Jason Brown have thus far been able to come together to form a line that is both creating holes for running back Steven Jackson and keeping rookie quarterback Sam Bradford upright.

“I think our offensive line has done a great job,” Bradford said. “They protected me. I haven’t got hit often. I haven’t been sacked a lot. I think they’re also doing a great job in the run game, opening up some holes for our backs and I think that’s been huge for us, being able to establish the run game.”

More so than any other spot on the field, the ability to communicate and work together is nothing short of mandatory for the offensive line. With defenses evolving and working so hard to create confusion so as to free up just one person to run free at the quarterback, there is much for an offensive lineman to digest and execute on a given play.

Should there be one communication error or one step in the wrong direction by any of the five; it could lead to a broken play that could swing momentum or, worse, an injured quarterback.

In other words, there’s no more important word to an offensive line than continuity.

“We call ourselves a fist,” Brown said. “Every time we break down, we say that we are five fingers working together for a shared common goal. The thing is it’s tough when you have rotation in there. It wasn’t easy last year when we had so many guys in the mix but you have to overcome that adversity.”

Of course, for that continuity to mean much of anything there has to be a connection among the guys developing it. It is common practice for offensive linemen to be among the closest groups off the field because they rely on one another so much on the field.

This group has plenty of that camaraderie. Take, for instance, the group’s regular Thursday tradition of going out to dinner.

While that provides plenty of opportunity to build the relationship, there’s also some competition tied in. Each week, the first offensive lineman to commit a false start penalty must pay the freight for the entire group.

And while the bill is never in the Dez Bryant stratosphere, it’s still enough incentive to hold water before the ball is snapped.

“Really, I think we are growing stronger and stronger,” Saffold said. “We all go out for Thursday night dinner. We are real close. A lot of times people think this is just such a business that you really have to just care about yourself. But we are caring about ourselves while still caring about each other and that’s what is leading us to be more accountable for each other and play like we’re playing.”

The way the group is playing is far from perfect but it’s still been quite an upgrade over the recent history of the groups that have been ravaged by injury and turnover.

With a rookie at quarterback, and considering the investment made in Bradford, building a line that can protect him became even more critical. It’s why general manager Billy Devaney made it a point to piece a line together before drafting a franchise signal caller.

That’s paid dividends so far. In 2007, the Rams allowed 48 sacks followed by 45 in 2008 and 44 last year. This season, the team is on pace to allow 34 sacks, an improvement of 10 over last season.

But on further examination, the offensive line’s performance in pass protection has been even better. According to STATS, Inc., the five starters plus John Greco, who has rotated some with Goldberg at right guard, have allowed just 6.5 of the team’s 15 sacks allowed.

“We take it to heart, guarding Sam,” Brown said. “We know it’s a big challenge week in and week out because there are a lot of guys gunning for him. We are his bodyguards.”

The improved performance of the offensive line hasn’t been limited to its work protecting Bradford, either.

Jackson is off to another fine start, stringing together three consecutive 100-yard games and on pace for his second consecutive 1,400 yard season (he’s actually on pace for 1,410).

On the interior, Brown, Goldberg and Bell have had plenty of time to develop a rapport and with all three healthy; they know everything the other is going to do on a given play.

“Adam Goldberg to my right and Jacob Bell to my left, there are so many reps there, hundreds and hundreds of reps to the point where I know not only their movements but I also know what they are thinking,” Brown said.

Considering the mix of veterans and youth on the line, the line’s development is still a work in progress. Saffold is a rookie at left tackle while Smith might as well be on the right side after missing most of last season with injury.

That has led to a few hiccups along the way, including six false starts between Saffold and Smith.

But Saffold says the elder statesmen on the interior and line coach Steve Loney have been instrumental in helping the young tackles fit in and understand their assignments every week.

“It’s easier because they can tell us what to do,” Saffold said. “But it’s hard when we do a lot of tackle stuff. Because we are so young, sometimes we have to put our heads together and try to think of some solutions to help ourselves.”

As that development continues there’s no doubting that the future remains bright for the fist. As the young tackles grow into their roles, Jackson believes the line has a tremendous upside.

“You can see that they’re starting to have chemistry,” Jackson said. “They’re protecting Sam, keeping him upright, which is allowing for big plays to happen down the field, and allowing us to wear a team down and take over like we did in the last quarter against San Diego. The continuity is there and they’re only going to get better because we have a left tackle that’s a rookie and a right tackle that is pretty much a rookie still, not having much game experience.”