Holding the Line

All good offensive lines seem to play better with more time together. Most of the better units in the NFL seems to come together, or "gel," as the season goes on. The Jaguars success as a team in 2007 seems to be directly connected to the play of their offensive line.

The Jaguars preseason saw injuries starting center Brad Meester and Chris Naeole, and they were forced to fill in with Dennis Norman and rookie Uche Nwaneri for much of the exhibition season. Although Naeole's knee injury was fairly minor, he missed some valuable reps with the rest of his linemates. Throw in newcomer Tony Pashos at right tackle, and the Jaguars began the season with a lot of instability up front.

The Jaguars started the season with Norman filling in for Meester, Naeole not getting his full workload in the preseason, and Pashos trying to fit in and they were dominated by a more physical Tennessee Titans group. The Titans only had two sacks, but they pressured Jaguars quarterback David Garrard for much of the day, and held the Jaguars powerful rushing attack to just 72 yards on the ground. A week later against a weak Atlanta defense, the Jaguars offensive line gave up four sacks and had a grand total of 91 yards rushing, still a poor performance. The Jaguars obviously lost the first game and nearly lost the second game, and the offense scored just 23 points combined.

Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio talked about the lack of execution early on--

"We looked back at the game, to look back at it briefly before we move ahead, obviously it wasn't what we're accustomed to and what we pride ourselves on here in terms of being able to run the ball and in terms of being able to stop the run, two areas that have really been a source of strength for us over the last few years. We have been diligent working on those parts of our gam, but clearly when you look at the tape, we did not execute well, we did not block well, they were more physical than us, so very little generated in the running game in terms of being efficient. Even the total number came in a couple of plays, the bulk of the yardage came in a couple of plays. They really stuffed our run very efficiently. So, we'll go back to the drawing board and make sure the mental errors, the technique errors, the things that were a problem are corrected so that we can be the football team that we're intent on being."

Week three is when things began to turn around for the Jaguars offensive line when they traveled to Denver to take on the Broncos. The Jaguars offensive line imposed their will for the first time in the 2007 season, and despite giving up three sacks, they ran all over the Broncos defense which hasn't been stopping the run, for 186 yards on the ground. After a bye week gave the line more time to gel, the Jaguars once again ran over a solid Chiefs defense with 156 yards on the ground.

Last week, the Jaguars returned center Brad Meester to the starting lineup and the offensive line had a dominating performance against a physical Houston Texans team. The Texans notched just one sack against the Jaguars offensive line, and the Jaguars big men gashed Houston for 244 yards rushing en route to a 37-17 spanking of their AFC South rivals.

Jack Del Rio talked about Brad Meester's return to the lineup--

"I think the one thing that was really outstanding yesterday was Brad Meester played the whole game. For Brad to come back, I was hopeful we would get him back by next week. We got him back after missing just four games and he played very, very well. Some of those screens that got going down the field, some of those long runs, Brad Meester was a big part of that, so glad to have him back. Dennis Norman did a great job holding down the fort for us while we were waiting for Brad to get back, and Brad got back and showed us why he is one of our leaders on offense and a very good football player. So, very glad to have Brad back."

As the season has gone on, the Jaguars offensive line has transformed themselves from a group that looked completely overmatched to the bullies that Jaguars fans have expected to see. Tony Pashos started the season out horribly, and despite giving up some big plays, has shown considerable improvement each week. Brad Meester stepped in and showed no ill effects from his ankle injury, and Chris Naeole and Vince Manuwai have transformed themselves into the maulers that paved the way for a record 375-yard rushing performance against the eventual champion Colts last season. Despite having problems on and off the field, Khalif Barnes has held his own and made a little magic at left tackle, as he made the former number one overall draft pick in Mario Williams disappear in Jacksonville last Sunday.

Coach Del Rio described the offensive line's performance on his radio show Monday--

"The pass protection was very solid. The first play we gave up a sack, but the rest of the game was very solid. They did a good job against a very physical, talented front four with lots of number one picks. The offensive line met the challenge."

If the Jaguars are going to continue to have success the offensive line must meet the challenge again week after week, starting this Monday when they take on the defending Super Bowl champs. If the Jaguars line stays injury free and continues to grow and gel, this could be a very special year in Jacksonville.

Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of Jagnation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, and Sportsillustated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer.

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