O-Line Dance Reaches Fever Pace

The Packers have made one change to their offensive line. They should consider themselves lucky. Even in a league where line changes are regular and expected, the musical chairs within starting fronts this season is cause for alarm, writes Len Pasquarelli.

With the season-ending triceps injury suffered by right tackle Willie Colon last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be forced to again shuffle their offensive line unit, with rookie second-rounder Marcus Gilbert promoted to the starting lineup for Sunday's game against Seattle.

The setback to Colon, the second straight year in which a season-ending injury has claimed the Steelers' best blocker, means that Pittsburgh will employ a 12th different starting line combination in its last 40 games.

For a franchise whose proud hallmark has been stability, that's a big number.

But in a league where offensive line switches are the norm anymore, either because of attrition or by choice, it's become commonplace. And based on the opening week of play, the 2011 season won't be any different.

Unofficially, there were a combined 52 new offensive line starters for the 32 teams in the first week of regular-season play. Twelve players who had been with their teams for at least the '10 season started in new positions. That's 64 changes, an average of two per franchise, on the offensive line. Only seven of the alterations were the result of injury, suspension or holdout, past or present.

Once upon a time, an offensive line coach could pencil in his starting five and count on the same group lining up every week, and perhaps from year to year. Former longtime NFL offensive line coach Jim McNally, who spent 27 seasons tutoring blockers before retiring, noted a few years ago that a person could review a series of team pictures and "notice that the offensive linemen were the same for four, five, six years in a row ... and were basically in the same places in the pictures."

These days, such pictures are out of focus.

One of the less-publicized byproducts of veteran free agency has been the resultant annual game of offensive line musical chairs. Couple that with the recent trend of inserting rookies every year into the line - there were 14 rookie line starters in the first week of the regular season - and with injuries that precipitate changes, and you get a line dance that has left some units out of tune.

Since the start of free agency in 1993, the annual number of line changes, based on the units most frequently used by clubs in a given year, is 1.75. Until four years ago, that average was 2.1, and then it fell off a bit. The results of last week, though, may indicate that it is on the rise again.

Said Chicago lineman Chris Spencer: "It's hard to get any kind of consistency when you're constantly mixing and matching."

The onetime first-rounder should know. A former starter in Seattle, where he played six seasons before signing with the Bears as an unrestricted free agent this spring, Spencer experienced firsthand the implications of line changes. The Seahawks used an unwieldy 16 different starting combinations the past two seasons, including 10 different starting quintets in 2010.

Spencer was the lone lineman to start all 16 games in 2010 and actually started all but two contests the past two seasons. "But there were times," he acknowledged, "when you almost had to introduce yourself to the guy next to you."

Certainly, continuity on the line has been replaced by transition.

Only one team, the New York Jets, started the same combination in 2009. Last year, just two teams, Atlanta and New Orleans, used the same five starters every week. When the Jets released Alan Faneca in the spring of 2010, it ended a now-rare streak of 35 straight games with the same starters. The Jets have one new starter, right tackle Wayne Hunter, this season. New Orleans has two new starters, center Olin Kreutz and right tackle Zach Strief, this season. The Falcons have a new starting right guard, Garrett Reynolds, in place of the departed (free agency to St. Louis) Harvey Dahl. For its opening-week loss at Chicago, Atlanta was forced to start untested center Joe Hawley because of an injury to Todd McClure.

McClure had started the previous 144 straight games.

"Sooner or later," McClure said, "there's going to be a change."

For 2011, the changes seem to have come sooner. Just two teams last week, Detroit and Tennessee, started line units that were projected as their starting groups or which were their most frequently used starting quintets a year ago. The Packers, with T.J. Lang having replaced veteran Daryn Colledge (free agent to Arizona) at left guard, made one change. Ten teams had more than two changes.

The Packers' opponent on Sunday, Carolina, already has swapped out injured right tackle Jeff Otah with rookie Byron Bell.

Notably, part of the continuing growth of the Lions might be attributed to the sudden stability of the offensive line. In 2009, the Lions used seven different groups of starters. That was reduced to two in 2010, and there is carryover now in '11.

"A huge difference," said center Dominic Raiola.

Putting together a blocking unit for the Philadelphia "Dream Team" was essentially a nightmare for first-year line coach Howard Mudd. Counting new starters and one holdover player moved to a new position (left guard Todd Herremans, who switched to right tackle), the Eagles have four different starters. Indianapolis also had four new starters. Chris Williams, a onetime first-round pick at left tackle who was moved to left guard a year ago, was the line Chicago starter in the same spot as in 2010.

Not surprisingly, Seattle had four new starters.

Nothing lasts forever anymore in the NFL. But offensive line units have significantly less staying power than they traditionally did. Once a bedrock of consistency, lines seem to be constantly in flux.

In fact, one unexplored angle might be the potential trickle-down effect that the line changes had on passing yardage for the first week. By nature, pass protection schemes tend to be much easier to formulate than running designs, and that might help account for the fact there was an average of 67.4 pass attempts per contest in the opening week of play.

That accounted for a league single-week record of 7,842 passing yards.

Just five teams attempted fewer than 25 passes in Week 1. By contrast, 10 clubs had 40 or more attempts.

Extrapolating averages after only one week of play is always tricky business. But if the one-week rate were to continue, the league would set a new record for pass attempts in a 256-game season.


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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.


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