Early on, a rookie has the monumental task of play memorization. Then comes the difficulty in knowing the adjustments he has to make when a defense shifts pre-snap. Follow the learning curve next by introducing run and pass blitzes, and well, that's a lot of stuff in your noggin.
Add to that learning the poise and composure needed to "hold your water" under all types of down and distance circumstances and environmental challenges such as playing in a dome, or maybe a yakkety-yak Ray Lewis standing at the line of scrimmage shooting off his bazoo trying to confuse the snap count.
Usually what happens is that the specific techniques of pass pro, or run blocking, are forgotten or outright abandoned in the tense moments before, during, and after the snap. It's only after countless repetitions of hard-wiring your techniques to plays are starters born.
For a young offensive lineman, learning the self-defense art of hand fighting on a pass play comes in stages. First footwork.
Fred Astaire has nothing on heavy-footed heifers when it comes to the dexterity of the feet while setting hard on a bull rush. A lineman has to learn to step-slide his way while mirroring his opponent, forward, backward, and sideways.
It has to be done all without crossing his feet or narrowing his base. If he gets his feet too close together, his hips and center of balance rise. As the tried and true saying goes, "You can't fire a cannon out of a canoe." Too wide and he can't move quick enough to cut off the edge rushers.
Punching to keep a defender off you and at arm's length is another component of pass pro. Rather than bore you to tears with the science of power punching, let's look at the critical role timing a punch plays in successfully defending the castle.
Timing the punch is as crucial to offensive linemen as the power of the punch. Punch early and you get off-balanced and draw air. Punch late and you're nose-to-nose with a big ugly, riding the 7-train highway straight into Ben's lap -- a warm, fuzzy moment that you can be sure number 7 would rather avoid.
As with a boxer, the key is to know your range. Long arms mean long range. Max Starks should have a great punch that ought to nail defensive linemen before they can get off the line of scrimmage, but Max has a tendency to wait too long to throw the punch. See the point made above for results.
Short-armed guys like Tunch Ilkin and I had to depend on timing, or we were toast. Guys like the Raiders' 6'9" John Matuszak or the Houston Oilers' 6'8" Sean Jones had arms so long they could give you a wedgie while you had your arms locked out on their chests.
Knowing the proper moment to pull the trigger requires the patience of a sniper, and the courage as well. If you don't believe in the punch, and I mean whole-heartedly, then you will forever be reduced to doubting yourself. Half-hearted punching will get the quarterback killed.
You have to be of the mindset that, in the words of noted puncher extraordinaire Tunch Ilkin, "You're afraid not to punch." And that comes with time.
Just as the tennis player needs to set his feet before hitting the ball, so too does an offensive lineman. The key skill here is to be able to time up the hands with the feet.
Years ago, the Steelers drafted a big offensive tackle by the name of Leon Searcy. This cat had the footwork, and the punch. But it wasn't until his 3rd year that he got his feet timed up with his hands. Once he did that, he killed people.
The Steelers drafted Tony Hills this year. In the game against the Eagles, Tony looked like a guy that wasn't sure of his plays, the snap count, who he was responsible for, etc. He looked like he abandoned his technique in the frenzy of the moment once the ball was snapped. All of this is very normal, and to be expected.
In Toronto he looked to be a very different player. His footwork had improved; he positioned his feet and body well. He seemed confident in his pickups. But his timing of the punch has still eluded him. That's normal. It takes time before the light bulb goes on.
Following the progression of a player takes a watchful eye. In the art of pass pro, the next step for Tony Hills is to time up his punch. Then, and only then, can he hope to make the next jump. But those jumps come with paychecks.