Florham Park, NJ– If you ever get a chance to walk into an NFL locker room you won’t be able to avoid the sight of a few gigantic 300 pound plus offensive linemen, it’d be impossible not to notice them as they waddle around room. The irony of course is how often they go unnoticed on the field, yes they are still giants among the other players, but they stay packed in tight and tangle with other gigantic monsters on the defensive side of the ball and they all mesh into one big blur while the ball attracts the attention of the cameras and most of the spectators.

As a fan of football you’ve heard about this before, the offensive line always goes unnoticed by those not focused solely on them, but as the saying goes, football is a game that’s won in the trenches. The offensive line isn’t flashy, you’ll rarely see a great block on a top plays segment, but it’s the root of the offense, everything else extends from the offensive line doing their job.

The regression of the Jets offense can be traced back to Damien Woody's retirement and being replaced by Wayne Hunter. Hunter has since been replaced by Austin Howard who, while still having his own weaknesses, has been a major upgrade over Hunter. (Jetsinsider.com Photo)

A great offensive line opens up holes for the running backs, protects the quarterback and gives receivers enough time to get open. A bad offensive line makes the skill position player’s jobs much more difficult. Adrian Peterson is the best back in the league, but if his line lets the defense bulldoze their way into the backfield before Peterson has a chance to find a lane, he will be rendered useless. The same goes for quarterbacks, sure a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers can help mask the problems his porous offensive line is causing, but he’s the best in the league and still he’d be playing at a much higher level if he had a line as good as the Jets did in 2009 and the Packers would probably be threatening to have a perfect season or end up 15-1 again.

For Jet fans that are still wondering how in the world this franchise went from making the AFC Championship two straight years, with a rookie coach and quarterback leading them, to this disappointment, the answer is simple. Follow the offensive line.

Lost in all the discussion over the quarterback “controversy” is the fact that the offensive line turned in one of their best performances since 2010, the glory days of back-to-back AFC Championship appearances. Everyone always points to the defense as the strength of those ’09 and ’10 teams and it was undoubtably a big strength, but the offensively line play was equally strong.

In 2009 Pro Football Focus graded four out of the five Jets offensive linemen in the top 10 at their positions; Nick Mangold was the highest graded center (+36.3 overall, +5.7 pass block and +29.8 run block), Damien Woody (+33.1 overall, +17.4 pass block and +12.3 run block) the fourth highest guard (among all guards, both left and right), Brandon Moore (+26.1 overall, +10.1 pass block and +16.1 run block) the seventh highest guard and D’Brickashaw Ferguson (+28.0 overall, +12.7 pass block and +14.9 run block) with the seventh highest grade at tackle (among all tackles, left and right). There was only one weak link in the chain, an aging Alan Faneca (+3.2 overall, -5.7 pass block and +7.5 run block) who was graded as the 53rd best guard that season, but when a team has four players each in the top ten of their respected position more often than not they’ll be paving the way for their backs to rush for 2,756 yards or 172.3 yards per game at 4.5 yards a clip. (As a team the Jets allowed only 23 sacks in Sanchez’s rookie season, 15 QB hits and 63 QB hurries, only 3.93 times a game was Sanchez hurried in 2009!!!)

In 2010 the grades looked pretty much the same, the Jets swapped Slauson for Faneca but Slauson was actually a slight improvement as Slauson received a +3.9 overall grade, -.9 pass block, but an solid +10.0 in run blocking (both players allowed six sacks and 15 QB hurries). Mangold was second among centers (+26.1 overall, +7.2 pass block and +17.7 run block), Ferguson fourth amongst all tackles (+27.7 overall, +16.1 pass block and +8.4 run block), Moore was the 10th ranked guard (+17.4 overall, +11.2 pass block and +17.7 run block) and Woody ranked as the 11th best tackle (+20.9 overall, +7.9 pass block and +11.2 run block). Which lead to 2,374 rushing yards, 148.4 yards per game with a 4.4 yards per carry average. (As a team the Jets allowed 24 sacks, 30 QB hits and 93 QB hurries)

So while the swap of Faneca for Slauson didn’t set the offensive line play back in 2010, we all know that replacing Woody with Wayne Hunter didn’t go as well. In 2011 Wayne Hunter allowed 11 sacks himself along with 11 QB hits and 32 QB hurries, also known as half of the team totals from 2009. Hunter was graded as the 71st best tackle in 2009, or if you’d prefer the sixth worst (-20.3 overall, -14.1 pass block and -2.9 run block). Slauson slightly improved his pass blocking to -0.1, but his run block grade went down to +0.9. Mangold was typical Mangold, even as he battled through his ankle injury, which is where the season really feel apart the team and the line just couldn’t get it back together after that, and again finished as the second ranked center (+27.1 overall, +6.4 pass block and +20.9 run block). Moore, still battling his hip issues, slip a bit in his play still grading as the 12th best guard but his grade took a hit in run blocking (+11.3 overall, +11.9 pass block and -2.1 run block) and Ferguson did not live up to his typical standards as well, allowing eight sacks, seven QB hits and 22 QB hurries, dropping him to the 20th ranked tackle (+12.2 overall, +12.4 pass block and -5.9 run block).

This makes is pretty clear where the problems started, in 2009 the Jets lead the league in rushing behind a line with four players ranked in the top 10 at their position and in 2011 the Jets line only had one player, Mangold, who earned more than a +1 grade in run blocking. Because of this decline they only rushed for 1,692 yards, 105.8 yards per game and only 3.8 yards a carry. As the running game declined so did the passing game, as a unit the offensive line allowed 35 sacks, 34 QB hits and 106 QB hurries. Some of those sacks and hurries were on Sanchez for holding the ball too long, but in order for a third-year quarterback to take the step everyone assumes comes in that third year it certainly helps to not have your running game and pass protection vanish as you work with a new set of receivers for the third straight season (this isn’t even to defend Sanchez as much as it’s to say the Jets did their part to mold Sanchez into the shellshocked quarterback he is now).

In 2009 the Jets offense earned an overall +80.1 grade with +37.8 in pass blocking and +83.7 in run blocking. 2010 +58.2 overall offensive grade, +32.0 pass blocking and +53.6 run blocking. 2011 the grades dipped, -20.6 overall on offense, +17.1 pass blocking and only +6.2 run blocking.

In 2012 the pass blocking has improved (+28.3), thanks to improved play from both tackle positions. Ferguson is back to his Pro-Bowl worthiness in pass protection as he has yet to give up a single sack and has a grade of +21.8 overall, +17.9 pass blocking, but lacking a bit in run blocking with only +0.2 and Howard has been a major upgrade over Hunter. Of course it doesn’t take much to being a major upgrade of the 71st best tackle in the league, but 30th best with an overall grade of +6.8, thanks to a solid run blocking grade of +7.7, is a pretty big improvement. Howard’s weakness is handling speed rushers off the edge, which is why he’s given up six sacks and earned a -5.1 pass block grade, but it’s certainly an improvement from Hunters’ -14.1 and a drastic improvement in run blocking. Mangold has struggled, in Mangold standards, at times this year, specifically he got tossed around by the 49ers defensive line, and Moore and Slauson have continued their steady slip in play.

The line has had it’s good games and awful games, like everything else on this team it’s been inconsistent, but against the Cardinals, despite the horrible picks by Sanchez, the offense as a whole earned a +17.2 grade, +5.9 pass block and +10.7 run block. Because of that +10.7 run blocking grade the Jets were able to pile up 2009 rushing numbers with 177 yards on the ground at 4.1 yards per carry even as the Cardinals defense had no reason to fear any plays down field. Between the shutdown defense (only allowing 137 total yards, many of those yards coming on a fake punt) and a dominate running game the Jets were able to overcome the poor performance from Sanchez. Sounds like something you’d have heard in 2009.

Greg McElroy came in and lead the winning drive, capping it off with a one-yard touchdown pass, but that all extended from the play of the offensive line. Against any team other than the Cardinals the Jets probably still lose that game, but that’s not the point. Yes the Cardinals offense is among the worst you can imagine, but the defense is solid and the offensive line played their way to a victory, you take them anyway you can in this league.

The offensive line struggled badly with run blocking earlier in the season, but they have improved drastically as a unit over the past month or two and it’s one of the few things Rex Ryan can point to as some sort of hope.

“No doubt, and it’s funny because I forgot who wrote about it (Brian Costello) but it was, I think it might’ve been (Mark) Cannizzaro or something, where I saw with over the last two months we had averaged 4.3 or something like that a carry.” Ryan said, “And I think that’s the proof’s in the pudding right there. At the beginning of the year, we were much less, but then the funny thing is, that’s where I learned about it. I always felt like it was going that way, but I saw it and I think, I’m not sure about the article, but I think that was said. And I was like, ‘Wow it’s right there.'”

On Sunday the Jets travel to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars who just happen to have the 31st ranked rushing defense, allowing 1,728, or 144.0 yards a game on 4.3 yards a carry. Safe to say the Jets will be running the ball over and and over and then running it some more. If this improvement on the line is even a little bit real the Jets should have no problem racking up over 150 yards on the ground against the Jaguars.

Run the ball with success and combine it with this Jets defense playing a Jaguars team missing some of their best weapons (MJD, Cecil Shorts) and that alone should be enough to leave Jacksonville with a win.

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