For most teams the fate of the franchise—in the form of that highly drafted, high-priced quarterback—often boils down to the blocking prowess of a guy like Tyler Polumbus. Who? Precisely
A behemoth right tackle who stands 6'8" and weighs 305 pounds, the Redskins' Tyler Polumbus seems to have little in common with Darrelle Revis, the Jets' All-Pro cornerback, who is nine inches shorter, 107 pounds lighter and millions of dollars richer. Yet despite their disparate body types and different objectives—one man protects the quarterback, the other makes life hell for him—both 27-year-olds share perhaps the hardest job in football: backpedaling on a remote island.
"A lot of times you don't have any help at tackle—you're out there by yourself," Polumbus says. "And you're probably going against one of the best athletes on the other team."
As today's pass-oriented offenses have become more intricate and fast-paced, the lineman's role has become more challenging. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford can't throw for 5,000 yards if the men in front of them aren't providing them enough time. Cam Newton won't run his way into the record books if his linemen aren't holding their blocks downfield. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and other rookie starters will have no hope of finding a rhythm if they're under constant pressure. (See Gabbert, Blaine, 2011.) More than ever, players who typically toil in obscurity—tackles, guards and centers—will be critical to a team's success or failure in the 2012 season. And in Washington, where hopes for a Redskins revival rest with Griffin, the line will be under an intense spotlight.
The biggest misconception about pass protection is that it's akin to trench warfare: two immobile sides slogging it out. Linemen may start out in three-point stances and clash violently at the snap, but the big men don't always dig in. Like Revis's battles against wideouts on the perimeter, the struggles up front are often decided by microscopic differences in footwork, balance and hand placement to maximize leverage. And while the blockers' jobs change according to defensive fronts and blitz packages, the assignments for offensive linemen are as programmed as NFL commercial breaks.
After calling out protection orders and snapping the ball, the center sets the depth of the pocket along with the guards. Colliding with pass rushers like sumo wrestlers, the interior linemen must not cede ground or get turned perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. Their success allows the tackles to focus on the pocket's width, driving edge rushers away at an angle, like basketball defenders forcing ball handlers toward the baseline. If it's all executed in harmony, a halo forms around the quarterback.
"Everything is based on rhythm," says Chris Foerster, Washington's offensive line coach. "But if something breaks down, our quarterback can extend plays. It's not quite the same thing as blocking for Barry Sanders in the running game, but we have to be aware that Griffin has the ability to scramble."
There's a good chance the 2011 Heisman winner and second pick in this year's draft will have plenty of improvising to do. Washington's line has surrendered at least 41 sacks in each of the past three seasons, and the unit is still searching for consistency and cohesiveness following a spate of preseason injuries. "We had a patchwork group, and it wasn't a good enough production last year," Foerster says. "It's still a wait-and-see thing for us this year."
Conventional wisdom holds that the most important player on the line is the left tackle, who is charged with protecting the quarterback's blind side. That's why Washington used the fourth pick in the 2010 draft on Trent Williams, a 6'5", 328-pound All-America from Oklahoma. But it can be argued that in 2012 Polumbus—an undrafted free agent out of Colorado who has played with three teams in four seasons and hasn't started more than eight games in any them—will be the key lineman for the Redskins.
Originally slated to be Washington's swing tackle, providing spot service on both sides of the line, Polumbus was thrust into a starting role at right tackle when two-time Pro Bowler Jammal Brown suffered a hip injury during training camp. (Brown had surgery on Aug. 23 and will remain on the physically-unable-to-perform list for at least the first six games.) "You always want to earn your spot; you never want it to come through an injury, but an opportunity is an opportunity," says Polumbus, who will be responsible for guarding the pocket's right flank, where the righthanded Griffin can most easily roll out to avoid pressure.
Given Griffin's mobility, Polumbus can't simply push defensive ends and blitzing linebackers wide and wait for them to come back; he must remain in constant contact with his opposite number, in anticipation of Griffin's maneuvering from a collapsed pocket. "Our offense is about timing, but RG3 may try to make some plays with his feet, and we're going to have to block our guys a little bit longer," Polumbus says. "As offensive linemen we can't have a clock in our head."
The Redskins might have tried to find a more established right tackle when Brown went down if the NFL hadn't docked them $36 million in cap room over the next two seasons for loading player salaries into the uncapped 2010 season. But Polumbus, who will make a reported $700,000 this year, broke into the league in 2008 with Mike Shanahan's Broncos and knows the zone-blocking schemes that Shanahan brought with him to Washington when he became coach in 2010. He also has a talent for downfield blocking, more reason to keep an eye on him when Redskins' plays break down. You might recall Marshawn Lynch's wild 67-yard touchdown run in the Seahawks-Saints NFC wild-card game two years ago, when he broke seven tackles on the way to the end zone. Chances are you don't remember his lead blocker. It was Polumbus, who lined up at left guard on the play, cleared out his man to the right, then ran down the field with Lynch. By the end of the run Polumbus was five yards in front of Lynch and knocked the final would-be tackler off balance to clear Lynch's way across the goal line.
"I've seen him evolve over the years, and Tyler is definitely a starting-caliber tackle," says Loren Landow, a Denver-based trainer who first saw Polumbus as a 240-pound high school senior. This summer, as he trained alongside soon-to-be Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, Polumbus focused on improving the range of motion in his ankles, knees and hips. How well he protects Griffin has less to do with brute strength than with Polumbus's ability to pivot, twist, shuffle with and shadow rushers.
"Every player across our line has something he can work on, but Tyler's never led us to believe he's going to struggle," Foerster says. "After Jammal went down and [Tyler] stepped in, there wasn't a day we thought we had a huge hole at tackle."
For the sake of Griffin and the Redskins, that assessment had better be right.
SERVE AND PROTECT
Four other lineman join Tyler Polumbus to form a No-Star squad of blockers on the spot this season
JAGUARS QB BLAINE GABBERT
PROTECTED BY RG UCHE NWANERI
The Jaguars ranked dead last in total offense last season, rushing champ Maurice Jones-Drew held out for the entire preseason, and Gabbert still needs to prove himself worthy of the 10th pick in last year's draft. Gabbert was sacked 40 times during his rookie season, and offensive line coach Andy Heck describes pass protection as "something we've been working very hard at to improve." But what the 6'3", 310-pound Nwaneri has been doing for the past five seasons in Jacksonville is jack up defensive linemen in the ground game.
"He plays with good leverage," Heck says. "In the simplest of terms, you want to displace a D-lineman out of his gap or change the line scrimmage even one yard into the defense's territory. To do that, you have to be lower than the other guy and keep your hands inside your framework. Once you get under him, you have to lever him out like you'd jack up a car. Uche is able to play with great knee bend. He gets his hands inside, then uncoils hips and legs and literally levers a defender out of the position he's in."
BILLS QB RYAN FITZPATRICK
PROTECTED BY C ERIC WOOD
After tearing his right ACL in a Week 10 blowout loss at Dallas, the 6'4", 310-pound Wood returns to anchor an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks (23) in the league last season. But don't be fooled: Buffalo missed Wood's savvy pass-protection calls. In the seven games without him, the Bills allowed 13 of their quarterback takedowns. Says offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris, "Eric was doing an excellent job of orchestrating the line until the injury."
Look for the 26-year-old Wood to set the frenetic pace as Buffalo experiments with the no-huddle this season and seeks more consistency from Fitzpatrick, who threw nearly as many interceptions (a league-high 23) as he did touchdowns (24) in 2011. "Just watch Wood for the entire play," D'Alessandris says. "Once he attaches himself to his opponent, he'll do everything in his power to block him. I've watched a lot of centers, and his tenacity to get it done is something impressive. I don't know if there are any true trademarks in blocking except for the effort put into it from the beginning to the end."
PANTHERS QB CAM NEWTON
PROTECTED BY LG AMINI SILATOLU
Carolina ranked first in rushing touchdowns, including 14 by Newton, and there's no reason to expect a drop-off just because a rookie from Division II Midwestern State is replacing an eight-year pro, Travelle Wharton, at left guard. Taken in the second round of the 2012 draft, the 6'4", 315-pound Silatolu will be flanked by two-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross at left tackle and three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil at center. Both veterans will give Silotolu directions coming out of the huddle and make sure he responds to the proper checks at the line.
Then again, Silatolu may be able to answer any questions his more experienced teammates have. "Cam did a couple of things last year that young guys usually don't get right away—understanding protections—and we feel the same way about Amini this year," coach Ron Rivera says. "We like his size and physical play. He's very aggressive. He came from a small college, but he dominated everybody he played against. When he first got here, he struggled with the quickness of the game. But he's arrived."
BEARS QB JAY CUTLER
PROTECTED BY LT J'MARCUS WEBB
Cutler, who has been sacked more times than any other quarterback (75) over the past two seasons, might want to consider hiring a bodyguard to join him on the field in 2012. The 6'8", 335-pound Webb, a 2010 seventh-round pick out of West Texas A&M, played primarily on the right side as a rookie but started all 16 games at left tackle for Chicago last year. He did not distinguish himself: Webb was responsible for 14 of the Bears' 49 sacks allowed and was also called for more penalties (14) than any other offensive lineman in the league. Yet once again he has the job of protecting Cutler's blind side.
Does he even take that responsibility seriously? In mid-August offensive coordinator Mike Tice questioned Webb's progress, and Webb responded by posting a poem on his Facebook page: "Every morning I wake up, and get out of bed, while thoughts of preparing to battle dance in my head. No visions of cupcakes and tacos. Just football and being the best Left Tackle! ... I'm giving my best everyday and there simply isn't anything left to say—BEAR DOWN!!!!" That will certainly reassure Chicago.
Photograph by MICHAEL JOHNSON/ZUMAPRESS.COM
REDSKINS QUARTERBACK ROBERT GRIFFIN III (BELOW) PROTECTED BY RT TYLER POLUMBUS (LEFT)
TOM DIPACE (RG3)
[See caption above]
AL MESSERSCHMIDT/GETTY IMAGES (POLUMBUS)
SKIN IN THE GAME Polumbus (74) and his unheralded brethren will be out front in 2012.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (GABBERT)
ICON SMI (NWANERI)
STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE (FITZPATRICK)
KEVIN HOFFMAN/US PRESSWIRE (WOOD)
AL TIELEMANS (NEWTON)
PAUL JASIENSKI/AP (SILATOLU)
JOHN BIEVER (CUTLER)
EVAN PINKUS/AP (WEBB)