Cracks show as offensive lines impacted by rapid change

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Bears first-round pick Gabe Carimi was one of 14 rookie offensive linemen to start in Week 1. (Getty Images)  
Bears first-round pick Gabe Carimi was one of 14 rookie offensive linemen to start in Week 1. (Getty Images)  

With the season-ending triceps injury suffered by right tackle Willie Colon last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers again will be forced to shuffle their offensive line, 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 the Steelers' best blocker has suffered a season-ending injury, means that Pittsburgh will employ a 12th different starting line combination in its past 40 games.

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

And it has become the norm league-wide, either because of attrition or by choice. 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 2010 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, 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."

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These days, such pictures are out of focus.

One of the less-publicized byproducts of 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 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 step.

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, might indicate that it is on the rise again.

Said Chicago Bears 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, only 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 games.

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

For 2011, the changes seem be coming sooner. Just two teams last week, Detroit and Tennessee, started units that were projected as their starting groups or which were their most frequently used starting quintets a year ago. Ten teams had more than two changes.

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 veteran line coach Howard Mudd, in his first season with the Eagles. Counting new starters and one holdover player moved to a new position (left guard Todd Herremans, 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 lone 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 game 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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