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Blind-side fits: Five left tackles who could make or break your season

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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If quarterback is the most important position in football -- and it is -- my question is this: What's second? Some people will tell you it's the franchise wide receiver or running back, but I'll take Door No. 3. Yep, give me the left tackle because not only is he the guy who protects the quarterback's back, he's the guy who must hold off opponents' best pass rushers, too.

Yeah, I know, that's not how it goes in Philadelphia where Michael Vick is left-handed, but that doesn't diminish its importance -- especially there, where the Eagles lost an All-Pro to a season-ending injury. In a passing league where 300-yard games are routine, the left tackle is a big deal ... and a bigger deal for some than others.

So let's talk about five left tackles who could determine what happens to your favorite quarterbacks and, therefore, determine what happens to your favorite football teams.

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King Dunlap, Philadelphia: If there's one position that is a hot-button topic in Philadelphia, it's left tackle. All-Pro Jason Peters is not here, so there's an audition for replacements. Demetress Bell was supposed to win this job, but he was less than sensational in camp. So the Eagles turned it over to Dunlap, an imposing 6-foot-9, 330-pound giant, and his play in the season opener was less than sensational. He held. He struggled to pass protect. He struggled to block for the run. In short, let's just say Leonardo DiCaprio makes a better King of the World. Every team has a hole, and this could be Philadelphia's. To return to the playoffs, the Eagles must keep Michael Vick from getting hurt. Good luck. Cleveland hit him 11 times last weekend. The Eagles tried to give Dunlap chip help, but that didn't work out so well. Something must, and don't look for Bell to ride to the rescue. He wasn't activated as Dunlap's backup for the season opener. Rookie Dennis Kelly was.

Mike Harris, San Diego: Talk about a tough way to break into the NFL. The guy's an undrafted rookie who starts because Jared Gaither is hurt and because ... well, because there's no one else. Yep, "Big Lazy," as Gaither was known in Baltimore, turned up with back spasms this summer and didn't play a snap. I know, that comes as no surprise to the Ravens, but it did to San Diego, which rushed Harris into emergency duty and crossed its fingers. Well, so far, so good. He looked downright decent Monday night, not allowing a sack while protecting Philip Rivers' blind side and allowing one hurry on 33 pass attempts. OK, so he needs to work on his run blocking. He held up well vs. Oakland's Matt Shaunessey, who lined up 40 times opposite Harris, and he defied predictions by plugging an enormous hole. "In my mind," he said later, "everything worked out." I'd second that.

Michael Oher, Baltimore: Once upon a time he was a left tackle. Then he was a right one. Now he's back as the starting left tackle because Bryant McKinnie is not, and pardon the Ravens if they remain on alert. There's a reason they signed McKinnie in the first place, and it's because Oher wasn't up to the job of protecting Joe Flacco's back. Except that was awhile ago, and when he returned to "The Blind Side" Monday, Oher looked ... well, he didn't look all that bad. In fact, he was decent. He allowed no sacks, no pressures and a couple of knockdowns, and he was solid with his run blocking for Ray Rice -- especially when Oher had to wall off the edge. But it's pass protection where he must excel, especially with the Ravens putting more of the offense on Flacco's shoulders. Oher passed his first pop quiz, which is encouraging, but now comes the stress test: the Philadelphia Eagles' pass rush.

Will Beatty, N.Y. Giants: The Giants want to run the ball, and they want to run it over Beatty at left tackle. So far, they're oh-for-2. Beatty missed most of the team's offseason workouts and training camp with a bad back but this week returned to practice with the first and second team and could be cleared for takeoff for Sunday's game with Tampa Bay. It's unclear, however, if that means he starts. For the moment, Sean Locklear occupies the position, and let's be honest: Neither he nor the offensive line played that well vs. Dallas in the season opener. The Giants couldn't run, Eli Manning was sacked three times and the defending Super Bowl champions looked lethargic. Coach Tom Coughlin talked about "building a bridge" from 2011 to 2012, and maybe that can start with Beatty. He was decent when he played last season, but back injuries are tricky -- primarily because they never seem to go away. "The last two weeks," he said, "I had no problems, no setbacks." Finally, some good news.

J'Marcus Webb, Chicago: When Webb beat out Chris Spencer for the position, Bears fans summoned Henny Penny to signal the alarm. After all, Webb stunk last season, allowing 12 sacks, committing 15 penalties and having Pro Football Focus name him its second-worst starting left tackle. Common sense told Bears fans that Webb or the Bears' offensive line would cripple their favorite team and keep them out of the playoffs again ... only not so fast, people. The guy who was supposed to get Jay Cutler sliced, diced and spliced did not, holding up so well vs. Indianapolis you really didn't notice him. He was solid in pass protection and positively dominant in the run game. Then-offensive line coach Mike Tice had enough faith last year to start him here, so it's no surprise Webb is back. But he ... well, he looks so much better. At least he did vs. the Colts. In his first run as Chicago's offensive coordinator, Tice put up yards, points and a victory, but making Webb an asset might have been his greatest accomplishment.

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