It’s only fair to warn you, what you are about to read is not glitzy. In fact, it’s dull. Dull to the point of boring. The names Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Larry Fitzgerald, Hines Ward and Brian Westbrook are all going to appear only once in this piece: right now. The rest is devoted to the 300-pound hogs who have chaperoned their respective teams to the Conference Championship round. The thesis is this: the strongest common thread between the NFL’s four remaining offenses is laudable front line play.
The Eagles, Cardinals, Steelers and Ravens do not have the best offensive lines in football. In fact, none of these teams even have the best offensive lines in their respective division (the Giants get the nod in Philly’s NFC East, a healthy Seahawks front five highlights Arizona’s NFC West and, although the evidence was not as explicit this season, most experts will tell you that, man-for-man, the Browns have the most talented O-line in the AFC North). But none of the final four teams would be here if they didn’t have an offensive line that – pardon the cliché – overcame obstacles and, more importantly, got better as the season wore on.
We’ll bring Arizona back into the picture in a minute. First, we need to recognize something. The Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all had to replace world-class offensive linemen this season. In Philadelphia, right guard Shawne Andrews battled depression and a slew of injuries and never got on the field in 2008. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers had to move on without seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, who bolted for the big green in New York (interpret “big green” however you want).
Equally as significant was the loss of right guard Kendall Simmons (torn Achilles) in early October and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) in December. That’s three first-tier veteran offensive linemen. Finally, in Baltimore, the Ravens had to fill the 6’9”, 350-pound void left by future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Fascinatingly, all three teams replaced their dominant former linemen from within. The Eagles asked undrafted 24-year-old Nick Cole to step away from the fringe and into the starting lineup at right guard. The Steelers turned to unknown Chris Kemoeatu to succeed Faneca, then surprised experts by replacing Simmons with untested Darnell Stapleton, rather than sliding right tackle Willie Colon inside. And, like last December, swing tackle Tra Essex once again filled in for an injured Smith. As for the Ravens, they rolled some very heavy dice by having gifted but green Jared Gaither step in at left tackle to protect franchise rookie Joe Flacco’s blindside.
With unproven commodities replacing formidable cogs, the Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all saw the same pattern unfold: their young replacements struggled early in the season but, thanks to the help of the veterans around them, and the team’s patience and commitment to its scheme, they ultimately prospered by winter time.
This brings us to the common thread of “significant improvement” that defines all four remaining teams. Take a look:
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