BARRY WILNER,AP Pro Football Writer
It’s hard to look right past a large group of 300-pound men, yet that’s what most football fans do.
You won’t catch the quarterbacks or running backs ignoring their offensive linemen, though, and several performances in the trenches this past week emphasize the importance of a solid blocking unit.
The Patriots, Cowboys and Bears, in particular, won on Sunday because of improved play by the OL. The Falcons showed how important a block party is during their comeback victory against Baltimore last Thursday.
Dallas carved up the Giants’ usually efficient, sack-happy defense for a 33-20 victory in Jason Garrett’s debut as Cowboys coach. That was a sharp contrast from the sieve that tried to protect Tony Romo in the team’s previous meeting, when the Giants had three sacks and tons of pressures, and broke Romo’s collarbone last month.
“I think it starts with the offensive line. I think our offensive line played very well,” Garrett said. “They were challenged and we challenged them. Justin Tuck is a heck of a good football player. Osi Umenyiora is a heck of a good football player, and they have other guys. … Then, they bring guys in to substitute and rotate through. So they were going to be challenged physically to block those guys, man-to-man blocking in the run game and in the pass game, and they stepped up and did a nice job.”
A few hours after Dallas’ win, the Patriots stymied Pittsburgh’s vaunted defense. Tom Brady had so much time in the pocket he could have cooked dinner and had dessert before he felt pressure. Maybe even washed the dishes.
Brady went 30 of 43 for 350 yards, was not sacked — the only time he was touched was when he ran the ball — and gave a nod to the boys upfront after the 39-26 win.
“The offensive line played great,” he said. “Those guys know how important they are to winning.”
And to losing. Both of the Patriots’ losses this year came when the blocking was weak.
Dallas and New England have been known for strong offensive lines through the years. But both units underwent key changes this season — the Patriots were without key guard Logan Mankins for the first half of the schedule; the Cowboys cut tackle Flozell Adams and have experienced assorted injuries on the line.
On Sunday, everything came together for both teams.
Chicago had been winning despite shaky play by its blockers. Indeed, Jay Cutler was sacked nine times by the Giants on Oct. 3 and left the loss with a concussion. The Bears won five of their first eight while struggling to protect him and open holes in the running game.
They hardly were perfect Sunday in the 27-13 victory over Minnesota, but Cutler was sacked only once. The Bears are moving around the pocket more, letting Cutler get away from pass rushers, but this weekend the line was not a detriment, allowing Chicago to tie Green Bay for the NFC North lead.
“The offensive line did an outstanding job pass blocking and of course with the run,” coach Lovie Smith said, noting the unit finally is getting some continuity. “We should — we played the same group two weeks in a row; that may have a little bit to do with it. This is the crew we want to go with. They should get better.”
Atlanta is a somewhat overlooked 7-2, tied for the league’s best record. It has offensive balance, which never has been displayed better than in last week’s 26-21 victory over Baltimore. On a final 80-yard touchdown drive to win it, the Falcons’ OL dominated what is supposed to be an elite Ravens D.
“There was an air of confidence about what needed to be done and what we were going to get done,” coach Mike Smith said. “It was a heck of a drive in the last 65 seconds for us to win the game.”
Contrasting those performances was the ineffectiveness of Pittsburgh’s blockers against New England. The Steelers have concerns up front with left tackle Max Starks lost for the season and left guard Chris Kemoeatu bothered by knee problems. Right tackle Willie Colon already was out for the season.
Other teams have concerns on the offensive line, including three first-place clubs — the Giants, Seahawks and Eagles. They should be buoyed by the turnarounds they saw this weekend in the trenches.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.
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