KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Even in this day and age of spread offenses and record-shattering performances throwing the football, a team’s success and failure on game day still comes down to the big uglies on the line of scrimmage.
Without a strong performance from the offensive line, there isn’t a quarterback alive that can be effective as it’s just about impossible for a passer to throw a ball when he’s horizontal and picking pieces of the turf out of his facemask.
Look no further than Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith for evidence. In the season’s first six weeks, Smith was one giant bruise. That he could even walk and talk was real testimony to his toughness in surviving the beating administered by opposing pass rushers.
In the season’s first four games, Smith was sacked once every eight passing plays, going down 19 times in the first quarter of the season.
Eight games later, the Chiefs are winners of six straight and have made themselves relevant in the race for a spot in the AFC playoffs. They are No. 5 in the NFL in producing points, scoring an average of nearly 28 points per game. At 7-5 they wrap up the regular season with four very winnable games, three of those at home. They control their ticket to the postseason.
All this has happened despite a turbulent season along the offensive line, where week-to-week head coach Andy Reid is never quite sure who might be available to play, let alone start at center, guard or tackle. Over 12 games, the Chiefs have had six different combinations of starters and there have been changes at every one of the five positions.
Football common-sense would suggest that success is not possible for a team when the big guys on the line of scrimmage are struggling and inconsistent.
“Pretty amazing isn’t it?” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “Especially in the National Football League. Give credit to the guys up front for just kind of grinding this thing out with the adversity they’ve been faced with. It’s been a one game mentality with us.”
The offense has been productive over the last two months and the Chiefs have done it with a group of blockers largely devoid of any veteran presence. Left guard Ben Grubbs served in the role of grizzled blocker, but he will end up missing half the 2015 season because of a neck injury that sent him to the injured-reserve list last week.
Reid and general manager John Dorsey are carrying just eight blockers on their 53-man roster, and six of those are 25 years old or younger. That group includes rookie center Mitch Morse, who made every snap before he suffered a concussion on Nov. 29 in the second half of the victory over Buffalo.
“It’s been kind of neat to see them grow in different ways,” Reid said of his offensive line. “They all seem to get a little bit better as they’ve gone on.”
With the five line positions the Chiefs have not had one player start all 12 games at a single position. The continuity that’s so important to the successful play on the line?
Morse was the only 11-game starter, but he did not open against Oakland last Sunday because of his concussion; second-year man Zach Fulton started for him. Among the eight linemen this week, only guard/tackle Jarrod Pughsley has not started at least one game this season, and he was just added Wednesday to the 53-man roster from the practice squad.
Here are the starters in 2015 for the Chiefs at each line position:
- Left tackle: Donald Stephenson (6), Eric Fisher (6).
- Left guard: Ben Grubbs (7), Jeff Allen (5).
- Center: Mitch Morse (11), Zach Fulton (1).
- Right guard: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (9), Fulton (3).
- Right tackle: Jah Reid (7), Fisher (4), Allen (1).
Stephenson has also taken snaps at left guard and right tackle. Fulton has worked at both guard spots and center. Fisher worked at left and right tackle.
Through 12 games there are 28 teams that have had at least one spot on the offensive line where a single player started every game; Minnesota has started the same five blockers all season. Eight teams have had the same starters at four of the five spots: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco.
Football is a collision sport and players are injured; last week the Chiefs had 17 players on their injury report. This week, that number is down to 10 after the first days of practice.
“We’ve been banged up a little bit, right from training camp on,” said Reid. “I think Coach (Andy) Heck and Eugene (Chung) have done a nice job keeping that group together and teaching. These are some young guys in there; even our veteran guys are young guys. Once you got past Grubbs, everybody else was a pup.
“They’ve done a nice job of keeping them improving as we’ve gone on here and then getting them all reps.”
Last week, Stephenson moved into the left guard spot against Oakland when Allen showed in a handful of plays that he wasn’t recovered from a sprained ankle. It was the first time in Stephenson’s football career that he played in a game at guard.
Fulton started at center against the Raiders, a position he’d never played in a college or an NFL regular-season game before stepping in the week before when Morse went out with a concussion. The head coach said he would feel comfortable with any of his linemen playing at any of the five positions.
Among the eight blockers for this Sunday’s game, only one did not go through training camp and the preseason with the Chiefs: Reid. He was signed the week of the regular-season opener after he was released by the Baltimore Ravens. Reid ended up starting that first game, facing the Houston Texans at right tackle.
There is not a single Chiefs offensive lineman that will receive consideration for the Pro Bowl or All-Pro status. Early in the season, the offense struggled with pass protection and that was a big reason they dropped five consecutive games.
Despite the injuries, changes and inexperience, the line somehow came together and now the Chiefs have won six straight. In the last eight games, Smith has been sacked 20 times, or 2.5 times per game. They remain next to last, No. 31 in sacks allowed per-pass play, better only than the Seattle Seahawks. Those are ugly numbers for the big uglies.
Still, after 12 games they are fighting for the playoffs. It has not been pretty, but the Chiefs have found success even with a revolving door along the offensive line.
“At one point we were the lowest of the low when we were sitting at 1-5,” said Pederson. “The only way to dig out of that hole is one game (at a time.) It didn’t matter who was playing, whether it was running back by committee and the offensive line was getting shuffled around. The guys embraced that well.
“It’s really a tribute to the guys that are playing; they aren’t going to let a couple things worry them or get in the way of where they want to go.”