O-Line: If it ain’t broke, still tweak it

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – Continuity plays a huge role in football, no question. But for an offensive line? Continuity is nearly everything — having trust in the guys next to you to call out any last minute protection slides, reading what the defense gives you and knowing if they have to pick up an extra pass rusher or not.

Last year the big question mark was Matt Slauson. Can a second-year guy really come in and replace an All-Pro like Alan Faneca? It may have taken him a couple of games early, but Slauson did a bang up job working in between D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. In fact, you barely heard from him towards the end of the season — the ultimate sign of a job well done for an offensive lineman. In their case, the less they’re heard from the better.

Matt Slauson (68) slide right in the whole Alan Faneca left next to Nick Mangold (74). Who says Wayne Hunter can't do the same? (JetsInsider.com Photo).

The guy who’s in a similar situation as Slauson is Wayne Hunter. He’s got the task of fulfilling the hole left by the lovable and outspoken Damien Woody. Throw in second-year lineman Vladimir Ducasse, utility lineman Rob Turner and the rest of the second unit, the Jets are focusing their attention to dominating the battle in the trenches. Of course the o-line has been one of the back-bones of past Jets teams, but in football the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t exist.

Slauson and the offensive line didn’t skip a beat last season and after Woody went down against the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs, Hunter came in and performed brilliantly in the following two games. Used regularly in jumbo TE sets, Hunter was rewarded with the starting job during the off-season after paying his dues and making the most of his opportunities. The team did not re-sign Woody.

“It was huge. It was definitely a blessing in disguise. You never want to wish harm on anyone, but it’s a part of the game. And when it happened I took the opportunity and ran with it,” Hunter told JetsInsider.com. “Just having those games – important games, not just any old games – offered great experience that helped me to take over the starting job this year.”

The ability and effectiveness of plugging guys in after one goes down is a testament to offensive line coach Bill Callahan’s preparation of all members of that unit. They wouldn’t have let Woody go if the front office didn’t believe Callahan had prepared for someone else to step up. With current starting right guard Brandon Moore on the PUP list after hip surgery, Rex Ryan and Callahan have called on Turner to take the reps with the starting unit until Moore is back at full health.

The reason? They plan on switching Ducasse, who primarily got his reps in at right guard, to be the back-up tackle. Ducasse was an All-Atlantic 10 tackle when he played at the University of Massachusetts, but struggled in his first year with in the NFL.

“That’s the big thing we needed to do, make sure that Vlad is getting work at tackle,” Ryan said.

The change may only be temporary as Ryan would go on to say that they might move him back after Moore returns. Expanding the role of the second-year lineman may be the right move as he has wowed his linemates with his work ethic and willingness to get better.

“I think [Ducasse] came in with a mission this year, I don’t know what the mission was. He’s looking real good at both guard and tackle positions. He’s looking stronger and he’s talking more – which is huge for us linemen. Communication among the offensive line is so critical. Last year he didn’t say a word, which frustrated a bunch of us,” Hunter, who would go on to say that Ducasse would see time in his former role in the jumbo TE set, told JI.com.

“Right now they expect me to make my own calls – even if it’s the wrong call – I know Nick or Wayne can fix it. But as long as I’m communicating with them we can be on the same page,” Ducasse said.

Communication aside, Ducasse would be the first one to tell you that he was slacking last year. As far as realizing what the coaches expect of him, understanding the playbook and just staying focused, the difference between this year and last year, he said, “was not even close”.

And that’s not even the end of it. Ryan and Callahan have converted defensive lineman Matt Kroul, an Iowa state champion in wrestling, into an offensive lineman.

“He certainly has the mentality [of an o-lineman],” Ryan said. “He’s a tough guy and he looked pretty good over there. I know Bart [Scott] was calling him ‘The Fat Faneca.” That’s got to be a compliment right?

It never ends with the Jets offensive line. And who ever said the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” anyway? Whoever he was, he definitely didn’t ‘play like a Jet’.

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