Raiders' offensive line looms extra large

Pass-protection ability fuels No. 1-ranked unit

Super Bowl

January 24, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO - The NFL's best bodyguards sometimes need protection from one another.

Whether it's squabbling over food or arguing about the best seat in the meeting room, the Oakland Raiders' offensive line is a clash of attitudes off the field.

But put a bunch of pass rushers in front of these Raiders and they jell to form a 1,600-pound wall.

"We're sort of like a dysfunctional family," right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. "Aside from game day, we can't get along with each other. We're fighting like little brothers. But when it comes to game day, we're so focused on getting the job done and being the best we can be, we pull it together."

They are the biggest, heaviest offensive line in the NFL, but one that gets overshadowed by headliners like quarterback Rich Gannon and receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. But Oakland's pass-happy finesse game relies heavily on the brute force of its foreboding five-man line that averages 6 feet 5 and 322 pounds.

In Sunday's Super Bowl, the Raiders' offensive production will depend on how the line handles the Buccaneers' pass rush, which has 41 sacks this season (ninth best in the league).

"This line has been the strength of our team," Raiders coach Bill Callahan said.

Gannon can patiently dissect a secondary because of a safe pocket. Rice and Brown can run double moves because of the time given by the line's blocking.

The Raiders give up a sack only once every 17 throws and haven't surrendered one in 49 pass plays. In 18 games, Oakland has allowed one or no sacks in a game 10 times.

When Gannon received his NFL Most Valuable Player Award earlier this month, he made a point to thank his massive friends up front: Kennedy, right guard Mo Collins, center Barret Robbins, left guard Frank Middleton and left tackle Barry Sims.

"The way they've played this year has been unbelievable," Gannon said. "They made my job a whole lot easier."

The line's effectiveness is more surprising given the difficult adjustment.

In 2000, the group plowed over defenders, as the Raiders were the top-ranked running team. Two years later, the line had to shift gears and mentalities as Oakland transformed into the top-ranked passing attack.

"They really bought into the fact that that was the strength of our team," offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said. "Then their focus became how physical can they pass protect and how long they can give Rich Gannon? That really has been big."

The line allows Oakland to spread out opponents and pass on most downs. Since the Raiders have faith that their five men can block the other team's five rushers, they can send their lone running back out on pass patterns and regularly go with three or four wide-outs.

The lack of support in pass protection hasn't been noticeable.

Not only does Gannon rarely get sacked, he also rarely gets hit. Check out how few dirt and grass stains Gannon has on his uniform by game's end.

"We probably don't get much credit for that," Robbins said. "Every [NFL lineman] talks about taking pride in running the ball. But we do take a lot of pride in keeping him clean."

The key to keeping Gannon clean Sunday will fall on the shoulders of Sims.

Last month, Sims had troubles holding off the Dolphins' Jason Taylor, who recorded a season-high three sacks to go with two forced fumbles and seven tackles in Miami's 23-17 victory over the Raiders.

This time, Sims faces an equally fast pass rusher in the Buccaneers' Simeon Rice, who finished second in the league to Taylor with 15 1/2 sacks.

"I'm not going to psych myself out for the game thinking about the trouble he's going to bring," Sims said. "I'm going to come into the game with my `A' game and we'll see how it turns out after that."

The line is cohesive, but the nicknames given to each player are varied.

Kennedy is the respected elder statesmen who goes by "Grandpa."

Middleton, the one who cracks on everybody, is known as "The Comedian."

Robbins is referred to as "The Traffic Cop" because he barks out the calls.

Collins earns the title of "Rebel Without a Cause," which comes from his surly disposition.

And Sims is the quiet one of this group, which makes him the "The Choir Boy."

"We feel like we're real close on the field and know what each other is thinking," Sims said. "Having all that time together, you're like brothers. Sometimes, you have your squabbles, but when it comes down to it, we get the job done."

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