Skip to main content

Much-maligned offensive line is now leading the way for Raiders

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Tom Cable won over the Oakland Raiders' offensive linemen in his first meeting with the beleaguered group in the offseason.

Tired of being pushed over on the field and criticized off it, the linemen were ready to embrace the zone-blocking schemes being talked about by a position coach with the personality of a marine drill sergeant.

"I knew it was going to be better after about 30 seconds," said center Jake Grove.

Four weeks into the season, the rest of the NFL is learning that, too. One of the most-maligned units in the league last year is one of its most improved this season as the Raiders lead the NFL with 194.3 yards rushing per game and have cut their sack rate in half from this time in 2006.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," left tackle Barry Sims said. "You want your front guys to get things done whether it's running the ball or giving the quarterback time to throw."

It's a far cry from a year ago, when highlights of Shawne Merriman's sack dances against Oakland were replayed almost any time the Raiders' struggles were talked about on television.

The Raiders allowed an NFL-worst 72 sacks and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. The joke around the team was that its best linemen were on the coaching staff, where head coach Art Shell and assistant Jackie Slater each had Hall of Fame playing careers.

"It's such a great thing to see, because here's these players that have been beaten up and torn down and blamed for everything," coach Lane Kiffin said. "And they trusted this guy because they kind of came into it, `Well, we might as well trust him because I'm not very happy where I am now.' And they bought into it."

The line has undergone plenty of changes since last year -- Grove is the only player to have started at the same position he played in 2006 -- but the biggest difference is Cable.

A successful assistant in college and the pros for years, Cable brought his zone-blocking scheme that heavily features cut blocks to a team that had tried to overpower defenses a year ago.

Cable, the team's fourth line coach in four years, learned the style from zone blocking guru Alex Gibbs, the former line coach in Denver and Atlanta. The Falcons led the NFL in rushing in 2006 under Cable's guidance, gaining 2,939 yards on the ground -- the most in the league since 1978.

The Raiders barely managed to gain half that amount, finishing 29th in the league with 1,519 yards rushing.

"I think they wanted something fresh," Cable said. "They want to succeed. Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to get told that they ain't worth a darn or anything good, or whatever that is. They're human. So I think they have embraced it."

The play of the line is the biggest reason the Raiders (2-2) head into their bye week having already matched last year's win total and only one offensive touchdown shy of the team's output of 12 in 2006.

The rebuilding job started in offseason workouts, when the linemen often showed up earliest, stayed latest and absorbed everything Cable taught them.

After getting conflicting advice a year ago from Shell, Slater and assistant line coach Irv Eatman, the linemen were getting consistent coaching under Cable.

"It's great that we have a system," Grove said. "That's something we haven't had here in a while. The guys are buying into it and working to get better at it every week."

Robert Gallery, the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, had been considered a bust before showing great improvement this season at left guard. Sims flipped spots with Gallery, moving back to his old left tackle spot.

Former Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry was signed to play center and has shared time there with Grove because of injuries. Cooper Carlisle and Cornell Green, who had experience with this blocking scheme, were signed as free agents and anchor the right side of the line.

While the linemen bought into the switch immediately, running back LaMont Jordan admits he had some doubts because he considered himself a "downhill runner" and wasn't comfortable in a scheme that required him to wait for a hole to develop.

"Running sideways is not a way I felt we should run, and I made that very clear to Coach Cable," Jordan said. "But he continued to talk to me, he continued to work with me, and he continued to help me get a better feel for the offense. I like the offense now, because I have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in this scheme."

Jordan, who missed the second half of last week's win over Miami with a back injury, is second in the league in rushing with 424 yards.

Backup Justin Fargas ran for 172 of his career-high 179 yards in the second half against the Dolphins in place of Jordan. Fargas' 261 yards so far are only one fewer than last year's rushing leader LaDanian Tomlinson has for San Diego.

Dominic Rhodes returns this week after missing the first four games with a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, giving the Raiders plenty of choices for runners.

The success has come in part because Kiffin hasn't abandoned the running game when the team has fallen behind early. He says the zone blocking scheme works best in the second half when the defense starts to get fatigued.

Oakland is averaging 72 yards per game in the first half compared to 122.3 after halftime, increasing the yards per carry from 4.1 to 6.4.

"When defensive linemen get tired at all, that is when this run game gets really good because it is not a power gap scheme," Kiffin said. "As soon as a guy gets a little bit tired, he gets cut easier or gets out of his gap. That's when some bigger runs hit."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.