Nobody is Unblockable
“Nobody is unblockable.” That was how Bengals O-line and Assistant Head Coach Paul Alexander answered me when I asked him if there were ever plays when you can do nothing more than credit a fantastic move from a pass rusher.
The speed, agility and skill of today’s pass rushers is sometimes so impressive I’m not sure there’s much a lineman can do, but Alexander isn’t buying it.
It is that attitude and chase to be better that has helped him craft some of the best offensive lines in the league over the past decade and why the current unit ranks comfortably in the Top 5, with potential to improve still further. Now with 18 years under his belt as the Bengals O-line coach, he has been able to develop linemen again and again and continues to plug new players into the same system and generate results.
“Paul is a technician teacher,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth told me “loves to break down every thought and movement in run and pass blocking. He almost teaches O-line play like you teach a golf swing… Every tiny movement and position your body is in the entire time you play will matter… Maybe not on that play but on the next one”
Alexander has been anything but conventional in his approach, though, often doing things that other coaches wouldn’t touch. While most people will tell you that cohesion amongst the offensive line is everything, Alexander hasn’t been afraid to rotate linemen when he sees it as beneficial.
“It’s never made sense to me to keep good players on the bench. The year we co-started Dennis Roland and Anthony Collins was to try to play to their strengths. Dennis is a really good run blocker and Anthony is a really good pass blocker. So we used Anthony the way teams use a designated pass rusher on long yardage situations. It seemed to be a good matchup.” He’s also happy to simply rotate players when he sees two guys both capable of starting or getting game time. “We ask our guys to be grateful for the plays they get and not worry about the plays they don’t get.”
That also has the added benefit of getting guys ready and used to playing when injuries ultimately strike. He believes that the cohesion everybody talks about amongst linemen needs to extend to the backups as well. “It’s important but it doesn’t have to be restricted to five. You have to have guys ready because of the promise of injury.” If the Bengals lose players they are able to turn to backups that not only have playing experience, but also are used to playing alongside the starters with the first unit. They can slot right in.
Maybe it’s the ability to keep turning out new players, the way the Broncos could always find a 1,000 yard rusher from scraps, but linemen under Alexander seem to be perennially underrated. Whitworth has been one of the league’s best for a few seasons but gets continually overlooked for the Pro Bowl spot he deserves. “Whit is a man’s man. He’s as tough, mature, dedicated and passionate as any football player can be. He grew up in our system and learned our techniques from Willie Anderson and Levi Jones.” Alexander said. Anderson and Jones, as it happens, were also players who were underrated for a large part of their careers.
From talking to Whitworth in the past it was clear that he loves the game, and is as big a film nut as anybody at PFF. He loves to grind tape and help out the rest of his teammates with technique and fundamentals. He seemed like a stone cold lock to go into coaching whenever his playing days are over, and that’s something that’s not lost on Alexander.
“Leadership in our group requires that the older players help teach the younger players our techniques. Whit is like an assistant coach to me.”
There’s a reason why the Bengals were able to lose both starting guards, plug in a couple of youngsters, and not miss a beat. Hitting on the right draft talent is one thing, but they put in the work to get better.
“He loves finding guys that have certain talents and characteristics,” Whitworth told me “so he can take on the project of maximizing their abilities by molding them into the player he envisions them being. As players we always joke around about who will be his new project each year, because he gets so dedicated to his new project that he almost obsesses over everything they do until he gets the result he wants.”
That kind of obsession and patience is what allows him to get the best out of players that other coaches might have given up on. Andre Smith was the fourth pick overall, but struggled with injuries over his first couple of seasons. Given the contract he was on, many coaches would have lost patience, but Alexander saw the potential and the light at the end of the tunnel. “NFL blocking techniques take a long time to develop since they are very different than high school and college techniques. The past two years Andre has been healthy to practice and play and he is really embracing the NFL game. He keeps getting better and it’s fun to watch”. Smith is now our top-ranked right tackle on the season.
One of the players that the Bengals needed to replace recently was Bobbie Williams, another perennially underrated guy who was coming to the end of his career. We have been telling people for years how well he had played, but Alexander put him in rare air as a run blocker “Bobbie could create movement at the point of attack like few others. I think only Larry Allen and Leonard Davis were in his class during my 20 years in the NFL.” That’s a Hall of Fame player and one of the flat out strongest (and largest) guys ever to suit up.
But I couldn’t talk to a guy like Alexander without getting his take on the proposal flying around the NFL to outlaw all blocks below the waist, effectively outlawing the cut block. I figured he would rail against the idea, siding with the people that have said it would make run blocking near impossible, but he actually had a far different and much more interesting take on it. In his eyes it’s all about fairness.
“The real issue is about competitive balance between the blocker and the defender. Cut blocking is a tool for run and pass blocking simply because it slows down the defender from charging because he has to be concerned with getting cut. It’s just a matter of physics and a tool for maintaining the competitive balance.”
“My perspective is that it is most important to maintain this competitive balance. I propose that the rules be the same for everyone. If an offensive lineman can’t block low, then he should have the same liberties to use his hands the way a defensive linemen does. A defender should not be able to make a low pile either. So if a defensive lineman can grab and throw an offensive lineman aside to tackle a runner, then an offensive lineman should be able to as well. This would be the true definition of competitive balance. Same rules on both sides of the line of scrimmage.”
Rather than decry the proposal, Alexander just wants to see a little concession for his side of the ball as part of the bargain. “I would take it further. Running backs have the shortest careers in the NFL. If they are not allowed to cut 300-pound charging defenders, then they shouldn’t be tackled below the waist either. If a wide receiver cannot cut a defensive back, then he should not be permitted to be tackled below the waist either.”
“If you want to make the game safer by eliminating low blocks, then go ahead, but maintain the competitive balance in rules — have the same blocking and tackling restrictions on both sides of the ball. I think it’s a legitimate consideration. It’s also a bit of a parody.”
Whether anything comes from the NFL’s idea or not, you can bet that Alexander will be prepared to adapt and overcome, and continue to field consistently impressive offensive lines as long as he is around. Whatever the NFL or opposition puts in front of him, he sticks to his principles: nobody is unblockable.
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