Blocking experts break down the art of the offensive line

Offensive Linemen Super Bowl LVIII
Creed Humphrey and Nick Allegretti, clockwise from top left photo, Donovan Smith, Trent Williams and Jake Brendel speak to the news media during Super Bowl week. (Trevor Junt/MEDILL)

By Trevor Junt
Medill Reports

Everyone will be focused on Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday. However, the unsung heroes will be the ones allowing their offenses to truly succeed: the offensive line.

The warfare in the trenches is what decides ball games. Offensive line success is vital for the success of the offense as a whole. Yet, many are unaware of the complex nature of the offensive line.

There are many intricacies players look for to make adjustments to their physical attack or the attack of the scheme. Most of the starting offensive linemen broke down blocking similarly in interviews throughout Super Bowl week.

Trent Williams, the 49ers’ three-time first-team All-Pro left tackle, said the primary element is consistency.

“You got to do it consistent over a long period of time,” Williams said. “So, to me, that offensive linemen would be, not only can he make great blocks, can he make consistent blocks? Can you consistently make an impact on the scheme of the game and understand the scheme you’re going against and understand ways to use it to your advantage?”

Overwhelmingly, the seven linemen surveyed said technique is almost everything you need to be successful. If an offensive lineman has excellent technique, it will make up for the lack of athleticism or size he might be missing. Using repetition to get the perfect technique is the most important, they said.

Although good physical abilities do help, training to get fast feet, good moving hips, good ankle flexion and mobility are helpful. 49ers guard Jon Feliciano said it takes good mental capacity to be a good offensive lineman, diagnosing defenses and tells by the defense. But blocking is a skill that literally goes from head to toe.

“(Blocking) is all about leverage, and it all kinda starts with the feet,” 49ers center Jake Brendel said. “Like you’re not going to have good leverage and good power if you’re not at the right angles with your body. That’s all about having leverage at the right part of the block.”

Brendel said if you don’t get good positioning on a defender, you will not have success. He said, in the passing game, if you do not create a good anchor, you will get blown up by a defender; it takes good leverage and good technique.

Fifth-year Chiefs guard Nick Allegretti outlined the classic three rules of blocking: eyes up, hands inside, feet underneath. He said these rules are applicable to just about every block. Having good body positioning is vital.

Creed Humphrey said each run play will have different angles that require different precision. Knowing each angle for each play takes understanding and heavy repetition.

Donovan Smith, the Chiefs’ left tackle, said targeting and adapting is a key component of blocking.

“Aiming points, knowing how to get to your spots and just being able to read and react,” Smith said. “(In the run game) you got to have low power level, good hands to get movement. And at pass-pro, you gotta be vertical, stay square as long as you can. Play with the length and extension of your hands. Pass-pro doesn’t have to be passive.”

Football is a physical game, Smith said, so play with physicality. He went back to the technique: If an offensive lineman has proper footwork, he should be able to make any block. He then mentioned his three rules, which were similar to Allegretti’s: fast feet, eyes open and quick inside hands.

The centers are the unglorified heroes of the offensive line. They are the leader of the position group, identifying the linebackers or blitzers and calling out the different blocking schemes if an audible needs to be made.

“You’re looking at the structure of the defense,” Brendel said. “So if it’s like two high safeties, one high safety, if it’s nickel package, which a lot of teams are running now, or if it’s gonna be their base package, which is a more traditional defensive front.”

Each of their plays is installed on Wednesday and Thursday, off of the plays the center makes a Mike-Point. Looking for the Mike linebacker, or the middle linebacker, however, the Mike-Point could be the Sam linebacker, which is the strong-side linebacker, or it could be the Will linebacker, which is the weak-side linebacker, or it could be a safety.

The Mike-Point is important because it dictates where the blocking is going to go against a certain defense. It all depends on which play they’re running, and that they want to be able to lock into the defensive scheme.

Humphrey said he looks for different coverages and schemes the opposition is running. He said he reads the whole defense and doesn’t look for one specific thing. He looks for safety rotations and alignments from linebackers.

According to the offensive linemen interviewed, great offensive line play takes repetition and practicing technique over a long period of time. They said the keys to being successful are being smart to read defenses but also to know where to attack with different angles and leverages. The offensive line is a complicated position, with much more behind it than to just hit the guy in front of you.

Trevor Junt is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @trevorjunt