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A matter of continuity

Posted Nov 23, 2011

Playing together consistently has meant improvement for offensive line.

Uche Nwaneri never was remotely uncertain.

Through the preseason, and through the early part of the regular season, when there were whispers and things louder than whispers criticizing the Jaguars’ offensive line, Nwaneri – the Jaguars’ veteran offensive guard – never gave any level of the noise much credence.

There was no reason, Nwaneri said.

Still, many observers believe that in recent weeks the line has played as well as it has all season. And Nwaneri said while the line never played poorly, there has been improvement.

The line is relatively healthy, and it’s playing together. And on the line, Nwaneri said such things have meaning.

 “It’s helping a lot,” Nwaneri said as the Jaguars (3-7) prepared to play the AFC South-leading Houston Texans (7-3) at EverBank Field in downtown Jacksonville Sunday at a 1 p.m.

 “Guys are out there, and understanding what each lineman is doing for the most part.”

 That understanding has meant steady improvement. A big reason for the increased level of understanding?

Continuity.

The Jaguars, because of an early-season shoulder injury to left tackle Eugene Monroe and a back injury that cost right tackle/left guard Eben Britton much of the season, spent the first few weeks of the season changing lineups on the offensive line.

But in recent weeks, that has changed.

In the last four games, the Jaguars have kept the same lineup on the offensive line, with Guy Whimper starting at right tackle, Nwaneri starting at right guard, Brad Meester starting at center, rookie Will Rackley starting at left guard and Monroe at left tackle.

It was the longest stretch of the season for the Jaguars starting the same offensive line.

The difference, Monroe said, has been marked.

“It’s continuity and experience together,” Monroe said. “At a point in the season I was down. Guys were shuffling and playing at completely different positions than they had been playing in training camp. When we finally get a chance to play together every week and get an understanding of the game together, you get better and you improve.

“Even in camp, we didn’t have guys working all together. Now that it’s finally like that, man, you can start to see a glimpse of what I think we can become. I don’t think we’re there yet, but it definitely has been better.”

Many observers believed the unit’s effort against the Browns this past week was its best of the season. Monroe agreed, and not just because the group allowed just one sack – a play on which quarterback Blaine Gabbert lateraled the ball backward.

“More importantly in that game, although it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, we were physical,” Monroe said. “Everybody on the line played a physical game. Usually when you do that, when you’re more physical than the defense, you can do something. You can move the ball. They feel it.”

Nwaneri said while the Browns game wasn’t perfect, it was another step toward the level the Jaguars’ offensive line believes it can attain.

“We had a couple of times when we should have had better communication with each other,” Nwaneri said. “We were able to minimize the damage done in those situations. I think the continuity is starting to show. Guys are playing a lot more as a unit than maybe we were at the beginning of the season.”

Jones-Drew said the benefits of the offensive linemen playing together are evident beyond the statistics. The Jaguars have been one of the NFL’s best running teams through the course of the season, but in recent weeks, the pass protection has improved.

“I think it has helped everything,” Jones-Drew said. “The protection has been much better, even though we have the same guys playing. Any time you have an offensive line that stays together and stays healthy, it helps the offense out a bunch. Those guys are coming along well. They have gelled great and we’ve been able to do some things we haven’t been able to do in a while. It’s good to do that.”

Nwaneri said while the offensive line never played as badly as many believed early in the season, it’s only logical that it should have improved considering the circumstances in recent weeks. Not only has Monroe now played four consecutive games after missing two of three games, but Rackley – who struggled at times early in the season – has started five consecutive games.

The result is a group that has worked together extensively for a month, and therefore knows one another far better than it did even a month ago.

 “It takes time,” Nwaneri said. “It’s the one unit on the field where literally one person doesn’t do their job correct and it can destroy the whole play. It takes a while for guys to be on the same page mentally. A lot of times you talk about players and you know what a guy next to you is going to do without talking to him about it, or having a good feel for it. That’s one of those things as a lineman that takes a little time to pick up.

“Every time somebody new steps into the picture you kind of have to learn their tendencies and understand what they’re thinking on certain plays, then when you’re in a game you know what to expect as far as their reactions, but I think we’re doing a lot better job as a group.”

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