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How trust keeps NFL offensive lines from falling apart

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It may sound cliche, but trust and communication keep offensive lines together in a tangible way. NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz demonstrates how.

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Carolina Panthers Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 1 question I get asked about offensive line play is the effect of cohesiveness on the unit. Well it matters, and it matters for one reason: Trust. Just like anything in life, if you have trust, your outlook on a situation will be positive. If you enter a game with a positive attitude, you’re free to play loose.

When there are issues up front, we get asked about communication. How’s the communication? It’s such a broad question. As offensive linemen we are always talking to each other about what we see, or even don’t see. We are making line calls, and talking to the quarterback.

But what is communication without trust? I have to believe that the guy I play next to will execute his assignment. Teams have asked me to move positions to help with communication up front. Well it’s not easy. I can make the call, but I have to trust that my partner will be able to execute the block, otherwise it doesn’t matter if we know the call or the defense.

How do you build trust? Well just like you’d assume.

It happens slowly over time, beginning in the offseason, just hanging out in the locker room, laughing, joking, and getting to know your teammates on a personal level. You start working on your own form of communication.

That transitions to the work you put in together in the weight room. Is that guy putting in the effort to get better? If he is just going through the motions, how can I trust he won’t be going through the motions on Sundays?

Then comes practice. It starts in the spring with just the most basic installs. Do the guys in the room understand the why of the play, and not just their jobs? It’s hard to overstate this factor. If you know what everyone else is doing on the play, then you can play faster. It’s what has allowed me to stay in the league so long and play more positions. When you’re not totally clear on everyone’s assignment, you might be slow when a pressure comes.

Is this my guy or not? That split second of doubt will often lead to a sack or a tackle for loss.

After spring, you hit training camp. You reinstall the offense. You put on pads. You start hitting, start seeing the defense move, start running the same play or protection against various defensive looks. When you’re playing next to the same guy, or have the same center, you start noticing the same things about to happen. This is where the communication starts.

You build your own language.

Last season was probably the longest I played next to someone since 2010. Marshall Newhouse was my right tackle for 10 games. We developed our own language.

A deuce block (double team on a gap play) is one of the most well known offensive line calls. It’s a myth that defensive lines know all the calls, but they know this one. I will NEVER call deuce if I don’t have to. So, we’d break the huddle and I’d ask Marshall, “You good?” Never made a call. That’s trust. If we saw a pressure coming, I’d just have to say, “You see it?” or “Here they come.”

We knew what we saw. But we saw it together. We trusted that each person knew what he saw, and what to do. If someone else was in there and I said, “You see it?” then maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. So yes, we are communicating, but there’s no trust.

The Miami Dolphins started the season with a revolving offensive line. Injuries and poor play kept the line in flux. After a brutal Week 5 loss to the Titans in which they allowed six sacks, rushed for just 51 yards, and lost to fall to 1-4, the Dolphins released two “starting” linemen and gave the unit a wake-up call. Up until that game, the Dolphins had yet to play their projected starting lineup of, left to right, Brandon Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod, and Ja'Wuan James.

Finally in Week 6, this unit got their chance to get rolling. And roll they did. The next two weeks against the Steelers and Bills, the Dolphins rushed for 478 yards at an average of 6.1 per carry. Jay Ajayi became just the fourth rusher to have back-to-back 200-yard rushing weeks, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, and Ricky Williams.

There are multiple reasons why the Dolphins are hot.

The easiest answer, and it’s true, is that they are extremely talented. With four offensive tackles and one Pro Bowl center, this unit is perfectly built for zone blocking, a staple of Adam Gase’s offense.

But more than that, I noticed the communication, and that means trust came back to the unit. Watching this line during the first few weeks of the season, it didn’t seem to be playing as one. There were a lot of mental mistakes, like letting defensive linemen going by because somebody assumed somebody else was blocking, or not knowing which linebacker was whose.

The resurgence of the line can be traced to trust. It was led by Brandon Albert at left tackle. He’s playing next to a rookie at a new position. Albert has seen it all and he knows what to expect.

Early on against Pittsburgh, if you key on Albert, you’ll see that he notices something might be up. He turns to his left guard, Tunsil, and alerts him of who they should be blocking if pressure comes. It’s easy to get unorganized in the face of pressure. Guys crossing your face can be confusing. With the left side of the line getting itself in order, the back can find the hole and get a nice gain.

Now here is the long 62-yard touchdown to seal the game. Notice the right guard’s head move back and forth. Someone — him or the right tackle — has noticed another zone pressure coming, and they communicate across the line. It’s beautiful when it all works like it should. The right guard, right tackle and tight end work an excellent combo to the inside linebacker. Pouncey shoots off the ball and gets his hands on the other linebacker, and Ajayi is off.

Lastly, here are two clips against the Bills in which the entire offensive line is physical and plays like one total unit. Everyone is on the right guys, at the right time. And notice the left guard: finishing guys. Love it!

Communication up front is vital to the success of an offensive line. However, that communication must be built up with trust. The process of building trust is organic and happens over many months of spending every day together. And it’s awesome when it all falls into place.