A behemoth right tackle who stands 6'8" and weighs 305 pounds, the Redskins' Tyler Polumbus seems to have little in common with Darrelle Revis, the Jets' All-Pro cornerback, who is nine inches shorter, 107 pounds lighter and millions of dollars richer. Yet despite their disparate body types and different objectives—one man protects the quarterback, the other makes life hell for him—both 27-year-olds share perhaps the hardest job in football: backpedaling on a remote island.
"A lot of times you don't have any help at tackle—you're out there by yourself," Polumbus says. "And you're probably going against one of the best athletes on the other team."
As today's pass-oriented offenses have become more intricate and fast-paced, the lineman's role has become more challenging. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford can't throw for 5,000 yards if the men in front of them aren't providing them enough time. Cam Newton won't run his way into the record books if his linemen aren't holding their blocks downfield. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and other rookie starters will have no hope of finding a rhythm if they're under constant pressure. (See Gabbert, Blaine, 2011.) More than ever, players who typically toil in obscurity—tackles, guards and centers—will be critical to a team's success or failure in the 2012 season. And in Washington, where hopes for a Redskins revival rest with Griffin, the line will be under an intense spotlight.
The biggest misconception about pass protection is that it's akin to trench warfare: two immobile sides slogging it out. Linemen may start out in three-point stances and clash violently at the snap, but the big men don't always dig in. Like Revis's battles against wideouts on the perimeter, the struggles up front are often decided by microscopic differences in footwork, balance and hand placement to maximize leverage. And while the blockers' jobs change according to defensive fronts and blitz packages, the assignments for offensive linemen are as programmed as NFL commercial breaks.
After calling out protection orders and snapping the ball, the center sets the depth of the pocket along with the guards. Colliding with pass rushers like sumo wrestlers, the interior linemen must not cede ground or get turned perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. Their success allows the tackles to focus on the pocket's width, driving edge rushers away at an angle, like basketball defenders forcing ball handlers toward the baseline. If it's all executed in harmony, a halo forms around the quarterback.
"Everything is based on rhythm," says Chris Foerster, Washington's offensive line coach. "But if something breaks down, our quarterback can extend plays. It's not quite the same thing as blocking for Barry Sanders in the running game, but we have to be aware that Griffin has the ability to scramble."
There's a good chance the 2011 Heisman winner and second pick in this year's draft will have plenty of improvising to do. Washington's line has surrendered at least 41 sacks in each of the past three seasons, and the unit is still searching for consistency and cohesiveness following a spate of preseason injuries. "We had a patchwork group, and it wasn't a good enough production last year," Foerster says. "It's still a wait-and-see thing for us this year."
Conventional wisdom holds that the most important player on the line is the left tackle, who is charged with protecting the quarterback's blind side. That's why Washington used the fourth pick in the 2010 draft on Trent Williams, a 6'5", 328-pound All-America from Oklahoma. But it can be argued that in 2012 Polumbus—an undrafted free agent out of Colorado who has played with three teams in four seasons and hasn't started more than eight games in any them—will be the key lineman for the Redskins.
Originally slated to be Washington's swing tackle, providing spot service on both sides of the line, Polumbus was thrust into a starting role at right tackle when two-time Pro Bowler Jammal Brown suffered a hip injury during training camp. (Brown had surgery on Aug. 23 and will remain on the physically-unable-to-perform list for at least the first six games.) "You always want to earn your spot; you never want it to come through an injury, but an opportunity is an opportunity," says Polumbus, who will be responsible for guarding the pocket's right flank, where the righthanded Griffin can most easily roll out to avoid pressure.
Given Griffin's mobility, Polumbus can't simply push defensive ends and blitzing linebackers wide and wait for them to come back; he must remain in constant contact with his opposite number, in anticipation of Griffin's maneuvering from a collapsed pocket. "Our offense is about timing, but RG3 may try to make some plays with his feet, and we're going to have to block our guys a little bit longer," Polumbus says. "As offensive linemen we can't have a clock in our head."