The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are changing their offensive line, and quickly. Davin Joseph and Donald Penn were cut. Anthony Collins was signed to play left tackle. Evan Dietrich-Smith, a center who has also played guard and tackle, was brought in for a visit. Carl Nicks is still struggling to come back, but the team appears to be optimistic about his future. Jeremy Zuttah appears to be safe, as does Demar Dotson, but we're likely to see two or three new starters on the offensive line. That's a lot, especially in an NFL that places a high value on continuity along the line.
This isn't just a move to add new players. It's a move to a new style of player: the athletic offensive linemen who's good on the move, but not necessarily a big, physical mauler in the running game. That description fits Anthony Collins, it fits Jeremy Zuttah, it fits Demar Dotson, it fits Evan Dietrich-Smith. It doesn't really fit Carl Nicks, but that's more because Carl Nicks is the rare lineman who's both a physical mauler and outstanding in space.
What does this apparent change in philosophy really mean?
The eternal question that comes up when anything changes on the offensive line is related to the two dominant schemes in the NFL: zone blocking, and 'power', also known as man blocking. In reality the difference is relatively small, since every NFL team runs both schemes to some extent.
The classic zone blocking scheme was made famous by the late 1990s Denver Broncos, and has still stuck around in various forms since then. Originally, the scheme was a Moneyball-style advantage: smaller linemen could function in a zone scheme predicated on lateral movement, which meant the Broncos and similar teams could grab their starting linemen at a discount.
That's not really true, anymore. Athletic linemen are as in-demand as bigger maulers, perhaps even more these days. Pass-blocking has become more important and the proliferation of the zone scheme means that smaller but athletic linemen are valued very highly, and the huge, physical linemen who struggle in space are declining in importance.
In that sense, the movement to more athletic linemen for the Bucs is simply a move to a more modern view of offensive linemen. Pass-blocking is all-important, which is why they pursued Anthony Collins. And the running game can still function, as long as you master said zone-blocking scheme. That zone-blocking scheme has been analyzed and explained to death, and Mike Chan of Field Gulls did a very good job of breaking it down. There's no need for me to repeat what he said.
Instead, I'll talk about the other implication of this apparent change in philosophy: getting athletes in space.
Versatility in space
More than just a move to zone blocking, which isn't particular to any single NFL team, Tedford's offense is about getting players in space, and that means getting blockers in space, too.
"The philosophy is we want to make sure we can run the football," Tedford said in his introductory press conference. "We want to be physical up front and run the football. We want to be diverse. We want to get speed in space, multiple personnel, formations."
Every offensive coach in the NFL wants to be physical and run the football, so that's not the key factor that differentiates Tedford from other coaches. The focus on diversity, on multiple personnel and formations and on getting speed in space: that's different.
Doing those things requires athletic, versatile offensive linemen. Players who can function both in the box, and on the move. Players who don't get lost when asked to take out a defender on a screen pass. The best example of getting players in space in Tedford's history has to be Jahvid Best, and the plays Tedford used to get him some room to work his magic.
One thing that stands out in that video is the movement all along the offensive line. Much of it on zone schemes, where the offensive line tries to stretch the defense horizontally, but also on a few power plays and, of course, the many plays where Tedford tried to get Jahvid Best in space (4:30, for instance), and even on many simple pass plays.
This is similar to what the Browns did when George Warhop (now with the Bucs) was their offensive line coach: they tried to get their blockers in space and down the field, and they had some superb athletes to do that, most notably Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. See, for instance, this play against the Detroit Lions last year on an end-around (a successful one!).
Sure, I'm only picking out a single play here, but it illustrates the point nicely: they needed offensive linemen who were athletic, and could function in space -- more so than they needed powerful maulers. The same is true for Jeff Tedford's offenses at Cal, and the same thing appears to be true for the Buccaneers right now.
This strategy is actually very similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles are doing under Chip Kelly. They made it a priority to fix their offensive line last season, drafting offensive tackle Lane Johnson fourth overall last season and re-signing left tackle Jason Peters this offseason. The Eagles have a very good offensive line, but it's also a very athletic line.
Everything Chip Kelly does relies on that offensive line. Despite a reputation for running a finesse offense, the running game is the real key to the Eagles' success. And a big part of that is Chip Kelly's versatile, multiple scheme which relies on its speedy offensive linemen to create favorable situations in the run game. Most of this is simple mathematics: if you have one more blocker than the defense has defenders at a certain point, you're generally going to win.
It requires a lot of movement and shifts in personnel and formations to get to that point consistently, though, and Kelly loves athletic offensive linemen to do that. He started out his career as an offensive line coach, and you can still see that when he speaks on offense: he always talks about the line. "No one asks [offensive linemen] what they are willing to sacrifice because they do it all year long. That group is a unique group," Kelly said, via Grantland. "They shop for clothes at True Value Hardware. The only thing they want is to change the snap count occasionally."
For years, Tampa Bay stuck with big, physical players on the offensive line who struggled when asked to move in space. That was a big reason why they haven't been able to successfully execute screen passes in years. It's part of why the Benn'd-around was never successful. It's part of why the line always seemed to do better when executing power plays, rather than zone plays. That's changing, now.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for the running game remains to be seen. At the end of the day, you still need to be able to move those defensive linemen off their spot. Zone blocking schemes help, but they're very difficult to execute perfectly, and even there size can matter -- teams like the Seattle Seahawks run a zone-blocking scheme, but prefer big linemen.
One area where we should see immediate improvement is pass protection, even if that wasn't a huge area of concern last year. No more slow-footed maulers like Davin Joseph and *shudders* Jeremy Trueblood. In come quick-footed, balanced players like Anthony Collins.
Overall, though, this is a move to a new style of offense. One predicated on creating space for playmakers, getting blockers down the field and using movement to produce mismatches across the offense. It'll be interesting to see whether this works.