The Raiders starting offensive line has taken most every snap of every offseason drill, training camp practice and preseason game together. Continuity has helped the front five establish a strong rapport this offseason, with time to merge chemistry and talent into a true team strength.
Left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Austin Howard are new to the Silver and Black, and they don’t know how good they have it.
Returning linemen went to hell and back last season, when an injury plague decimated the offensive line from the outset, and left it in a near-constant state of flux.
Without going through a blow-by-blow account, the Raiders were forced to mix and match from the outset. They lost standout left tackle Jared Veldheer in camp and devolved from there. Khalif Barnes moved from right tackle to the left, and ended up playing left guard once Veldheer returned from short-term injured reserve.
All told, the Raiders used eight different starting lineups in 16 weeks. They never had the same lineup more than three games in a row. Last year, continuity was an impossible dream. Now it’s the norm.
“We didn’t have the same line in consecutive weeks for a long time,” Barnes said. “The injuries started in camp and never let up, which was tough on all of us. What I really liked is that nobody used injuries as an excuse. We just buckled down and worked. I think those of us returning from last year come back stronger for the experience, and certainly thankful for the talent and continuity we’ve been able to establish thus far in 2014.”
It’s been essential for an offensive line with three new starters. Penn and Howard are brand new, and Watson is ready at right tackle after an injury-riddled rookie season.
A hulking unit that, on average, stands 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds has used the time together to form a solid front that should be a team strength.
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“Knock on wood, it’s been very encouraging,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “When you have five guys working together and the communication that’s required to play up front, it helps everybody involved. It helps the running backs. It helps the quarterbacks. That group in particular, because they all have to be in conjunction with one another. They all have to be on the same page. Besides the fact that we’ve stayed healthy there, they’ve also are really a veteran group of guys. That’s been a bonus for us, as well.”
With two weeks left in the preseason, the line’s done most of the heavy lifting. They understand broad concepts and run fits after playing together so long. Now it’s down to the little things, and position coach Tony Sparano assigns practice projects to fix things each and every day.
“We’re starting to refine small details,” Howard said. “We choose something to improve on every single day, and we generally walk away from a practice feeling like a stronger unit.”
That was a focal point this offseason. The Raiders spent good money on Howard and Penn and reserve Kevin Boothe. They drafted guard Gabe Jackson, who hasn’t yet cracked the starting lineup because Barnes has played so well. Center Stefen Wisniewski is the brain trust of a unit with confidence growing with each passing week.
“We have an attitude that we can dominate throughout the course of a game,” Howard said. “We’re going to fight for every inch of turf, and we’re going to push forward. That’s how we’ve been coached. That’s what we expect. We need to create lanes for rushers and to keep our quarterback safe. We take pride in those things and we work hard to ensure they happen.”