American football can be a confusing, disorienting sport. Unfamiliar viewers may be heard to remark that it seems like two groups of people just crudely falling all over each other. The unique pace, scoring system, penalty rules, and other elements can create a learning curve.
Another component of the game that is often misunderstood is the positions; that is, the role of each player on the field, from wide receivers to defensive ends. Even among the offense, the unit that is probably the most misunderstood and unappreciated is the offensive line, the row of men that line up directly in front of the quarterback and in the middle of the receivers. What is the role of the offensive line?
Protect the Quarterback
The quarterback is arguably the most important piece of the personnel for any football team. This is the player who runs the offense, completes passes for yardage, hands off to the running back, scans the defenders to spot any weaknesses, and vocalizes any audibles to change a play at the line of scrimmage.
On every play, there are defenders trying to get to the quarterback, in order to tackle him for a sack for a big loss, or to deflect passes or otherwise pressure him. The only obstacle standing between this constant threat and the QB is the offensive line, who faithfully try to protect on every down.
Block the Defense
Although the role of the offensive line is heavily involved with quarterback protection, there are more reasons to block than just to prevent a sack or pressure. In addition, for every running play, especially interior hand-offs that go up the middle, the offensive line is in charge of ensuring that the defensive line is unable to tackle the running back.
There may also be other occasions on the field to give a good block. For instance, a tight end may line up at the end of the line, near a defensive end. The guard on that side of the offensive line will need to get in a solid block in order for the tight end to be able to run a route for a pass. On a quick slant, or certain play action calls, this can be essential for offensive success.
Push it Forward
Every once in a while, the offense will be within inches, or just a couple feet, of gaining a first down. In these cases, there are certain options for specific plays designed to most likely garner the needed distance.
These include run plays that rely on a fullback plowing through the defensive line, or even a quarterback sneak. In these cases, it is absolutely critical that the offensive line is able to shove forward and gain ground, rather than lose it.
These are the primary components of the role of the offensive line. They may also serve other functions, such as helping a play to look one way but run another, or the intangible aspects such as providing a model of cohesion and community in the locker room. Whatever the case may be, one fact is certain: The role of the offensive line is integral for any football team hoping to achieve a measure of success.