Tuesday, November 29, 2022

LB Ben Niemann quietly has been important part of Cardinals' defense


Jess Root 

The Arizona Cardinals have two linebackers that get a lot of attention in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, both of whom were first-round draft picks who have had important roles in 2022. They also have a quiet but important linebacker in Ben Niemann, who has been playing an important role.

He has stepped up in a big role since Nick Vigil got injured.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has been very impressed by him.

“Ben is a guy who from, Day One, who has been exact in his assignments,” Joseph said Thursday. “When you are playing with a lot of young guys with talent, you need guys like Ben to be exact. He is a part of the machine and you can count on Ben to always do his part.”

He is a great example for Simmons and Collins.

“He’s a defensive favorite because he’s a guy who does it right. That’s football,” he said. “You have to have guys who are going to do it right so Isaiah and Zaven and Budda (Baker) can make their plays.”

He is the disciplined stalwart in the middle of the field.

“He makes his plays when they come to him, he’s a very clear communicator,” he added. “He’s pretty good in coverage, too.”

He will get to see his brother, who plays for the Chargers, this weekend.

T.J. Hockenson joins Justin Jefferson in setting NFL records


Tyler Forness 

The Minnesota Vikings offense is setting all kinds of records on Thanksgiving night against the New England Patriots.

First it was Justin Jefferson who broke Randy Moss’ record of 4,163 receiving yards in a player’s first three seasons in the National Football League.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson joined Jefferson in setting an NFL record on Thursday night by catching the most passes by a tight end in his first four games with a new NFL team. He currently has 25 catches through three and a half games with the Vikings.

It’s no secret that the Vikings are prioritizing Hockenson, as they believe that a high-end tight end will be worth more than a high-end wide receiver two considering their cost comparison.

Hockenson will continue to be a force with the Vikings.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

James Ferentz is ready to play a bigger Patriots role with David Andrews out


Published: Nov. 21, 2022, 9:39 a.m.

FOXBOROUGH – James Ferentz ‘wife, Skylar, often wonders out loud about why her husband works late nights.

Since entering the NFL in 2014, Ferentz has eight-career starts and 52 games played. He’s bounced on and off various teams practice squads, including the Patriots. As a reserve offensive lineman, there’s no guarantee he sees the field. But as the 33-year-old explains to his wife, that doesn’t mean he has less work to do during the week.

“I take a lot of pride in the fact that I approach every week the same even if I’m not playing. Things like (Sunday) happen,” Ferentz told MassLive. “You just never know when your number is going to be called. I always joke with my wife. ‘How come you’re not home? Blah, blah blah.’ I’m like, ‘well, the week that I skip my assignments for what I need to get done is the week you get thrown in the game.’”

The eight-year veteran has leaned on his experience in order to help teams like the Patriots in a pinch. In his first four NFL seasons, it rarely happened. Over the last four, Ferentz has started eight games in New England. With starting center David Andrews suffering a thigh injury that could reportedly keep him out for the remainder of the season, Ferentz is in line to play the biggest role of his NFL career.

When Andrews went down in the first half on Sunday, Ferentz finished the game at center, logging 48 offensive snaps. That gave him a career-high 205 offensive snaps played this season. His next start, which should be on Thursday, will mark a career-high three starts.

For Ferentz, these moments are bittersweet since Andrews is one of his best friends.

“Any chance you get to play, you’re excited. It’s really unfortunate when it’s one of your best friends who gets injured,” Ferentz said. “That part of it stinks. Obviously, you hope Dave is alright. Sometimes that’s the way football goes – sometimes you get a good break, sometimes you get a bad break.”

Ferentz, who’s the son of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, has relied on his football intelligence to last this long in the NFL. In New England, he’s been a versatile piece for the offensive line. Last season, he split his time between the practice squad and active roster. When the Patriots offensive line was hit by COVID-19 and other injuries, Ferentz made his first career-start at left guard against the Houston Texans.  He started two games at left guard last fall.

Ferentz started two games in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He made his first career-game game in 2019 at right guard when Shaq Mason suffered an injury. His next three starts came at the center position.

Working as a reserve offensive lineman isn’t always easy. You prepare hard even though you might not play. For Ferentz, all those years of preparing have led him here. Now, the Patriots need him more than ever.

“The one good thing about being around for a while is I’ve been preparing for that moment for a long time. It just hasn’t come,” Ferentz said. “Unfortunately for Dave, it’s come this year a few more times. It’s one of those things, I take a lot of pride in the way I prep throughout the week. If you get thrown in, you get thrown in and hopefully it goes well.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Lombardi: Why Mike Vrabel is the NFL's Coach of the Year, Week 11 NFL preview


By Michael Lombardi  (  

November 20, 2022 04:58 AM

According to Pro Football Reference, there are 517 men that have held the title of head NFL coach.  Some of been interim, some of only coached one game and some have been around a long, long time.  It’s truly a revered title to wear and a harder job to gain than a United States Senator. Like becoming a U.S. Senator, it takes political capital to gain election and it requires a great media campaign, winning the popular vote along with the owner’s delegates.  Those doing the evaluating of the performance only view the scoreboard and never understand the situation.  Some who gain entrance into this exclusive club do it well, some don’t.  Some get too much respect for their wins and others don’t get enough.  However, winning playoff games are the only thing that matters when the evaluation occurs for the Hall.    

Take Marty Schottenheimer of the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers.  He is one of eight men that has won 200 regular season games -- that’s 1.4% of the coaches -- placing him in an extremely elite class of coaches.  Five of the other men with 200 and more wins are in the Hall; two are still coaching -- Bill Belichick and Andy Reid -- and when they retire will be fitted for a gold jacket. Schottenheimer coached 21 seasons, had a 61% winning percentage and today is never mentioned for the Hall of Fame. 

Schottenheimer won without an elite quarterback, from Bernie Kosar to Steve DeBerg, to Elvis Grbac, to a healing Rich Gannon, Tony Banks, a young Drew Brees, Doug Flutie, and an emerging Phillip Rivers.  Gannon and Brees became outstanding players in their careers, but when they were with Schottenheimer, they were still young and developing.  Rivers developed into a star leading the Chargers to a 14-2 record and a first-round loss to the Patriots, which was the last game Schottenheimer ever coached.  Schottenheimer never gains the respect he deserves because he wasn’t great at playoff time.  He struggled to get to the Super Bowl which unfairly blemished his whole career. 

Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans might become the new Marty Schottenheimer, and I don’t mean that as a slight.  The comparison comes as the ultimate compliment.  You might ask, "Why isn’t Vrabel the next Belichick?"  Because Vrabel isn’t winning with an elite quarterback much like Schottenheimer.  In my next book (Football Done Right) I make a strong case for Schottenheimer to be in the Hall and should have gained entrance ahead of Dick Vermeil, Don Coryell and others.  Vrabel has become one of the top three coaches in the NFL and is winning without an elite quarterback or roster.  On Thursday night he was missing several starters, playing his third game in 11 days (one with his defense on the field for 91 plays) and yet dominated the Packers, sending them limping home with a slim chance of being a playoff team.   

Vrabel understands what it takes to win, each week, and how he must alter his game plan within the foundation of his team’s strengths to then give his team the best chance to win.  He coaches the coaches; he is complete control of the sidelines, and his team has developed his mental toughness.  And on Thursday night, the Titans were by far the tougher team.  They were not the more talented team -- they were just the better coached team and more physical

Everyone in my circle of NFL friends is amazed at how the Titans have won games with a roster that is subpar in many areas.  I often will get a message like “How in the hell is Vrabel winning with Dennis Daley at left tackle?"  And my answer is I have no clue.  Their offensive line is missing key starters, from left tackle Taylor Lewan to center Ben Jones.  Their defensive line doesn’t have Harold Landry and Bud Dupree starting, and overall their roster is cluttered with more than 20 players who were either on some other teams’ roster, or a college free agent after the draft.  The Titans carry five receivers on their roster -- three were free agents, Robert Woods came over in a trade and Treylon Burks was a first rounder.  Not exactly a group that places the fear of God into their opponents, yet they make plays and move the ball

The Titans under Vrabel have an identity, a formula that wins and when the playoffs roll around, that formula is often stressed to the max-- much like Schottenheimer.  Vrabel is 2-3 in the playoffs, all his wins coming as a wild-card entry in 2019 when he upset the Patriots in Tom Brady’s last game in Foxboro, then defeated the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens, before losing to the Chiefs.   He has lost two home playoff games -- not because of his coaching, rather the roster inadequacies manifest themselves as the competition becomes tougher.  His team this season will win the AFC South, and then depending on the matchup struggle to get past the first round, as winning in the playoffs usually comes down to having an elite passer -- which Ryan Tannehill isn’t. 

Entering last night Vrabel was a 100-1 to win Coach of the Year.  Seriously?  No one, and I mean no one is doing a better job, but the voters only examine the won-loss record and never examine the situation.  It’s a popularity contest -- and when you consider that Nolan Ryan never won the Cy Young award during his incredible career, you understand that the voting, in every sports award is slightly inaccurate and never carries detailed analysis. 

Vrabel has my vote for Coach of the Year, but like the Hall of Fame voting, I don’t have one in the coaching selection.

The Gritty Work Of Ko Kieft


The Gritty Work Of Ko Kieft

November 19th, 2022

Reputation growing.

At Sunday’s game in Munich between the Bucs and Seahawks, Joe laughed out loud early in the game.

Joe didn’t exactly see what happened but Joe saw the aftermath. A Seattle linebacker was furious with Bucs rookie Ko Kieft and had him by the shoulder pads and tried to swing him around and throw Kieft on the ground (it didn’t work) well after the whistle.

Why did Joe laugh? Well, if Kieft got under someone’s skin that quickly and that badly, it meant to Joe that Kieft was doing a helluva job.

Dudes usually don’t get that angry in the first half unless a cheap shot is involved or the guy just got flat-embarrassed. And Kieft isn’t a cheap shot artist.

It seems Joe isn’t the only person who noticed Kieft’s gritty play. So too has Ben Muth of Football Outsiders. Muth a former tackle at Stanford, and he focuses on offensive line play for Football Outsiders. Not long ago, Muth thought the Bucs’ offensive line was playing awful football.

Now? Muth is of the mind the line played its best game against Seattle. The way the Bucs ran the ball was proof, he typed. An underrated key was how the Bucs used Tristan Wirfs and Kieft as a double-team on a Seattle linebacker to spring Playoff Lenny.

Muth highlights a specific play with video and gave Kieft a standing-O.

I do want to point out the tight end Ko Kieft here that’s working with Wirfs. Because the linebacker attempted run through, Kieft doesn’t get much help from his tackle. That’s a tough block to get inside that defensive end and seal him off, but Kieft makes it. Look at how he emphasizes driving his inside leg up the field, fighting to keep it in front of the defender. That’s a hell of a job from the tight end.

Kieft is a helluva steal for a sixth-round pick. Kieft shows vicious blocking ability and in time, Joe thinks Kieft would be a weapon in the short passing game. He has good hands, despite what the draftniks thought when he came out of Minnesota.

Kieft is the kind of glass-eater type like Ryan Jensen that Joe knows Bucs AC/DC-loving general manager Jason Licht covets on the offensive line.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Limestone University football players head to first playoff game in team’s history

Chloe Salsameda

Posted: Nov 17, 2022 / 10:39 PM EST

Updated: Nov 17, 2022 / 10:40 PM EST

For the first time in the football team’s history, the Limestone University Saints boarded buses to head to the NCAA Division II Football Playoffs. The Saints will take on the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida Saturday.

“I’m really excited to see them go,” said Keasha Currence, the university’s head dance coach. “I know they’re going to make Limestone and the Gaffney community proud.”

The team was surrounded by friends and family as they boarded the bus Thursday, with each player getting a fist bump from one of their professors for support.

“We’re both alumni of Limestone,” said Randy and Robin Horton. “We’re excited about them going to the playoffs.”

The Saints’ first playoff appearance come eight years after the team’s first football season and just one year after a winless season.

“They weren’t very good last year, and now they’re in the playoffs,” explained Zachary Terry, a member of the university’s men’s lacrosse team. “That’s kind of extraordinary.”

“We weren’t expecting it,” added Currence. “The past four years, we’ve only won four games. Coach Furrey and his staff came in and pretty much changed the complete program.”

The team will not head to Florida alone. They will be joined by the university’s cheer and dance team, who will travel to the game thanks to donations from the community.

“It’s really rare to have a spirit program go so far to cheer on their football team,” explained Currence. “it just speaks volumes for Limestone and how they love their athletes and students.”

Win or lose, the Limestone community said they are proud of all their team has accomplished.

“Go saints!” said Dravon Drummond, a member of the university’s men’s volleyball team.

The game begins at 1:05 p.m. CST on Saturday.

Austin Blythe: Top Ten Center Win Rate

2022 NFL pass-rushing, run-stopping, blocking leaderboard: Win rate rankings for top players, team

Nov 15, 2022

ESPN Analytics

ESPN Analytics created revolutionary new metrics to measure performance in the trenches -- in both the run and pass game -- using player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats.


Our pass rush win rate metric tells us how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds. Likewise, our pass block win rate metric conveys the rate linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer.

In run stop win rate, a defender can earn a win by doing any of the following: beating his blocker so he's in better position to stop the runner; disrupting the pocket or running lane by pushing his blocker backwards; containing the runner such that he must adjust his running lane; or recording a tackle within three yards of the line of scrimmage. If a defender earns a run stop win, his blocker earns a loss, and vice versa.

Read more about our pass-game metrics and run-game metrics. Check out the 2021 leaderboard here.


Top 10 C pass block win rate

Top Win Rate: Tyler Linderbaum


 2022 NFL pass-rushing, run-stopping, blocking leaderboard: Win rate rankings for top players, teams

Nov 15, 2022

ESPN Analytics


ESPN Analytics created revolutionary new metrics to measure performance in the trenches -- in both the run and pass game -- using player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats.


Our pass rush win rate metric tells us how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds. Likewise, our pass block win rate metric conveys the rate linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer.

In run stop win rate, a defender can earn a win by doing any of the following: beating his blocker so he's in better position to stop the runner; disrupting the pocket or running lane by pushing his blocker backwards; containing the runner such that he must adjust his running lane; or recording a tackle within three yards of the line of scrimmage. If a defender earns a run stop win, his blocker earns a loss, and vice versa.

Read more about our pass-game metrics and run-game metrics. Check out the 2021 leaderboard here.


Top 10 C run block win rate


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Limestone Football Places Record 13 Members on All-Conference Team


Football 11/17/2022 12:20:00 AM Matthew Farris, Coordinator for Media Relations


ROCK HILL, S.C. – Coming off the best season in program history and one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NCAA Football, the Limestone University football team placed a program-best 13 members on the 2022 South Atlantic Conference All-Conference Team as announced by the league on Thursday, November 17.

In his third overall year at the helm of the Limestone football team, head coach Mike Furrey led the Saints to a 7-2 record in the conference and an 8-3 record overall on the year. The Saints ranked first in the conference in total offense (5,193 yards), yards per game (472.1), points per game (36.2), and passing yards per game (271.2) while finishing fourth in yards per game on the ground (200.9). They are currently riding a four-game win streak as they head into the 2022 NCAA Division II Football Playoffs.

Named to the First-Team All-Conference on the offensive side of the ball were running back Tre Stewart (Winston-Salem, N.C.), wide receiver Drew Dixon (Tucson, Ariz.), and offensive lineman Cameron Thomason (Greenville, S.C.) and Luke Bond (Bluffton, S.C.).

Thomason and Bond were core members of the offensive line throughout the season, paving the way for the program's first-ever 1,000 yard back while helping the Blue and Gold offense be the most productive in the conference.

Stewart was the lead running back for the Saints on the season, playing in all but one game and rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season, a milestone that has not been reached by anyone in the history of the Limestone program. His 1,411 yards were the third most among league running backs and his 14 touchdowns on the year were third as well.

Dixon became a key factor in the receiving game for the Saints as he compiled 514 yards on just 24 catches, a 21.4 yards per catch average, in only five games this season. His 102.8 yards per game was tops on the team while his five touchdown catches tied him for second. Dixon has eclipsed 100 yards three of his five games played, including a 9-catch, 195-yard performance at Catawba.

On the defensive First-Team All-Conference, the Saints were represented by linebacker Chandler Matthews (Dillion, S.C.) and defensive back Ahmond Glass (Atlanta, Ga.). Matthews helped lead the defensive front for the Saints throughout the season as he led the team in tackles with 81.5, while sitting second with 7.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack. His 65 solo tackles were good enough for tops in the league. Glass was another primary contributor on the defense, this time coming from the cornerback position in which he recorded 58 tackles, five pass break-ups as well as a trio of interceptions.

Continuing the outstanding year for the Saints, five members were also named to the offensive Second-Team with quarterback Dustin Noller (Rock Hill, S.C.), running back Anthony McAfee II (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), wide receiver Jelani Baker (Snellville, Ga.), tight end Herman McCray IV (West Palm Beach, Fla.), and long snapper Keaton Chambers (York, S.C.).

Noller has amassed more than 2,000 yards passing this season (2,246) while throwing for 20 touchdowns. His 419 yards versus Emory & Henry in the season finale set a new school record while he passed for three or more touchdowns on four separate occasions on the season. McAfee turned in a stellar season with 482 rushing yards and five touchdowns, including a two-touchdown performance against Catawba.

Baker led the Saints receiving corps with 552 yards and five touchdowns while also acting as a catalyst on special teams, compiling 281 return yards and one kick returned for a touchdown, the first in program history. McCray has totaled 23 catches, 229 yards and one touchdown on the year while doubling as a pertinent blocker for the Saints potent run game. Chambers finished the year with 100% efficiency on all of his snaps.  

On the defensive side of the Second-Team, the Saints were represented by defensive lineman Joseph Gregory (Inman, S.C.) and defensive back Jeremiah Lomax (Abbeville, S.C.). Gregory led the Saints with 11.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also sits fourth with 38.5 total tackles. Lomax, making the most of his opportunity, finished the regular season with 36.5 tackles, seven passes defended, six pass break-ups, and one interception for a touchdown.

The Saints pulled in the second-highest number of honors between conference schools, just behind Newberry who had 15 honorees.

Limestone enters the NCAA Division II Football tournament this Saturday, November 19, as it travels to Pensacola, Fla. to take on the Argos of West Florida. Game time is set for 1 p.m. CT/2 p.m. ET.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Former NFL football star Stephen Neal addresses Bulldogs


Nov 15, 2022

Former New England Patriot guard and world champion freestyle wrestler, Stephen Neal (far left), poses with Calexico High School student-athletes after a guest speaker event at Varner Gym, Nov. 7, in Calexico.

Former New England Patriot guard and world champion freestyle wrestler, Stephen Neal (far right), shows his Super Bowl rings to Calexico High School student-athletes during a guest speaker event at Varner Gym, Nov. 7, in Calexico.


CALEXICO — The Calexico Bulldogs hosted former NFL guard, two-time NCAA National Champion, and world champion in freestyle wrestling, Stephen Neal as a guest speaker.

Neal shared his experiences competing at California State University Bakersfield as well as the importance being a multi-sport athlete played in his football career. Neal discussed the new opportunities and advantages that arise from trying new sports, and emphasized the vital role that "attitude, effort, and preparation" play in achieving success.

“I hope the students understand that you can accomplish anything,” said Neal. “Having them find some skills outside of their main sport, and become a better, total athlete, would be a win.”

Neal is one of the few players who did not play college football before entering the NFL.

“It was cool to learn what it was like to compete at the highest level in both the NFL and wrestling,” said Calexico Bulldog junior Ivan Marquez.

As this season will be Marquez’s first year on the wrestling team, the junior took notes from Neal and is hopeful that preparation and hard work will equip him with the tools necessary to face opponents this season, he said.

“He taught us that even though your opponent may appear big and strong, you can defeat them if you work hard and prepare," Marquez said. "You can achieve whatever you set your mind to.”

First-year Boys' Wrestling Head Coach Juan Lopez developed a friendship with Neal, and believed it would motivate and inspire his student-athletes to consider the benefits of challenging themselves through sports.

“One of the goals was motivating kids to try the sport,” Lopez said. “Hopefully they will love it, but at least this way you make them aware of the sport and its benefits.”

Originally from Calexico, Lopez spent 14 years helping in the Poway high school wrestling program, where he met Neal.

After moving back to the Imperial Valley in August, Lopez said he is looking forward to creating safe, healthy environments where athletes can compete and thrive.

“Consistency," the coach said. "I want to be able to provide consistency and give them a place where they can wrestle, but also, create a space where they can grow, be challenged, and be proud of themselves.”

As a coach, player, and parent, Neal gave one piece of advice to students.

“We all have the tools to do something great,” Neal said. “Take one day at a time, and think of what you can do each day to improve.”

The Calexico Bulldogs will take the wrestling mat on Saturday, November 19, at the Brawley Union High School JV Boys; Wrestling Invite.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Germany has produced some big NFL linemen: Markus Kuhn


By Peter King
November 14, 2022

Germany has produced some big linemen, including former Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer and ex-Giants defensive tackle Markus Kuhn. Both work as ambassadors for the league here, and as TV commentators on the game. Their origin stories are long shots, which is why the NFL wants to see more club football and flag football programs—both of which are growing here.

Kuhn, by age 14, hadn’t found a sport to his liking until he was prompted to try out for a club football team near his home in Weinheim. As a linebacker and defensive tackle on his club team, he was an all-league player. But then what?

“I wanted to try to play college football,” Kuhn said Saturday. “I thought I might be good enough, but I didn’t know. So my dad and I flew to Washington D.C., rented a car. We didn’t know how the recruiting process worked. I had a recruiting tape, and for two months we just drove down the coast—Liberty, Richmond, William & Mary, North Carolina State. Just showed up at the front door of the schools and said, ‘I’m Markus, I’m from Germany, I play football.’ They looked at me like I was crazy. But I got offered some scholarships. (He took one from N.C. State and played there.)

“Four-and-a-half years later, I’m the first German ever invited to the Scouting Combine. I got drafted by the Giants and played in the league for four years. I accomplished way more in football than I ever thought I would. Now, seeing the growth of the game back home, so many kids playing flag football and loving the game, seeing the growth of the game on TV … Now the NFL sending its biggest star to play a game here.

“Goosebumps,” Kuhn said. “I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it.”

Monday, November 14, 2022

Interior Offensive Line Play Takes Center Stage: Austin Blythe


Interior Offensive Line Play Takes Center Stage as Seahawks Face Buccaneers in Munich

If the Seattle Seahawks want to extend their winning streak to five games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winning in the trenches will be pivotal against an opponent with star power along the defensive line and question marks galore on the interior offensive line.


11 HOURS AGO (November 12, 2022)

MUNICH, Germany - Spearheading their current four-game winning streak, the Seahawks have executed a remarkable defensive turnaround over the past month. After getting torched in the first five weeks of the season, they have allowed less than 13 points per game in their past four contests.

At the center of that 180 degree transformation, as cited by coach Pete Carroll and players alike, unleashing the defensive line with a more aggressive, one-gapping, penetrating style paid immediate dividends. Since implementing those schematic and technical adjustments, Seattle has racked up 19 sacks and dramatically improved a once-porous run defense, yielding under 100 rushing yards a game after surrendering north of 170 rushing yards per game in the first five weeks.

Seeking a fifth straight win with a historic Week 10 clash against the Buccaneers in the first-ever NFL regular season game in Germany on Sunday, the Seahawks will once again be counting on their defensive tackles to continue their stellar play in a matchup where the outcome may ride on which team performs better in the trenches.

Boasting plenty of experience with starters Poona Ford, Shelby Harris, and Al Woods as well as reserves Quinton Jefferson and Bryan Mone, Seattle has a stable of well-rounded, athletic veterans in the middle capable of doing damage defending the run as well as rushing from the interior. Over the past four weeks alone, everyone except Mone has produced at least one sack, while Harris has gone off with eight pressures.

Rolling into this weekend, the group as a whole should be licking their lips considering how much Tampa Bay's front line has regressed due to retirements, free agency, and injuries.

Only two years ago, one of the NFL's premier offensive lines stood out as a pillar for the Buccaneers eventual Super Bowl champion protecting Tom Brady and creating running room for Leonard Fournette. But the group now looks like a shell of its former self after standout guard Ali Marpet shockingly hung up his cleats at 28 years of age, Alex Cappa bolted for the Bengals in free agency, and star center Ryan Jenson injured his knee early in training camp.

In the aftermath of those departures and unfortunate injuries, Tampa Bay hasn't been able to run the football effectively at all this year, averaging a league-low 60.7 rushing yards per game. Though Brady has only been sacked 14 times, that hasn't necessarily been because of quality protection, as the team ranks 26th in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric. To the contrary, Pro Football Focus views the unit much more favorably with the seventh-best pass blocking grade in the league.

Nonetheless, with rookie Luke Goedeke ruled out for Sunday with a foot issue and Jenson likely out for the year, the Buccaneers will be playing a pair of second string reserves in Nick Leverett and Robert Hainsey in their place. This undoubtedly sets the stage is set for Ford, Harris, Woods, and the rest of the Seahawks defensive front to build off their recent showings against an undermanned, maligned unit.

But interestingly, anchoring a stout front line that helped guide the team to a Lombardi Trophy two years ago, Tampa Bay may have same advantage of its own on defense thanks to the presence of Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea and recent return of standout defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

While the Buccaneers have missed star pass rusher Shaquill Barrett, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last month, Vea has enjoyed a career year as a pass rusher. Leading the team with 23 pressures and 6.5 sacks, including bringing down Matthew Stafford twice in last week's 16-13 win over the Rams, the gargantuan 350-pound defender with an orbit of his own has been a one-man demolition crew creating stalemates at the line of scrimmage and collapsing pockets.

On the other side of the line, even while starting a pair of rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, the Seahawks have quietly built one of the most underrated offensive lines in football. At the center of that emergence, center Austin Blythe has brought much-needed stability to the position and his knowledge of coordinator Shane Waldron's offense coupled with his communication skills has been a major boon for the entire group.

Seattle has also received quality contributions from a trio of veteran guards, including recently launching a successful platoon between Gabe Jackson and Phil Haynes at right guard across from Damien Lewis. Aiming to keep both players fresh in the second half, they may continue rotating series next to Blythe for the long haul.

Making marked improvements compared to a year ago with three new starters in the lineup and excelling under the coaching of Andy Dickerson, the Seahawks rank fourth in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric and a respectable 12th in PFF's pass blocking grades. The team hasn't been quite as successful in the run blocking department, however, ranking 24th in Run Block Win Rate and 19th on PFF.

Though Blythe and the rest of his line mates have done a commendable job thus far contributing to a surprising 6-3 start, the group will have their hands full trying to deal with Vea and Hicks, who each weigh north of 330 pounds and can win with power as well as rare athleticism. Keeping those two at bay will be crucial for MVP dark horse Geno Smith to have time to throw to his bevy of receivers in the pocket and Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Ken Walker III to find any traction on the ground.

When the Seahawks and Buccaneers tangle in Deutschland this weekend, there will be no shortage of star power at the skill positions with the likes of Metcalf, Mike Evans, Walker, Chris Godwin, Lockett, and Julio Jones suiting up. But in this clash of first place teams carrying significant playoff implications, the victor will likely be decided by which interior offensive line best steps up to the challenge against formidable foes lined up across the line of scrimmage.

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