Appropriately for their warmest game weather in the past three weeks, it was tough sledding for the Jets' offensive line and ground game against the Chargers' eight-man fronts and sure tackling in snowless San Diego.
For the first 53 minutes of their AFC Divisional Round Game on Sunday, the top-ranked rushing offense was averaging 3.3 yards per carry, without a run longer than 11 yards, and with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene combined managing 1.76 yards per carry after first contact, the tandem's lowest since Greene moved into the rotation for the injured Leon Washington during Game 7 at Oakland.
But that all changed for line and the backs behind them halfway through the fourth quarter with a pair of monster trucks.
First came Greene's 53-yard scoring burst, basically up the middle as LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, LG Alan Faneca, C Nick Mangold and FB Tony Richardson plowed the Chargers' five-man "Bear" front to the right. That made the score 17-7, Jets.
Next was the big little 2-yard run by Thomas Jones, striding off his right side as RG Brandon Moore, RT Damien Woody, "tight end" Wayne Hunter and, again, Richardson paved the path for TJ to convert the fourth-and-1 with 1:09 to play to seal the deal.
It was another typical day for the Jets' no-longer-anonymous O-line. Faneca said line coach Bill Callahan has a philosophy for these kinds of games: "Bang away at 'em for as long as you have to and eventually the dam will break."
And the dam has broken in another way for these big green men. It's no longer just head coach Rex Ryan singing the line's praises at Cortland or owner Woody Johnson declaring on Thursday, "That's where the strength of the team comes from." It's now the independent observers, the national commentators, the media voices who used to play the game at a high level.
"The Jets," former 49ers Pro Bowl guard Randy Cross stated without qualification on Sirius NFL Radio this week, "have the best offensive line in football."
"That's awfully kind of them," center Nick Mangold said of the kudos coming their way these days. "The four guys I have with me, I wouldn't trade for anybody. They're all playing at a fantastic level. Not only are they great but they're great people."
Let's review these O-linemen who will be going into Lucas Oil Stadium to lay the ground(-and-pound-)work for the Jets' AFC title game against the Colts on Sunday.
LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson —"The truth's going to come out eventually," Ferguson said about the line's quality, but he could have also been talking about his rise up the tackle ladder. "Brick" is the newest member of the Jets' Pro Bowl fraternity and that validates his continued improvement, from top draft pick and up-and-down performer in 2006 to improved sophomore to very improved third-year man and PB alternate to fourth-year left-side anchor.
"We take a lot of pride knowing we were the No. 1 run team in the regular season," he said, "and knowing that people had so many doubts about us because they didn't see it immediately, as soon as the season broke out. The thing that makes us so happy is we knew who we were, we know who we are. We've always known our identity."
"Brick works relentlessly at his craft," said next-door neighbor Faneca. "We're always talking. We're on the same page now, more so than we were last year. He goes up there and his focus is to shut a guy down."
LG Alan Faneca —He may still have red hair, but Faneca is the gray eminence of this group. a two-time Super Bowl starter with the Steelers and named a Pro Bowl starter for the ninth consecutive season. And he's been picking up speed as the season has gone along, especially with his pulling plays and combo blocks that give the Jets runners a beacon as they look for their runway to daylight.
But as it is for all the linemen, it's about the unit and the team.
"Rex has talked it since he's pretty much gotten here, about the line's importance to the team and what we can do when we go out on the field," Faneca said. "He's kind of thrown it on our shoulders, and we've accepted it since day one. We're going to have to go out there and do our best, especially with the type of offense we run, the 'ground-and-pound.' We're as much a part of the defense as the guys on defense are."
C Nick Mangold —Mangold is quite the quipster in the middle of the line, but don't let that fool anyone. He earned his second Pro Bowl selection and his first as the AFC starter (he started for the injured Kevin Mawae in Hawaii last year). And he's about to play in his first conference championship game.
Tight? Heck no. Nick says he's ready to lay his emotions out there on the Lucas Oil field just as Ryan said his players should do.
"Why keep 'em in check? Have fun. Let it all out," he said. "You're only here so many times. You might as well enjoy it."
Mangold sounds like a party animal, but not only has he become one of the top centers in the game but one of the top line technicians.
"It seems he picks up something new every week, puts it in his toolbox and has one more trick in his bag to use to get the job done — which is so huge," said Faneca. "Look at the guys who've played great at center over the years. They've always had those little things to get the job done easier and quicker. You can leave Nick alone and he's going to get the job done."
RG Brandon Moore — Moore is the only OL starter who hasn't been to either a Pro Bowl or a Super Bowl. But in some ways he's been the hottest of the group with the running game often rolling off the right-side push he provides. As NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said early in the Jets' regular-season finale against the Bengals: "It's been the Brandon Moore show so far."
"Brandon's a rock that doesn't move,' Mangold said. "You know he's going to be a solid presence no matter what is going on. He's had a consistent level of play and experience since I've known him. I've really leaned on him with questions, experiences. He does an amazing job and I think he's kind of unappreciated out and about with the work that he does."
"This is the first time I've been on a team that has a true identity," said Moore. "Everybody knows what we do. When you go into games, you know exactly what it takes to win. I've never seen that come alive the way it has right now. We take a lot of pride in the way we play football. I think that's helped us elevate our game."
RT Damien Woody — Woody echoes Moore's assessment of the Jets' identity. "We're like a throwback team out there right now. We're playing the old school way — defense and run the football," he said. "There's no other team like that in the remaining four. We're proving that our style can win football games, that our style can take us far."
Woody's style has taken him far in many ways. He's second in seniority on the OL to Faneca, in his 11th season. He's been with the most teams — three (Patriots, Lions and Jets). He's started at the most positions as a pro — all but left tackle. He played in the Pro Bowl after the 2002 season and he has Super Bowl rings from the 2001 and '03 Patriots.
He'd like to increase his SB bling in the next several weeks.
"Coming into this year I looked at everything from last year and in the offseason. Coach [Bill] Callahan really talked about each individual player and things that we can improve upon and we really attacked those things in the offseason," he said. "We just kept repping them and working at them individually. Everybody just got better and better and you combine that with the chemistry we have as an offensive line, I think that's why our success has really showed up during the season."
The Linemen in the Wings
Because the Jets' starting five have had two great seasons of health — they're about to start their 35th consecutive game together at Indy — it's been tough for a backup to get work. But Hunter, a tackle by trade, and Rob Turner, a guard/center, have gotten their blocking in as third tight ends in heavy formations. And rookie Matt Slauson even got to pitch in for a few games.
Bill Callahan's name weaves its way through the O-line's story and Turner underscores "Coach Cally's" guidance, calling him "quite possibly the best coach I've ever been around, as far as attention to detail. He understands there are little nuances that are different amongst players. We all have our quirks, but he finds a way to get production and success out of every guy's different qualities. He finds a way to bring out the best in guys and along with that he puts guys in the best position to be successful."
Let's Not Forget the Quarterback
There's been little mention of another key player in this O-line operation, and that's the guy under center they all need to protect, rookie QB Mark Sanchez. It's true that the Jets have become the NFL's new run-heavy team, having run the ball on 59.8 percent of its offensive plays for its 18 games this season, and as a result the QB hasn't been exposed to opponents' pass rushes quite as much. But Sanchez has been sacked just once in the past three games, a fine number that any signalcaller would sign up for.
Here is Sanchez's take on what his personal protectors do for him and, by extension, what they've done for the Jets as they vie for the NFL's ultimate prize.
"You just trust them automatically. These guys are good. They keep my jersey pretty clean," Sanchez said. "You just have to trust those guys and know that they're going to be there for you."