Jags' O-line needs better balance

If the Jaguars' offense is to become more balanced next season, Vince Manuwai and the offensive line have to be better pass-protectors for quarterback David Garrard. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The most unbalanced offensive line in the AFC South belongs to the Indianapolis Colts.

But it's a group whose superiority in pass protection fits with the AFC champion's design, which is first and foremost “do no harm to Peyton Manning.”

Following similar logic, Jacksonville’s offensive line could understandably be very good run-blockers and below average pass-protectors, considering that Maurice Jones-Drew is the Jaguars’ centerpiece.

But as the Jaguars broke in two rookie tackles in 2009, the melding of the group wasn’t always smooth and the line’s play sometimes felt disjointed.

Yes, Jones-Drew had an excellent season with 1,391 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. But the Jaguars still had six games in which their run game averaged less than the league average of 4.2 yards per carry. And David Garrard was sacked 42 times, more than any quarterback in the league besides Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Jason Campbell and Matt Cassel.

For a team that craves a physical identity, it wasn’t good enough.

Offensive line coach Andy Heck has installed his offseason theme, and it’s “finishing.”

“All the guys in our line are tough guys. I think we can all work to finish better,” Heck told me this week. “Play to the whistle. Our run game is something we’ve taken a lot of pride in down here, and while our blocking has been good, we can’t just assume because it’s been good it’s going to continue to be good.”

And the pass protection must be significantly better.

All offensive linemen would like to be equally good in both departments. Heck estimated 70 to 80 percent of starting linemen in the league can say they are, with young players or players in an offense that overemphasizes the run or pass accounting for the others who are not as balanced.

His left guard, Vince Manuwai, said he thinks 70 percent of NFL linemen are better run-blockers than pass-protectors.

At Farrington (Hawaii) High School, Manuwai was in a run-heavy scheme. At the University of Hawaii, he was part of a pass-happy team. So he felt like he came into the league well-versed in both and ready to be versatile. He still rates himself as a better run-blocker.

“Run blocking is a lot easier,” he said. “With run blocking, a lot of the time you just have to move the guy maybe a couple inches, a couple feet and if you have a good running back, he makes you look good. You can miss a block and a lot of times he will break arm tackles from the guy you’re blocking. Pass blocking is a lot tougher. …You’ve got to be so patient, you’ve got to be prepared for so many moves. You can’t really be aggressive trying to dominate on the line. Run block, you can be aggressive and go full speed and come out looking good.”

Manuwai said the finishing theme is often a matter of “football awareness,” starting with quicker adjustments as things unfold.

Said Heck: “Being a good pass-blocker you’ve got to have some God-given talents, some agility, some foot quickness and athleticism. To be a good run-blocker, it’s good to have all those things, but really all you need is the right mindset. And to be a really good run-blocker, you need strength and leverage and all that. But you can be a decent run-blocker if you’ve got the right mindset, in other words the drive to finish.”

For the Jaguars to make a jump next season, they need to keep Garrard far cleaner. Coach Jack Del Rio talked about how the team needs to be good around Garrard for him to be good. That starts with him having better protection more often.

The one change could come at center, where 32-year old Brad Meester slipped and the team can use a talent upgrade at the cost of leadership and experience.

Here is our look at Jacksonville’s starting five. Heck, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and ProFootballFocus.com, a site that grades a player on a scale of minus-2 to plus-2 on every play and offers totals based on his cumulative play over the season, provide assessments.

Left tackle Eugene Monroe

Heck: “I see him doing some things athletically and in terms of balance that few people in this world can do. He had unbelievable God-given talent to be a great pass-protector. Things that will help him as a young player will be more awareness of defenses and situations, which comes with experience. Especially as a tackle it’s a process. In pass protection, he’s off to a great start. In run blocking, I know that’s an area he’s looking to improve, and I think I can help him with some leverage things and always working to finish.”

Williamson: Far better run-blocker.

ProFootballFocus.com: Minus-12.4 in pass blocking, plus 7.1 in run blocking.

Left guard Vince Manuwai

Heck: “This year he came off a knee injury. Just before his injury, I think it would have been hard to find many guards who run blocked as well as he did. He’s got so much leverage and strength. I look forward to getting a healthy Vince back, not that he wasn’t healthy last year, but he was working his way back. I think he can be a dominant run-blocker. Vince can be a very capable pass-protector. He’s got one of the strongest punches that you’ll find anywhere.”

Williamson: Better run-blocker.

ProFootballFocus.com: Minus-3.1 in pass blocking, plus-7.1 in run blocking.

Center Brad Meester

Heck: “We got strong veteran leadership from him. I’ve never been around a player that was more dedicated to his craft than he is. He’s really outstanding at communicating and getting us all going in the right direction and is the leader of our group. I’d say Brad is a very well-balanced player. The thing that he has that the young tackles don’t have is the benefit of a lot of experience. There is not a lot that he hasn’t seen. He’s able to sort out difficult looks and play smart football.”

Williamson: Better pass-protector, “but he was a liability in all regards this past season.”

ProFootballFocus.com: Minus-3.0 in pass blocking, minus-13.7 in run blocking.

Right guard Uche Nwaneri

Heck: “He’s shown some steady improvement in all areas of his game. I think that he can be a very good run-blocker and is athletic enough and smart enough that he can be good as a pass-protector as well. At times he’s looked very good at both, and at times you can see where he needs to improve.”

Williamson: Slightly better pass-protector.

ProFootballFocus.com: Plus-4.0 in pass blocking, minus-2.6 in run blocking.

Right tackle Eben Britton

Heck: “He’s a guy that’s got great heart and desire. He’s similar to Eugene as a young player. He’s going to look to improve his awareness. Every one of those games from the personnel to the looks he’s going to see, all those things will help him kind of sort out some gray areas. I think that will help him in his pass protection as well, an area I think he can improve and will improve.”

Williamson: Far better run-blocker.

ProFootballFocus.com: Minus-14 in pass blocking, plus-3.0 in run blocking.